It would be hard to imagine a task more daunting.
Beethoven wrote 32 piano sonatas, a body of music so immense and revolutionary that Franz Liszt compared its effect upon the piano to that of the New Testament upon Western Civilization. If one were to play the sonatas' more than 300,000 notes without stopping, it would take about 12 hours.
The closest anyone ever came to such a feat was on the 150th anniversary of the composer's death in 1977, when Balint Vazsonyi played the 32 sonatas from memory in weekend marathons in New York, Boston and London. He performed for 12 hours each day, pausing only for meals and a night's rest. He gave up smoking and alcohol and sought the advice of nutritional experts to build enough stamina -- not only to play the sonatas, but also for the 18 months he would need to memorize the sonatas he didn't know.
Even Vazsonyi admitted, however, that the quality of his performances suffered because his preparation was uneven. To learn and memorize the sonatas properly -- so that one can perform them in seven or eight recitals over the course of a season -- takes a lifetime of preparation. It's no wonder so few pianists try to give Beethoven sonata cycles. That is why Maurizio Pollini's seven-concert cycle in Carnegie Hall is the hottest ticket of the New York music season -- and why I have spent the last three weekends in New York.
But listening to all the sonatas is also a major undertaking. I have listened regularly to Beethoven's 32 sonatas for more than 35 years and have heard each of them several and sometimes hundreds of times. But my attempts to hear all of them in a systematic manner have been foiled.
I first tried to attend every concert of a sonata cycle when Claudio Arrau scheduled one in 1962. Rudolf Serkin's 1970 cycle Carnegie Hall occasioned another failed attempt.
For other reasons, I have had even less success when trying to hear complete cycles on records. Records encourage narcissistic, atomized listening that simply doesn't offer the sweep of hearing actual performances as a member of an audience.
Pollini is a favorite pianist, but I was dismayed when I heard how he was going to program the sonatas. Instead of the usual juxtaposition of early, middle and late sonatas on each program, Pollini had decided to perform them chronologically, beginning with the first three sonatas Beethoven composed at the age of 25 and concluding with the three final ones he wrote when he was 52.
I feared that chronological listening would be boring and plodding; instead, it proved to be a revelation.
As Pollini remarked at a Carnegie-sponsored symposium the day after his second concert, the point of a Beethoven cycle is to give listeners a chance to hear sonatas that are not often performed. That means -- except for the "Pathetique" and the "Moonlight" -- almost all of the first 15 sonatas, in addition to such rarely performed pieces as opus 54, opus 78 and opus 79.
Pollini's first three programs allowed me -- for the first time -- to focus exclusively on the 15 early sonatas. After having reached the age the composer was when he completed the pianist's New Testament and after having listened to the sonatas for more years than Beethoven needed to write them, I finally discovered the early sonatas.
Without being fully aware of it, I had suffered from the common prejudice that Beethoven did not become Beethoven until his middle period, when he composed such famously stormy pieces as the "Eroica" Symphony and the "Appassionata" Sonata. After hearing Pollini perform consecutively the first 15 sonatas of opus 2 through opus 28, I was persuaded that these were radical works that could not have been conceived before Beethoven arrived on the scene.
All major, all different
Take the extraordinary second movement, "largo e mesto" ("very slow and sad"), of Sonata No. 7. It has been called the greatest slow movement Beethoven had yet written. But hearing this sonata in a chronological context, rather than as a warm-up for a better-known piece, convinced me that its slow movement is equal to those of the last sonatas, the Ninth Symphony and the late quartets. Time after time, Pollini demonstrated the truth of Artur Schnabel's remark that "There are no minor works among the Beethoven sonatas."
One could say with equal justification that no composer ever gave birth to children so different from one another. Pollini's chronological performances illustrated the diversity of the sonatas -- particularly when Beethoven had worked on them at the same time. Beethoven's tendency to do things by threes, for example, had always puzzled me. There are three sonatas in opuses 2, 10 and 31 and several other instances when he worked on three sonatas simultaneously. Hearing Pollini perform one after another illustrated the contrasts (as well as the relations) within each group and demonstrated that the third sonata is always the dazzling climax. It is not necessary to program the Beethoven sonatas -- the composer does it himself.
But why did he almost always harness his workload to a troika? In their detailed attention to the shifts in mood that differentiate // sonatas in the same cluster, Pollini's performances suggested an answer. Beethoven was a man so volatile that he could begin a letter to his nephew in amiable tenderness and descend, within a page or two, to angry bitterness. So mercurial a man could not help but be a composer who needed to work on several pieces simultaneously.
That his concerts so far have been so insightful makes me anticipate even more eagerly the four concerts in March in which Pollini completes his cycle, and in which I -- after 34 years -- complete mine.
What kept me from attending all of Arrau's concerts in 1962 and Serkin's in 1970? Arrau abandoned his cycle after a nervous breakdown, and -- after four concerts -- Serkin canceled his because the strain made him too sick to continue. Neither attempted a Beethoven cycle again.
Pollini's made of stronger stuff, I think. But here's hoping the third time's the charm.