Pianist Jonathan Biss Is Recording All 32 Of Beethoven’s Sonatas. Here’s Why He’s Terrified.

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Dec. 16 2011 3:53 PM

The Exhilaration and Dread of Beethoven’s Sonatas

A pianist who’s recording all 32 of them on what it’s like inside the studio.

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And more important still is the corollary: The more desperately one tries to re-create something, the more impossible actual, in-the-moment, creation becomes. This, I believe, is what is behind the (useful) cliché that a recording is merely a snapshot of one’s relationship with a piece of music at a particular point in time. An attempt to recapture a previous moment will end up sounding like a pale imitation of it; trying to magically summon and put into practice future insights is obviously doomed to failure. Only complete acceptance of the dynamics of the moment—of one’s abilities, priorities, and flaws, both real and perceived—has the potential to lead to the creation of a performance interesting and vibrant enough to merit a listening in a future moment with its own set of dynamics.

Musicians tend to say that, when recording, they don’t concern themselves with or compare themselves against past performances. Nice as this sounds, it is, frankly, nonsense. It is true that when recording just about any of the Beethoven Sonatas, the desire to do justice to the music itself is amply intimidating, even without measuring one’s performance against the piece’s recorded past. But it is one of the most fundamental truths about music that a piece does not really exist, except for in the most academic of ways, until someone plays it. And so when I talk about living up to, say, the Lebewohl Sonata, I am talking about living up to my imagination of it, and when I talk about my imagination of the Lebewohl, I am speaking of something which is inextricably tied up with Artur Schnabel, Rudolf Serkin, and Richard Goode—and countless others. I am not in any position to claim indifference to their performances; to whatever extent I “know” the piece, their performances of it are a part of that knowledge.

Set against this background, the notion that a recording should aim to be nothing more or less than an honest representation of a moment in time is hugely comforting. It involves a willingness to err, and err uniquely. It is drawn from the idea that the value in a recording is not determined by its relative quality, which in any event is subjective to the point of being immeasurable; its value comes from the accuracy—the honesty—with which it documents one’s relationship with a piece of music. I cannot believe that the search for the “ultimate” performance is the reason people continue to buy recordings of pieces they already own on disc; rather, when the music is truly great—timelessly great—musicians will continue to grapple with it, and the results of these grapplings form a record (pun intended) of our culture’s relationship with the music, through time. With this in mind, I will amend my earlier statement: This attitude toward the recording process is not one of diminution, but a beautiful thing. For all my ambivalence about recording, I am profoundly grateful that there exists by now nearly a century’s worth of documentation of the wrestling match musicians are perpetually engaged in with Beethoven. My own bout with his music has been a major feature of my life for two decades, and the thought that I will now, in some small way, become a part of this documentation, is not intimidating but deeply moving.

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Still, it would be misleading to say that the Beethoven sonatas themselves and the prospect of recording them have ceased to be sources of fear in my life. But this fear no longer feels constricting—in fact, it was probably never the fear itself, but rather the way I responded to it, that was inhibiting me. The more I imposed expectations of how my playing of Beethoven should be, the harder it became for my relationship with his music to evolve naturally.

When Leon Fleisher was 17 years old, Schnabel was asked for his impression of his playing, and his response was both moving and insightful: “His type of talent is not too common. He has imagination and courage. He will try things and face the risk of failure. This is nowadays a rather rare quality. Courage is suppressed by the pursuit of safety.” As I begin this rather overwhelming endeavor, that final, regretful observation serves as a laconic warning against what I would most like to avoid. In recording the Beethoven sonatas, my greatest hope is that I may suppress safety in the pursuit of courage.

Pianist Jonathan Biss has won international recognition for his recordings and for his orchestral, recital, and chamber music performances. This year, he began a nine-year project of recording all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas.

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