Pianist Goodyear Storms Beethoven Sonatas in a Day

Stewart Goodyear does the complete cycle of Beethoven sonatas, at three sittings, in a single day. (Andrew Garn-CAMI)
Stewart Goodyear does the complete cycle of Beethoven sonatas, at three sittings, in a single day. (Andrew Garn-CAMI)

Stewart Goodyear has a word for his traversal of the 32 Beethoven sonatas in one day — “Sonatathon.”  His next one is Oct. 5, at the University of California, Davis, in the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts. Why does he do it? Writing for U.S. 1, MCANA member Elaine Strauss caught up with Goodyear prior to a recent Sonatathon in Princeton, NJ, where the pianist explained the value of his approach. 

By Elaine Strauss
Stewart Goodyear, pianist (Andrew Garn-CAMI)
Goodyear’s term for his one-day feat: “Sonatathon.” (Andrew Garn/CAMI)

Beethoven’s 32 solo piano sonatas are a mind-bending monument of musical creativity. Spanning 27 years (1795 to 1822), virtually Beethoven’s entire compositional career, the body of work ranges from a conventional 18th-century musical outlook to musical conceptions that seem advanced even in the 21st century. It takes about 11 hours to listen to the whole cycle just once and a lifetime to savor all of its nuances.

The typical piano virtuoso, seeking to perform the 103 movements that make up the 32 sonatas, stakes out a swath of six performances. Each performance customarily contains works from each of Beethoven’s three clearly defined compositional periods. That’s not the way Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear operates.

Goodyear performs the 32 sonatas, all of them, in a marathon of three hefty concerts. He calls the performance a “Sonatathon.” Each concert includes one intermission. Breaks between concerts allow for lunch and dinner. The first program starts at 10 a.m. and ends at 2 p.m.; the second runs from 3 to 6:30 p.m.; the third, from 8 to 11 p.m.

Goodyear plays the pieces in the order in which Beethoven wrote them. Video projections of the pianist’s hands accompany the music.

Understandably, Goodyear’s decision to perform all of the sonatas in chronological order in a single day evokes astonishment, if not outrage. The project appears unmanageable and arrogant. Is it a stunt? A test of physical stamina? An ultimate challenge to the limits of the ability to memorize music? A burden for listeners?

Bill Lockwood, McCarter’s special programming director, astonished, traveled to Toronto about a year ago to hear Goodyear play the Sonatathon. Introducing a Princeton Library event on June 4, he said that initially he asked himself, “Can somebody bring this off and still remain standing, with the audience still there?” After the Toronto performance, Lockwood concluded that it gave “a whole new perspective to this body of music.”

Princeton music professor Scott Burnham, a Beethoven expert who shared a platform with Goodyear at the library, represented the outraged faction in his opening remarks. “When I heard of doing all the Beethoven piano sonatas in one day, my first thought was not charitable,” he declared. “I was taken aback.” Burnham has moved on to charitable thoughts about the Sonatathon. “This concert will be like time lapse photography,” he said. “You will see Beethoven age before your eyes.”

Stewart Goodyear formal profile (Andrew Garn-CAMI)
Stewart Goodyear (Andrew Garn-CAMI)

Pianist Goodyear explained to the library audience that he considers the cycle of 32 sonatas a single unit. “I once did a typical two-hour Beethoven Sonata performance,” he said. “It felt incomplete, so I went home and played the other 28.”

Goodyear’s repertoire extends beyond Beethoven, ranging from Johann Sebastian Bach to Olivier Messiaen. It includes works by Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, and George Gershwin.

Interviewed at McCarter Theater, Goodyear discussed his choice of a chronological presentation. “The advantage is that the sonatas link to each other,” he said. “Played in chronological order, you get a sense of their evolution. From one sonata to another you gain a sense of Beethoven’s art. These 32 sonatas are a mammoth song cycle. The memory of previous sonatas remains with you as you listen to later pieces. Experiencing all the sonatas in one day takes triple tasking: the brain, the heart, and the soul have to be involved.”

The first time Goodyear heard the Beethoven sonatas, he heard them in chronological order. “My mother took me to the record store,” he recalled. “I spotted this huge box of LPs. It was one composer and one player: Beethoven and Vladimir Ashkenazy.” Goodyear was four at the time. He could read. “I got my mother to buy it. There were 13 LPs. I listened to them all in one day. It was the beginning of the end.”

“In chronological order Beethoven becomes more adventurous,” Goodyear said. “He battles fate all the time. It’s a spiritual journey.”

