“Hammerklavier” summit unscaled, Goodyear elsewhere shows elegance and virtuosity

Mon Dec 14, 2009 at 12:15 pm

By Bryant Manning

It beckons alluringly to keyboard artists, like a dangerous femme fatale. Beethoven’s great Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-Flat, Op. 106 (Hammerklavier) has left many a pianist in its dust due to the grueling technical demands and a towering architecture consisting of nearly 1,200 measures. Musicians young and old often grapple with this daunting masterwork but rarely leave the stage with a convincing performance.

On Sunday at Orchestra Hall it was the turn of Stewart Goodyear, the 31-year-old Toronto native who made a considerable impression last year performing the Hummel A Minor Piano Concerto with Nicholas McGegan and the CSO.

But, alas, Hummel isn’t Beethoven and Goodyear’s take on this 1818 epic provided all the expected thrills and disappointments.

At first it appeared Goodyear was doing his best to bulldoze through the stately opening Allegro. He began somewhat grotesquely and dove in so fast that he muddled the outsize introductory chords to the point of them being almost unrecognizable. After what felt like a consistent lack of vision throughout the first movement, Goodyear found solid footing in the brief Scherzo and gave it all the ballroom conviviality one could want. He relished the massive Adagio, finding a beautiful tone to accompany his meditative and prayerful sojourn.

The miraculous fugal finale is a relentless pursuit and Goodyear mined its contrapuntal matrices like a veteran. Yet this talented artist, more often than not, displayed a loose structural grasp of this large-scale sonata, making for an indistinct performance of this supreme entry from Beethoven’s late period catalogue.

Structurally similar to the Beethoven, Samuel Barber’s four-movement Piano Sonata, Op. 26, is no lean pianistic feat either. It is a true virtuoso’s work since the composer was in close accord at the time with Vladimir Horowitz, who premiered the sonata in 1949.

Goodyear was an astonishing technical specimen last year and this brand of bravura carried over to the tempestuous opening movement and the Chopin etude-like Allegro vivace e leggero. The doleful Adagio was swayingly hypnotic even though concert hall coughs seemed to interject at all the rests. The finale is a Bachian fugue lavishly reworked with a neo-Romantic sensibility and even touches of 12-tone technique. Goodyear’s hands disappeared into a blur as he delivered with ease the devilishly difficult finale.

Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 10 was an apt prelude to the Barber. Here shimmering textures, forward-looking chromaticism and glowing trills filled out the great mystic’s otherworldly canvas. Goodyear was elegant, sensitive and cleanly articulate in both of these 20th century sonatas.

The Juilliard grad’s agreeable encores included Gershwin’s Embraceable You, Chopin’s Heroic polonaise, and a Lisztian take on the Blue Danube Waltz. He even showed off his compositional chops with a brief work of his own, the fluid and dreamy August.

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