Moving music online may have reduced audiences in one way, but it's expanded them in others. Next weekend, on 3 and 4 October, you can log on from anywhere on earth to see all the Beethoven piano sonatas being played in a festival in a tiny 12th-century church in west London. Hugh Mather, who runs the series at St Mary's Perivale, has put together what looks like an extraordinary logistical feat: 32 pianists for 32 sonatas. Here he tells me why and how - and what Beethoven has meant to us in these troubled times. You can see the whole festival line-up here: http://www.st-marys-perivale.org.uk/events-beethovenfestival3.shtml
|Amit Yahav performs at St Mary's Perivale|
JD: Why did you decide to have a festival of the Beethoven piano sonatas at St Mary’s Perivale, given that Beethoven was already to be so extensively celebrated this year in the “upper echelons” of the music world?
HM: We obviously had to mark the great 250th anniversary in some way. I had organised three similar cycles of the sonatas with 32 pianists at St Barnabas Ealing in 2009, 2012 and 2014, so I knew the format works. Our strong suit is the large number of superb pianists who live in or around London. A sonata cycle was the obvious way of giving 32 of them a chance to perform, and the opportunity for listeners to re-discover many of the lesser-played works. Unfortunately the virus has led to many other festivals being cancelled, and we are now one of the few big Beethoven events still happening. Our friends in the Beethoven Piano Society of Europe are also putting on a similar cycle, but spread over the whole year, rather than a weekend, and in different venues. I had also planned to present all 10 violin sonatas played by 20 musicians in a single day, but that will have to wait till next year.
JD: You have a different pianist for each sonata - a major contrast from most Beethoven cycles which are attempted like a solo Everest-climb by individual pianists. Why did you decide on this?
HM: Simply because the format is infinitely more interesting and enjoyable with 32 different pianists! I have at least 15 CD or LP sets of the complete sonatas, but I always skip around to hear different pianists and their various sonorities and approaches. Even if Schnabel were reincarnated, I would get slightly bored in hearing the same sort of sound and aesthetics for 14 hours, whereas with different pianists it is endlessly fascinating. And we have a superb team of pianists who will each have something special to offer and will all sound very different from each other. I guarantee a very high standard of performance throughout the cycle, and it will be compelling viewing and listening for anyone interested in Beethoven or fine piano-playing.
JD: What were the issues involved in putting it together? Organising 32 pianists sounds like a logistical nightmare…
HM: Actually it was surprisingly easy. I wrote to a carefully selected group of pianists in early January, asking them if they would like to participate, and if so, which sonatas they would like to perform. A handful of pianists were unable to participate because it was expected to clash with the Warsaw Chopin competition (since postponed), but otherwise virtually all instantly agreed to play, and I am very happy with our current team !
To put this in perspective, I have a database of 160 very good pianists who have asked for a solo recital slot. Our venue is always popular because we pay our musicians, we have a nice piano and we provide a high quality recording. So I could easily construct teams to play 2 or 3 cycles! As regards choice of sonatas, nearly all offered the 'Appassionata' and 'Moonlight', etc, but I asked them to specify less familiar sonatas which they would be prepared to play in 9 months' time. From previous festivals, I know that the difficult sonatas to fix are Op 2 no 2, Op 22, Op 31 no 1, Op 54 and the two Op 49s. The jigsaw fell into place over the spring, before the lockdown in March.
|St Mary's Perivale|
JD: It’s wonderful that you can livestream concerts from St Mary’s, even without a physical audience. How has COVID-19 affected your plans in terms of the pianists themselves? Have many had to drop out, and how do you replace them?
HM: The original team of 32 pianists in January included a very good Polish pianist – Michal Szymanowski – who obviously had to cancel because of travel restrictions, and two other pianists cancelled because of other considerations, but otherwise the team is virtually unchanged. I recently advertised on Facebook for replacements to play Op 13 and Op 79 and within 24 hours received offers from 20 and eight pianists respectively. With such a large team of musicians, I suspect there may be at least one to three cancellations next week, and I will need to find a replacement at short notice! That is the worst aspect of the whole project.
