On preparing for a Beethoven marathon – Finale: Julian Jacobson

As many will know, pianist and piano professor Julian Jacobson has been writing a splendid and very popular guest post series for this blog, focusing on his recent Beethoven marathon where he performed all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas in one day – both in London and in Uruguay. This final article is the postlude. Here, he describes his thoughts and emotions after both events and offers a brief but tantalising glimpse of his next venture…

Read Julian’s previous articles here.


        Mission accomplished!

Having survived my two marathons – the second being just over a week ago in Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay, on my 75th birthday – I thought I’d set down my thoughts in a final blog post.

Firstly big thanks to Melanie for hosting my ramblings, and to many of you who sent nice messages, as well as everyone who helped with the complex organisation. Also of course to Enrique Graf for inviting me to repeat it in his festival in Uruguay, and the wonderful team of helpers there – including the lady who gave me a luxurious Reiki session immediately after which ensured I could enjoy the terrific birthday party they put on for me, with two cakes and limitless champagne: I was in no mood not to indulge!

Julian in action during his Beethoven marathon at the London concert.

As for the playing, I’m relieved that nothing went seriously adrift! I did repeat eight bars in the slow movement of the Pathétique in London, apart from that I think there were no memory lapses, just the odd fumble and loss of clarity. Actually I used the music for the Hammerklavier in London and didn’t play it at all in Uruguay – was persuaded to leave it out, partly for time constraints (it was 10 am to 9.30 pm as against 9.15 to 10 in London). Inevitably there were some movements or even whole sonatas I was less happy with but on the whole I felt my concentration was good. Some sonatas felt as good as I’ve ever played them. A low point: in Uruguay I went out to play op 78 after a short break to find the auditorium lighting full on (normally the audience was in virtual darkness): in confusion I started playing and then realised there were only a handful of people there as they hadn’t yet recalled the audience. That certainly disturbed my concentration which I didn’t fully recover for the next couple of sonatas. Yet there were high points where I felt totally “in the flow” and the audience absolutely with me. And, as always, the sublime end of the journey with the dying notes of op 111 was a magical moment, both times.

A lot of people asked me how I felt afterwards or if I was totally incapacitated! Funnily enough my hands, arms, shoulders and back felt almost no different the next day: I think that after a few hours of playing they just got on to a sort of roll and kept moving without any extra strain. Having said that, after the second marathon, two days later I admit that everything was a bit sore!

A standing ovation after the second Beethoven marathon in Uruguay.

For now I have no intention of repeating the marathon – though I don’t ever like to say “never”! Apart from the difficulty of simply getting through it, and the inevitable smudges and inaccuracies, I no longer want to have so many pieces ready all at the same time. In the last year or so, I have felt that my approach to Beethoven has changed quite a bit: I was pursuing these ideas as I reworked each sonata, but at a certain point I had to fall back on old habits and past interpretations as it would have been impossible to absorb my new ideas into all 32 sonatas. I quickly realised that this would also be a bit risky for the memory: new interpretations need time to settle if they are going to be completely secure, as the proportions and even the technicalities of fingering and articulation can feel quite different.

In the end, it was the inexhaustible creativity, passion, and humanity of the sonatas that saw me through. What pleased me most was when people said how much they got out of hearing them all in a day so they could truly follow Beethoven’s development, or even more when someone said how much a particular sonata had moved them, rather than just complimenting me on my memory or stamina.

And so on to pastures new! No more marathons, but I have already fixed on a project, probably for mid-2024, for the complete works of just about as un-Beethovenian a great piano composer as one could get. When I say it’s two full recital programmes I guess I’ve already half given the game away….

JULIAN JACOBSON

www.julianjacobson.com


Publications

Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.


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