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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Jonathan Biss will play all 32 of Beethoven's sonatas

Photo by Benjamin Ealovega.

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Jonathan Biss’ Kindle Single Beethoven’s Shadow, available at Amazon.com.

The challenge of playing the 32 Beethoven sonatas is often compared to climbing Mount Everest, which conveys the degree but not the breadth of difficulty involved. It is misleading to refer to the sonatas as a “body of music,” as they are in fact 32 unique structures, which between them represent an astonishing variety of language and cover more spiritual ground than seems reasonable given that they spring from one man’s imagination. Having already learned and performed 18 of them, I still feel each time I begin work on a new one that I am starting from scratch. This feeling—and the exhilaration and dread that accompany it—will be with me frequently over the next nine years, as I have committed myself to recording all 32 sonatas.

Beyond the scope and difficulty of the sonatas themselves, the main anxiety to be addressed before I dared to embark on this project had to do with the process of recording. The intensity of this particular anxiety would not be easy to overstate. I once had a conversation with a record executive who told me that if he were a musician, his favorite activity would be recording, as it affords the artist the unparalleled opportunity to experiment; I have yet to meet an artist who feels this way. My own discomfort with the recording process is multifaceted, but much of it boils down to one fundamental reality that speaks to the artificiality of the setup: the absence, or at least invisibility, of the audience.

At the risk of sounding euphemistic, the relationship an artist has with an audience is complex. Despite being reciprocal in only a limited way, it can inspire a remarkable number of the emotions normally associated with person-to-person relationships. Given the right circumstances and the right state of mind, the audience can provide and inspire feelings of tremendous warmth that make performing music exhilarating (for reasons that have as much to do with the “performing” component as with the “music” one). The slightest tweak in the circumstances or the state of mind, though—an ill-timed cough, one insecurity or another nudged toward the forefront of one’s consciousness—and the feelings can turn adversarial. An audience that listens with rapt attention can either quicken the pulse of the performer or make him unaware of the passage of time; an inattentive audience can turn the performer either indifferent or desperate to please, depending on his mentality and the way the inattention manifests itself.

So much of this is simply projection—the performer can’t really know what the audience is experiencing (and of course, an audience is not an indistinct mass, but rather a collection of people, each having his own unique experience), and given that impossibility, the audience becomes a very convenient object on which the performer can place his own desires and insecurities. But that does not make the feelings any less real, or the relationship any less vital; after all, what relationship does not involve projected feelings? The performance of a piece of music is, in essence, a three-way conversation between composer, interpreter, and listener. Performers have, out of necessity, learned to deal with the absence of the composer—or rather, we have created a different and more one-sided kind of relationship, based on studying and communing with the music, not an actual connection with the person who wrote it. Consequently, though, the physical presence of the audience has become more important to us than ever.

The upshot of this, as far as recording is concerned, is that the experience can feel terribly lonely and isolating. The relationship one has with an audience may not always be positive or even healthy, but it is a relationship, and thus extremely conspicuous by its absence. Musicians often speak, in awed and fearful tones, of the permanence of recording, and there is no question that the knowledge that the recording will never change puts an extra pressure on it to represent a kind of idealization of the piece, rather than a rendering of a moment which is all it can ever really be. But I am increasingly convinced that the vacuum in which recordings are created is equally responsible for the unrealistic desires one has for the finished product. There is always a distance, and often a gulf, between one’s imagination of a great piece of music at any given moment, and one’s actualization of it. But in a concert, this distance becomes somehow beside the point; a performance is, above all, a narrative, and while the performer might frequently be conscious of and dissatisfied with certain details, that central reality remains. The narrative is constantly in flux, not only because of those details, but because of the way the performer perceives the response of the audience.

In the silence and the stillness of the recording studio, the performer’s desire—need, even—to feel this response goes unfulfilled, and consequently, there is nothing to distract him from the cold reality of what he hears. The relationship between a performer and an audience might fall well short of being truly reciprocal—the audience, after all, does not play—but the relationship between a performer and a microphone is about as reciprocal as the one between a witness in a trial and the court stenographer: The performer plays, and the microphone quite literally enters what he plays into the record. This literalness, this lack of response—how could it not turn a musician inward? Without anyone to speak with, the sound of one’s voice in one’s own head grows ever louder, and the impossible desire to somehow deliver that idealized performance grows stronger.

And that is the ever-present difficulty of recording: That the desire to communicate the music is balanced and sometimes even replaced by the desire to control the music. And while it would be absurd to pretend that the pursuit of control doesn’t have some role in a musician’s work, it is a pursuit whose basic function is to create constraints, to limit possibility. No matter how uneasily this urge to control may coexist with the desire to make the music evocative and humane, the sterility and the solitude of the studio environment make it extraordinarily difficult to abandon.

Extraordinarily difficult, yet essential, at least if the recording is to retain any of the emotional resonance of a live performance. The only real solution to this problem seems counterintuitive, and thus has come to me only very gradually, in fits and starts: One simply has to accept diminished expectations from a recording. A musician rarely goes into a recording session without having performed the piece in question, typically many times. So when one moves from the heightened atmosphere of the concert hall to the cloistered atmosphere of the studio, the temptation is to approach the recording as a summation of all the work and all the performances which lead up to it, with every idea, moment of inspiration, and pleasure-giving turn of phrase somehow incorporated, and every rejected notion whittled away. It may seem hard to argue with the suggestion that in making a recording, which can never have the freshness of a live concert anyway, one should rely on every accumulated bit of knowledge. And yet this attitude dooms the recording to staleness, a certain recycled quality. For first of all, in trying to reproduce an affect from a prior performance, one will find that it doesn’t exist any more.

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.

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.