For the past three years, EMU professor Joel Schoenhals has been trekking his way through Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas, performing them free of charge at EMU’s historic Pease Auditorium, where the biannual concerts are videotaped and subsequently posted online. While it’s wonderful and convenient to be able to revisit the recitals electronically, there is nothing like being there in real time to watch the pianist operate in a state of almost trance-like concentration as he plays each of these complex masterworks entirely from memory.
Schoenhals, who has also revived the old-fashioned practice of giving invitational salon recitals at private homes, feels he can serve his students best through understanding the sonatas as deeply as possible. That means memorizing every note and nuance and performing them often. The series was also inspired by the birth of his son, in line with a decision to travel less and devote more time to working at home. “The thing I like about playing the piano is that I feel so alive,” he says. “I’m engaged at all levels–physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. No music has done this for me as much as these sonatas. It’s been the best musical experience of my life.
“There are many faces of Beethoven,” he says, “from the humorous to the dramatic and tragic, to the sweet and loving, to the searching and struggling.” This multifaceted quality is potently present in the three sonatas he will perform on September 18. Heard in succession, they seem to chart Beethoven’s personal transformation as he matured into a state enabling him to create the Ninth Symphony, the Diabelli Variations, and the Missa Solemnis. Schoenhals explains that the sonatas were written during a period characterized by epochal changes in politics, rapid musical progress, and revolutionary innovations in the design of the fortepiano (which the composer preferred to call, in German, the Hammerklavier).
Beethoven described his piano sonata no. 27 as a contest between heart and mind. It gives the listener a sense of trusted intimacy, as if you’re hearing the composer think out loud. The rondo feels like a precious gift, warm and roseate as one of Schubert’s songs of bittersweet contentment. Sonata no. 28, according to the composer, is a set of impressions and reveries. Exquisite reflections lead to gesticulations, rambunctious outbursts, and sections phrased like solidly constructed explanations of great meaning; sunlight breaks through, and the orchard is filled with chattering birds. No. 29 is a panoramic landscape, big as the world and far as the eye can see. During its slow movement, you may find yourself sitting with Beethoven in a clearing filled with lichen, Alpine dianthus, and white spurge, resting your bones after hiking several kilometers through the vineyards south of Vienna to the mineral baths at Moedling, and up into the hills through stands of black pines where dappled sunlight dances in the wind. Beethoven doesn’t say a word. It is clear that he has much on his mind.