Project News

Beethoven Plus News
March 2016

It’s now 18 months since Dan and I began rehearsing in earnest for the London debut of our Beethoven Plus series at Kings Place.  Since then, we have given about twenty more Beethoven Plus recitals, with many still to go, and we have been enjoying every minute of the project.

When we started, even though we’d planned every detail ourselves, the sheer magnitude of Beethoven Plus still came as a shock to us.  We were determined to devote ourselves equally to the ten Beethoven Sonatas – in themselves a huge undertaking – and the ten new companion pieces. Each of these had its own language and presented different musical and technical challenges.

There was never a dull moment. Knowing that we were in this project for the long term, our rehearsals were relaxed but also invigorating, with new discoveries at every turn.  As we’d expected, the new pieces bounced off Beethoven’s music in a variety of fascinating ways, highlighting unsuspected qualities in each of the sonatas which we already knew so well.

One of the most enjoyable things about Beethoven Plus was the process of meeting and working with all the composers on their pieces. First came Matthew Taylor, who alarmingly insisted that we play his Tarantella Furiosa even faster than the hair-raising, Tarantella-style finale of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata. Elspeth Brooke’s Swoop turned out to be a mysterious exploration around one note, including the use of quarter-tones. Some months later, our final meeting was with Kurt Schwertsik – 80 last year – who flew over from Vienna on the concert day. He had composed an enigmatic but highly lyrical piece to go with Beethoven’s sixth sonata, and had a very clear idea of how it should sound. Singing and gesturing his way through a particularly tender section, this celebrated former disciple of Stockhausen commented: “I was asking myself, how can I dare to write something so romantic… but then I decided, What the hell, I’ll do it anyway!” At this point the enigma of the piece was solved, as we realised that romanticism could also be the new avant-garde.

Each composer’s response to Beethoven was accessible and engaging in a different way, and most of the pieces stayed within the 5-minute rule (with a couple straying over into 7 minutes). It remained to be seen how audiences would feel about these ambitious recital programmes.  Would they find them too long, too intellectual or too gimmicky?

We needn’t have worried, as on every occasion the audience response has been fantastic, and the reviews and feedback confirm this.  No-one seems to find the programmes over-long, since the short companion pieces add so much variety. Exactly as we’d hoped, in this new context Beethoven’s sonatas come to life in a fresh and thought-provoking way, both for the listeners and for us as performers. Now that Beethoven Plus is fully up and running, Dan and I will be delighted to continue offering the cycle to music societies and festivals, and we look forward to many more recitals in the next couple of years.