Goodyear finds his interpretation by carefully examining the score. “You have to look at the stress points in the score, the marks in the music such as accents, fermatas, and staccato. They correspond to punctuation and are indications for changing the timing. The score is the guideline. But what counts is how you make those notes come to life.”

“When you play something, it has to sound organic; it’s not a matter of reciting notes. The notes have to be coming out of you. It has to be personal. Everything comes from the gut. You have to bring emotion to the audience and freshness. The audience must think that every note is a surprise.”

“The pianist knows the outcome,” Goodyear added. “What makes performing exciting is the audience and how they respond. We are all in this together. I love my audiences. You have to love the audience, especially to play Beethoven. He’s so human and so emotional. You must communicate to the audience. There’s no room for fear or hostility. I never worry about unnecessary things like will there be a memory lapse. When you play for 11 hours you have to be free from tension.”

Goodyear called the Berlind Theater a perfect venue for the Sonatathon: “It bridges the origin of sonatas as house music or salon music, and the large concert hall. A hall that size brings intimacy back. If you spend one day with one personality, you have to be in close quarters.”

What will Goodyear do during the Sonatathon’s lunch and dinner breaks? “I will have very nutritious food,” he said. “No carbs. Protein and vegetables. And water.” He will eat alone.

Stewart GoodyearGoodyear is health-conscious. “I try to keep in shape,” he said, “and build stamina for living, for being a musician, and for being creative. Every second is special. I want to create and be inspired every second of my life. It helps to be energetic. I do cardio, work with machines, lift weights, and run. What ultimately gives me the strength is the music.”

Goodyear, 34, was born in Toronto, Canada. “My father died a month before I was born,” he said. “He was 23 and had just graduated from the University of Toronto. He left a legacy of LPs. There was rock and roll, one box of Tchaikovsky Symphonies, and another of Beethoven Symphonies. I heard them when I was three and decided that I wanted to have a life in classical music. I never thought about having a father. I felt that I was communicating with him on a spiritual level. He wrote Tolstoyan-size novels when he was 15 or 16. I have them.”

“I come from a family of music lovers,” he said. “There were no musicians, but there was a lot of incredible support.” His mother, a teacher, raised him alone and relocated to make sure that he received the proper training.

As a child Goodyear studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto with James Anagnoson. When he was 10, Anagnoson assigned him Beethoven’s Sonata No. 6 (Op. 10, No. 2). When he was 13, he studied Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8, “The Pathetique,” (Op. 13).

A student at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute from age 15 to 17, Goodyear worked on all the Beethoven sonatas with Leon Fleischer, attacking them essentially in reverse order, with the earliest sonatas studied last. At Curtis he also studied with Claude Frank and Gary Graffman. In 2000 he earned a master’s degree at the Juilliard School, where he studied with Russian pianist Oxana Yablonskaya. “It was a refreshing change from the German school,” Goodyear said. “I enjoyed the differences in nuances, breathing, and rhythmic approaches.”

Goodyear lived in New York City for a while and now resides in Philadelphia. Also a composer, Goodyear said, “I’m fascinated by how one creates a work. I love to look at drafts of a work before it was finished and see its evolution. It fascinates me; to research how a composer got from A to Z.”

“My compositions are inspired by my ethnic heritage,” he said. “I’m half Trinidadian and half British. Every piece that I write is homage to my childhood as well as a celebration of the present day.” Goodyear can be heard as soloist in his 21-minute piece “Eclipse” on YouTube with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, Anne Manson conducting.

Stewart Goodyear Complete Beethoven Sonatas, Marquis Music label, also available as mp3Goodyear’s 10-CD set of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas was released in 2012 on the Marquis label. Sampling the set, I particularly enjoyed the expressiveness with which he handles slow, tender passages; his management of the fast passages sometimes puts him in danger of getting a speeding ticket. His convincing “Pathetique” Sonata should be in the running for the single “Pathetique” recording to take to a desert island.

“It got a lot of positive reviews,” he said of the release, which includes the pianist’s breezy and insightful program notes, remarkably clear of program-annotator speak. He cites one description labeling his playing as “a combination of Arthur Rubinstein, Artur Schnabel, and Oscar Peterson,” tying his pianism to two classical greats and one jazz hero. “I was flattered,” Goodyear said. “Those are three masters whom I revere deeply.”

[A version of this article appeared at princetoninfo.com.]

Elaine Strauss is a free lancer who writes chiefly about music and the arts. Her articles have appeared in Chamber Music and Clavier Companion and in publications in the metropolitan New York area. She is a devoted pianist and a player of chamber music.