A re-run of Cathy Freeman’s heart-stopping 400 metre race at the Sydney Olympics in September 2000 recently animated the sails of Sydney’s Opera House, a reminder, if ever there was one, that sport trumps art in fostering national pride.
Absent from those sails was an artistic feat also worth recalling from that Olympic year: an Australian pianist, a migrant from the Netherlands, completed a marathon to rival any on the sporting field. It had taken Gerard Willems three years to add an Australian name to what was then an exclusive register of elite foreign artists who had recorded Ludwig van Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas, regarded universally as the greatest piano music ever written.
Despite the fact that as his producer, I favoured a conventional Steinway, .Willems insisted on the locally designed and manufactured Stuart & Sons piano, at that time an integral R&D component of the University of Newcastle’s music department, to enhance the works with a unique Australian sound. His recordings, released by the ABC, were best-sellers and won 2 ARIAs – a first for a pianist – propelling Beethoven’s Aussie interpreter through a screaming mosh pit to share the stage at the Sydney Entertainment Centre with rock bands Powderfinger, The Living End and Killing Heidi.
In the run-up to the Olympics, the host state’s Premier and Minister for the Arts, Bob Carr, and his Minister for State Development, Michael Egan, chose the Willems-Beethoven recordings to demonstrate to the world that Australia was ‘not just a country of beaches and kangaroos’.
At Games time, Carr and Egan invited their international guests and local VIPs to lunch at Sydney’s Government House. Encircled by the harbour, the Opera House and the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, the captive audience that included the then-president of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, and Rupert Murdoch, ate and drank the state’s finest produce and wines. And in the windowed alcove at one end of the governor’s dining room Gerard Willems played the Moonlight sonata.
Meanwhile, at Sydney’s International Airport, arriving passengers were greeted by enormous posters advertising the Willems–Beethoven CDs, before being lulled by a video of Willems playing the adagio of the Pathétique on screens overhanging the luggage carousels. The wait for one’s smalls has surely never been more unusually rewarding.
This year, the 250th anniversary of his birth, Beethoven’s music is everywhere, amplified by myriad listening devices unimagined twenty years ago. Pianists of all ages and nationalities are playing and recording the sonatas, available on multiple platforms near you. Their ubiquity in no way diminishes the efforts of their predecessors.
They, like Gerard Willems, trace their recording lineage to the Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel, the first to leave his interpretations of the 32 sonatas for posterity to judge – a triumph that earned him the epithet ‘the man who invented Beethoven’. Starting in 1932, it took Schnabel four years to record the sonatas under conditions no one would tolerate today. Each ‘take’, rendered on wax, lasted only four minutes, creating a nightmare for the musical continuity of long difficult works. ‘In four minutes,’ Schnabel remarked, ‘you play perhaps two thousand notes; in every take there are two notes wrong; then you make ten takes and choose the one with twenty wrong notes. It’s like being married to death.’ The make of piano was also an issue. The studio management preferred their brand new Steinway, Schnabel a Bechstein. He won that argument. However, accustomed to a live audience, he could not warm to the idea of having unseen listeners. Even not knowing how his audience was dressed bothered him. He called the Abbey Road studio his ‘torture chamber’.
Willems, on the other hand, though familiar with the recording process, found it difficult to balance his teaching career with a tight recording schedule and the inexorable, rigorous preparation, including live performances of the sonatas. One such performance involved a collaboration with theatrical boundary pusher, Nigel Kellaway. As Willems played the profound Opus 111, Beethoven’s final statement in the sonata form, Kellaway swung nude over the piano, reciting texts by a post-modern German playwright, and screaming obscenities at the Adelaide Festival audience.
Willems survived the polymorphous endurance test and after the Olympics continued his Beethoven marathon, just as Schnabel had, recording the five concertos and Diabelli Variations among other piano works. Another submission to be weighed up by posterity was complete.
It takes all types. For pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim, the process of recording Beethoven – far from being a marriage with death – is, apparently, an elixir for long life. He has recorded the 32 sonatas four times in the course of his 77 years. This year Barenboim decided there was no better time than Covid time to give the cycle another crack; ‘whenever it laughs,’, says Barenboim of Beethoven’s music, ‘it laughs and cries at the same time’.
Should New Zealand change its name? New Zealand’s Maori party thinks it should. They want the nation to become ‘Aotearoa’ (a Maori word that means ‘land of the white cloud’). Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters (himself of Maori and Scottish descent) says a change would be ‘extraordinarily confusing.’ (For a start, most of the world would be confused about how to pronounce it!) Jacinda Ardern was rather more woke, suggesting ‘Aotearoa’ could be used interchangeably with ‘New Zealand’ (which would mean how many national flags and national anthems?) While it’s true that ‘New Zealand’ is based on a Dutch word so is ‘Tasmania’— should that also change? And perhaps ‘Australia’ could be scrapped and this place given its old geological name of ‘Gondwanaland.’ A good way to get lost is to start changing words all over the map.
Since King Alfred gave us the first recorded use of the word ‘hate’ more than a thousand years ago it has meant ‘to feel passionate or intense dislike.’ And that’s why it is linguistically odd to accuse J. K. Rowling of ‘hate speech’ when she disagrees with the proposition that transgender persons with XY chromosomes should share dressing rooms and sporting contests with persons who have XX chromosomes. In her latest Cormoran Strike crime novel (under her Robert Galbraith pen-name) one of the characters is a ‘transvestite killer.’ This, along with her articles on the subject, apparently make her a ‘transphobe’ and guilty of ‘hate speech.’ For a start ‘transphobe’ is a badly constructed word: a phobia is a fear, and there is no evidence that those who think XX people cannot be fully classified as XY are motivated by fear. And second, disagreement is not hate. There is no suggestion in Rowling’s writing of ‘passionate or intense dislike.’ Rather there is a sense of puzzlement that while people with XY chromosomes can (in a free society) dress and behave like XX persons if they wish, the Y chromosome is still there, and it is foolish to pretend it’s not. It’s possible to argue about that. But disagreement is not hatred—it’s disagreement. The debate will go nowhere as long as the language is being twisted in this way.
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