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First Person: Boris Giltburg on lockdown interruptions to filming Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: Boris Giltburg on lockdown interruptions to filming Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas

First Person: Boris Giltburg on lockdown interruptions to filming Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas

The Moscow-born Israeli pianist on an odyssey that took several unexpected turns

Boris Giltburg: 'it was only with the help of that online audience that I managed to survive that Beethoven summer madness'Sasha Gusov

About a year ago, in a distant pre-pandemic world, I remember walking down Edgware Road one cold London evening. I was heading towards Jaques Samuel Pianos, my favourite haunt in London, to meet filmmaker Stewart French from Fly On The Wall.

There, we began setting up mics and lights, (im)patiently waiting for everyone to leave, so that we could start filming the first of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, well into the early hours of the night. That was the launching point of a project I took upon myself – to learn and film all 32 sonatas throughout 2020, Beethoven’s 250 anniversary year.

To go even further back in time, the earliest I can remember of the project is myself, pacing around an hotel room in Seoul in very early 2019, burning with the excitement of a new idea; that brief magic moment when the idea exists in your mind in its purest form – pure potential, an ideal unencumbered and unmarred by reality. A switch had just flipped in my head, plunging the world from a state of total impossibility of my ever playing Beethoven’s 32 sonatas to a state of equally total certainty that I would not just play but also film them, and not “one day”, but in a concrete, relatively near future. I had by that time played nine sonatas. 23 – over six hours of music – remained to be learned.

Part of it was pure derring-do: here is a musical mountain, I want to climb it. Why? Because it’s there! Others have climbed it, but can I? Another part of me, the collector, was overjoyed at the thought of learning all 32, of having a complete set. But the biggest excitement was that of the treasure hunter, archaeologist and old language decipherer all-in-one: I was about to open one of the richest treasure troves of all classical music.

The first instalment of 'Beethoven 32': Boris Giltburg plays Op. 2 No. 1

Beethoven was on every musician’s mind back then. A 250th anniversary is as round a date as one could hope to productively experience in a lifetime, and the whole classical music community was preparing a Beethoven cornucopia out of this world. I myself was recording the cycle of all Beethoven’s concerti and had various recitals planned with his sonatas. But “Beethoven 32”, as I dubbed the project, was to become the overarching focus of my life this year. So we started filming and by late February 2020 reached Sonata No. 11, the end of the first act of the story. Early Beethoven had been a delight, with each new sonata revealing his brilliant inventiveness, his quest for poetry and beauty, the first flashes of his emotional depth, and throughout, his easy – and justified! – self-assuredness as composer and keyboard virtuoso. I began realising that the image I had had of him – the stormy, grouchy man with an angry brow – was patchy and superficial.

And then in March, everything got upended. Pandemic struck, and lockdowns cascaded from one country to another. Half of my tour in the States got cancelled from one day to another, and I flew back, trying to get home before borders closed. Endless cancellations followed; some days my diary seemed to be written in disappearing ink. Reading the news, talking to friends or family who were many flight-hours away, reading the news: those days were mostly uncertainty, anxiety and stress. The practical thing to do, of course, was to get to learning all the remaining sonatas; but by that time my desire for excitement and adventure, as embodied in learning new musical pieces, had evaporated. Being alone with the score, attempting to recreate the music, to decipher the composer’s wishes, the images they might have had in their mind, is a magnificent kind of solitude – similar to being inside, snug in the warmth, protected from the heavy rain outside. But this solitude can only be joyful when one is surrounded by the bustle of life, with all of humanity within easy reach. Should this easy reach disappear – oh no, then give me contact! The need to reach out was never as strong as when I couldn’t do so by the usual means any more. (Pictured below, Beethoven's manuscript for the "Arietta" of Op. 111) Beethoven AriettaI wish I could say here that it was Beethoven who saved me during the spring lockdown months – it would have been so good for the story! – but truthfully, it wasn’t. I started streaming music online several times a week, and my lifeline came from that online audience, from the warmth of their reaction, from their immediate feedback. I certainly played Beethoven too, and often, but only my old, trusted pieces: the wrathful fire of the Appassionata, the addictive gloom of the Moonlight, the pulsating energy of the Waldstein and the transcendent serenity of Beethoven’s last, 32nd sonata – those were the comfort food I wanted to share with others, alongside a large tranche of repertoire I hadn’t played since my teens.

Later in June, we saw a chance to film later in the summer, in Italy, at the Fazioli concert hall. We decided to go all in – film 13 sonatas in one go, including nine new ones, as who knew what the autumn would bring. The sonatas often were Beethoven’s laboratory of ideas, many of them akin to pocket universes with their own unique rules, and the sheer variety was staggering. New sonatas flowed or slowly sipped into my mind and fingers, some with ease, some with painful, infuriating labour – and then flowed back in digital, sometimes choppy streams onto all of my social media channels, stumbling at times on copyright claims from algorithms who insisted that I was Walter Gieseking, or Jean-Yves Thibaudet, or Alfred Brendel, and blocked the stream. I grumbled in return, submitted a dispute and kept streaming. I streamed sonatas so fresh I could still hear their crust crackling after leaving the oven (I was also baking frenetically those days); I streamed hour-long ramblings about early approaches to interpretation, I streamed difficult passages and interesting findings, run-through concerts and good-morning vignettes – and again, I believe it was only with the help of that online audience that I managed to survive that Beethoven summer madness.

Boris Giltburg plays the 'Appassionata' Sonata

This happened again in September, and again in late November, when we filmed the last five sonatas. Beethoven’s journey by that time took him tremendously far from the path of his early works. After the Hammerklavier Sonata – that towering, frightening Everest – it was as if a veil had fallen, and everything became possible for him. Playing the last three sonatas, I felt Beethoven was exploring territories beyond anything attempted before, be those the farthest reaches of the cosmos or the unfathomable depths of the human soul.

In articles I wrote during the pandemic I was often tempted to compare the current situation to Beethoven’s own isolation, that of his deafness. But the more I played of his works, the shallower this comparison felt, and the more prominent became the unstoppable life energy underlying everything he wrote, and the warm, ever-human light suffusing his music. This light, growing brighter and brighter and finally reaching blinding heights in his late works, is surely one of the greatest gifts Beethoven has given to humanity.

Looking back, I realise I can no longer separate the project from the pandemic. The rhythm of lockdowns and restrictions dictated our filming schedule, my audience was 95% online, and the fact I had months to spend at home, for the first time in years, has undoubtedly affected the way I worked. Without the option of exploring the world outside, the rich worlds of the sonatas became my journeys, both work trips and holidays. And thus Beethoven 32 fused with 2020 for me, with all the good and the bad that happened this year. This isn’t how I envisioned this journey, but I feel nothing but immense gratitude for having been able to finish it.

And gradually, from the jumble of memories and emotions, these two personal heroes emerge: the first, my online audience, who gave me focus, strength, warmth and support, and without whom completing Beethoven 32 would have been hugely more difficult. And Beethoven… greatest, deepest, most human Beethoven, whom I only truly began to discover this year, and in whose magnificently transcended worlds I hope to spend numerous years to come.

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