Pianist Peter Donohoe to fill air with half a million Beethoven notes

There are things in music that amount to lifetime landmarks – not unlike a pilgrimage to Mecca if you’re Muslim – and they range from sitting through all four operas in Wagner’s Ring (preferably at Bayreuth) to hearing a full cycle of the Mahler symphonies (preferably in Vienna or Berlin).

But another is the experience of all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas in a concentrated time-period given by a leading player. And for that you won’t need a passport because, unlikely though it may seem, this rare experience is available on the doorstep, in Highgate.

The pianist is the celebrated Peter Donohoe, who has been a major figure on the world circuit since his success in the 1982 Tchaikovsky Competition. The venue is the intimate Red Hedgehog in Archway Road and the idea is to play them all in chronological order through eight concerts over four weekends.

It’s a marathon that, as Donohoe says, calls for stamina and “can be hard in the early stages as you feel this great edifice building up around you. But it’s also hugely rewarding to hear each sonata in context and understand how it relates back to the previous one and forward to the next.

“That’s why I always do these cycles in the order the sonatas were written rather than mixing and matching. When you follow the written order, you get the sense of a trajectory – of Beethoven developing through the three decades it took to write the sonatas, from the 1790s to the 1820s, and changing the face of music as he goes.

“At the same time, the instrument he’s writing for is changing: getting bigger and more powerful. And in broader terms, society is changing – which is something Beethoven was acutely aware of and is reflected in his work.”

When a pianist plans a project of this kind, he has to start by making some decisions. The first is how many sonatas to play because, although the canon is conventionally 32, the latest scholarship ups the number to 35 by including three early examples previously dismissed as juvenilia.

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Donohoe says he’d be happy to include them too except that, with a chronological survey, those extra three would make a less than satisfactory listening experience in the first programme. So he’s sticking to convention.

Another decision is how far to follow the dictates of period performance and, along with most mainstream concert pianists, Donohoe’s approach to that one is cautious.

“I take an interest in period playing but don’t do it myself,” he says, which means he uses a modern concert grand not a fortepiano and doesn’t feel bound by many of the newfound academic views on Beethovenian style, including speed.

The indications are that music of this period went faster than we used to think and, although only one piano sonata in the entire canon – the Hammerklavier –comes with a metronome mark, it’s so very fast that mainstream pianists tend to ignore it. Donohoe among them.

“At those speeds everything gets garbled. I think you also have to remember that they were proposed by a composer who was very deaf. I know he didn’t need his hearing to compose but I also know from my own experience that, when you rely on your inner ear to think through long pieces, it’s easy to forget the reality of playing on an actual instrument in a real acoustic. The piano has an intrinsic tendency to rush and you have to be careful about that.

“But I do agree that there’s a case for not sitting on Beethoven’s slow movements in the way that pianists did 40/50 years ago. That they’d end up with a slow movement twice as long as the others in the sonata spoke volumes: it told you it was just too slow.”

With 32 sonatas and approximately half a million notes to get through in this cycle, it can only be the case that an interpreter has preferences among them. Asking Donohoe to name his likes and dislikes, though, won’t get you far. He’s diplomatic.

“Virtually all these pieces have extraordinary importance in the history of music and I like them all – except perhaps for one which lets the others down with a slightly embarrassing second movement. But I’m not going to say which one that is. They all, in different ways, give you real insight into Beethoven’s personality, which was arrogant and difficult but it could equally be warm-hearted and incredibly brave.

“For much of his life, he suffered physically, not just from the deafness but from health problems like stomach pains which some commentators think were a kind of cancer. But not a note in Beethoven is defeatist. It can be angry, defiant, ecstatic but never self-pitying, never focused on himself in that way.”

Those presiding qualities of ecstasy and defiance may well be the source of findings by American neuroscientists which suggest that prolonged exposure to Beethoven’s piano sonatas have a quantifiably positive effect on people with depression.

So you’re feeling down? Then make for Peter Donohoe. All 32 in quick succession ought to function like a seriously uplifting dose of Prozac.

o Peter Donohoe plays the Beethoven piano sonatas over four weekends, from March 26 and 27 to April 16 and 17 at The Red Hedgehog in Archway Road, Highgate. Concerts start at 7.30pm on Saturdays and 4pm on Sundays. The one on Sunday March 27 is prefaced by a 3pm platform conversation in which I’ll be talking to Donohoe about the whole sonata cycle. Tickets on 020-8348 5050. For details, visit www.theredhedgehog.co.uk.