JD: What are the technical challenges of relaying concerts on the internet? How does St Mary’s manage this?
HM: Our video and streaming facilities were developed over several years by a group of retired BBC personnel, led by Simon Shute and George Auckland, who live in Ealing and are longstanding friends. The system now comprises 7 high definition cameras and 2 high quality microphones permanently installed in the church. It was developed as an adjunct to our concerts, initially to provide recordings for our musicians, and it only realized its full potential in the lockdown, since when we have become, in effect, a broadcasting studio! Since then we have streamed 28 live concerts and 53 concert recordings. Our superb technical team provide their services free of charge, in keeping with everyone else at Perivale, so we have been able to install broadcast quality video systems remarkably cheaply.
JD: Do you think concerts change substantially without an audience? How do performers cope without that live feedback?
HM: Broadcast concerts, viewed at home, are inevitably a poor substitute for the ‘real thing’, and I can’t wait to return to having a ‘live’ audience enjoying a communal experience again. Nevertheless, the concerts have filled a void in many peoples’ lives, providing much entertainment and solace, and they have enabled us to support so many musicians over the past few months of financial hardship, from viewers’ donations. Performing in an empty venue is indeed slightly nerve-racking, rather like a professional broadcast, but most of our musicians are experienced performers and soon get used to it.
JD: As a pianist yourself, can you tell us something about what makes the Beethoven sonatas such an extraordinarily special body of works? Do you have any personal favourites among them? If so, which and why?
HM: The Beethoven sonatas have been called the ‘New Testament’ of the piano literature. They cover such a remarkable range, from the early classically-based works to the late transcendental sonatas, and there are few if any weak pieces among them. I love them all, and have listened to them all my life, but I didn’t have time to study many of them, on top of my medical career. My favourite will always be the 'Hammerklavier', for personal reasons. After graduating in medicine in 1971, I took a few months off to study the piano with Jimmy Gibb at the Guildhall, and decided to learn the great work, which I played at an open recital at the Guildhall in 1972. Then I got married to Felicity Light, who was a medical student, so I had to earn a living, and returned to a frantically busy career, which precluded serious practice for years. So I have only learned and played about 5 of the sonatas in public. The 'Hammerklavier' has stayed with me ever since, and I played it in our complete Beethoven cycles at St Barnabas in 2009 and 2014. The slow movement still moves me to tears every time I hear or play it – one of the most profound and transcendental pieces ever written.
JD: Medicine and music are often deemed to “go together”. While writing ‘Immortal’ I’ve been fascinated to learn that Beethoven occasionally practised almost an early form of music therapy: he would improvise for friends who were suffering grief, bereavement, depression etc, and his musical response to their frame of mind would bring them the relief of tears. During this weird year, I’ve gone back to my piano and playing Beethoven has brought me energy, positivity and renewed enthusiasm for life. Do you find he has a similar effect?
HM: The link between medicine and music is indeed widespread. As for Beethoven, one can spend a lifetime exploring these wonderful masterpieces, and I never tire of them. I particularly enjoy all the early sonatas which people rarely play in recitals, as well as the immortal late sonatas. Part of the joy of our festival will be a re-acquaintance with some of the less-commonly played works. In the lockdown I have been re-listening to the late string quartets and have found them to be life-enhancing and deeply enriching, and appropriate listening material for this strange and depressing time. At the risk of sounding pompous, Beethoven’s compositions really do encapsulate every facet of the human experience, rather like Shakespeare. We hope to show that in our great festival at St Mary’s Perivale on 3 and 4 October.
Beethoven Festival, St Mary's Perivale, 3 and 4 October, is online here: http://www.st-marys-perivale.org.uk/events-beethovenfestival3.shtml