Saturday, October 12, 2013

Marathon man and the Beethoven challenge

He says himself, "It's basically bananas". Nevertheless, the pianist Julian Jacobson is about to play all 32 Beethoven sonatas in one day. From memory. For charity. On Tuesday 15 October 2013, 9.15am – 10pm at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London. The aim is to raise money for WaterAid and St Martin-in-the-Fields’ ‘The Connection at St Martin’s’ that gives crisis grants to people in need across the UK.  You can make a donation here. 

The whole day is being live-streamed on the Internet, and (drumroll) I hope that you will be able to watch it right here on JDCMB. (This assumes that I can get the technology to work.)

What's without doubt is that Julian's a brave man. I asked him some questions...

JD: Julian, you're playing all the 32 Beethoven sonatas in one day, from memory?!? How and why did you cook up this extraordinary idea?

JJ: Thanks Jessica. Well, it's actually my third marathon - and it will almost certainly be my last! By around 2001 I had done five complete cycles over the normal seven or eight concerts (once over ten, as they were lunchtimes), from memory except that I sometimes used the score for the "Hammerklavier". One day the idea suddenly came to me: "I wonder if it's actually possible to do them all in a day..." I counted up the timings and found that, by omitting most of the exposition repeats, it was just about manageable. And from then on the idea wouldn't let me go. 

I thought I'd do it just once, and that was in St James's Piccadilly in October 2003, for WaterAid as this time. A Beethoven lover, Mr Tom Glaser, was at that performance and booked me for a repeat performance in 2004 at the Harrow Arts Centre. And I thought that would be that, and I remember driving back down to London yelling to my companion "Hooray, never again!". But a couple of years ago I began to wonder if I had it in me to do it one more time, as a tenth anniversary and because I'm 65 this year! So here we are.

In 2003 I used the score just for the "Hammerklavier"; in 2004 I did the lot from memory as I intend to this time. It's not even that I particularly adhere to the custom of playing from memory, either for myself or certainly for anyone else (except that one's students still have to do it, poor things), but it doesn't seem quite like a real marathon performance if I just put the books up there and read through them all. And there IS something of the "stunt" about it, I'm very aware of that, some musicians think it's not really a serious venture at all, and I insist that it's for charity. Though of course I will play it all to my best ability!  

JD: What do you think is the single most difficult thing about it?

JJ: Keeping going! Not losing concentration, avoiding thinking what I have already played or am going to play, Monitoring hands and back to ensure they hold out.

JD: Any special favourites among the sonatas? 

JJ: Op 101. Then some overlooked gems like Op.79. The "Appassionata" remains permanently sublime.  

JD: How long has it taken you to learn them all and how have you been preparing for the big day? 

JJ: I claim to be the only Beethoven pianist - if I may call myself that - who learnt the "Moonlight" and "Pathétique" at the age of 45! I would never learn the popular pieces in the first part of my life. I hatched the idea around 1989, by which time I'd played perhaps 12 of them. Firstly I learnt the "Hammerklavier" and played it at Dartington, as I felt there was no point in even considering a Beethoven cycle until I had that under my belt, or at least vaguely attached to the buckles. (I had already done op 101, 109, 110 and 111). Then I put the idea on ice till I got my job as Head of Keyboard Studies at the Welsh College in 1992. At that point, with the security of a salary, I planned an initial couple of cycles and spent the whole summer vacation of 1994 learning all the rest.

Preparing for the big day: impossible to know how to do it really! Mainly I've been going through them all in decreasing time spans, so I started around six months ago to re-study every one, then worked through them all again in a few weeks, then over about ten days, and now just in four days. A short while ago I stopped listening to any other pianists, and indeed to most other music, in order to concentrate entirely on my own performances "right or wrong".

JD: Tell us a little about the charities you've chosen to support.

JJ: I'm a long-term supporter of WaterAid: firstly I love the work they do, as water is such a fundamental need and it is something we can actually do something about, and then it is a very well run charity that I feel happy about giving extra support to. The Connection does vital work among the homeless and I've been impressed by the care and thought that goes into their activities and projects, also by the dignity with which they treat the people they are helping. It's a homegrown charity, whereas WaterAid is largely active in the third world, so they complement each other nicely.

JD: And there's a live stream on the Internet? How do you feel about that?

JJ: Apprehensive! And that I will try to put it out of my mind. The point is to increase the amount of money for the charities.

JD: Anything else you'd like to tell us about the task ahead?

JJ: Well, I really won't do it again! I mean, it's basically bananas. I've had fantastic support from friends and family. A few people have said they'll come for the whole day to follow Beethoven's progress throughout the 32 sonatas and that's a nice thought. And, when it comes down to it, the fundamental thing is that the music is immeasurably great and wonderful: Beethoven had such creativity and he never repeated himself (as he was well aware). Whatever I feel about the marathon aspect, I love the music, and every sonata, every movement, has given me intense pleasure to re-study.

Here is Julian's donations page again.