Beethoven 32

Boris Giltburg


Sonata No. 1 (Op. 2, No. 1)

17th January 2020

Beethoven's sonatas Op. 2 were his calling card in Vienna as a composer. At that point – 1795 – he was already famous as a keyboard virtuoso, but the transition to fame as a composer was not obvious, and he took great care with the first works he published, a set of three trios (Op. 1) and three sonatas (Op. 2).

The F minor sonata, opening the opus, is laconic in its musical language and form, but highly expressive in its emotional content. The first movement sets the tone: very personal and sincere; but reserved, its emotional outbursts never overpowering. It is followed by a serene second movement showing Beethoven already on a quest for lyrical, poetic beauty. The third movement is a hybrid minuet and scherzo, starting off as a melancholy, somewhat stylized dance, which changes its character drastically towards the end. And it is the finale which is perhaps the most striking movement of the four. Beethoven takes the closing chords of the first movement and puts them above a stormy whirlwind of sound, at times furious, at times impassioned, at times haunted and driven. A beautiful middle section, repeated twice, serves as a point of calm, but can only delay the inevitable return of the storm and the final collapse.

Diary entry #2

15th January 2020

In two days’ time, the first sonata video will be released on Apple Music and YouTube – the actual launch of the project! – and I thought today will be a good moment to write a bit about where things stand.

On the factual side, we have filmed the first seven sonatas over the last 6 weeks. All seven were completely new for me, and I very excitedly learned the first four in the empty bits of time between concerts in October and November, and even more excitedly learned Nos. 5-7 over nine consecutive days over the New Year holidays. It felt like stuffing your mouth with a delicious dessert (think the musical equivalent of a hot chocolate souffle with a molten core and ice cream), and I couldn’t be happier.

This isn’t to say there are no challenges; in a way it’s one big, ongoing challenge. Sonata No. 1 was perhaps the biggest challenge of all, as it’s No. 1 (hence, expectations! first impressions are so important…), also as we were still refining our filming workflow, and musically as No. 1 is the most laconic in its material; in a way the more extrovert Nos. 2, 3 and 4 were easier to imagine and to construct.

Those three came with their set of challenges though – though musically very clear, all three are virtuosic and increasingly expansive in scope and ambition (No. 4 felt surprisingly close to the 5th piano concerto in its richness and breadth, though a lot more driven and quirky in the first movement). In a word – increasingly hard. 😀

And the three sonatas Op. 10 which we filmed last week – to be honest, to move from absolute zero to filming in 9 days is crazy… But I loved it so much: utter intensity, utter focus, the music occupying your brain morning till night, evolving before your eyes – it’s exhilarating, and with the music being SO good, the challenges recede before an overwhelming desire to make the music justice and to make it as vibrant, captivating and alive as you can. Can’t wait to share it all with you.

See you in two days! I will post the link to the video on Friday morning. And over the weekend I will post a listening guide to the 1st sonata, and write about that first filming session.

Diary entry #1

17th December 2019

(On this day 249 years ago Ludwig van Beethoven was baptised. I thought it would be a good point to start the blog.)

This year I will be intensely living through Beethoven’s 32 sonatas. I don’t mean this as a florid exaggeration; I say it based on the experience of learning the early sonatas over the past weeks, of having filmed sonata No. 1 two weeks ago, and of being about to film Nos. 2, 3 and 4 later this week. What started as a cool idea has quickly become a... – I honestly don’t know how to describe it in a word; it’s passionate, engaging, sleep- and thought-consuming, stimulating, surprising, sometimes infuriating – love? life? (Sigh inwardly all you want at such over-the-top-ness.)

And with this intensity of feeling, comes an overwhelming desire to share. Not just the final results (though I know with a clear certainty there can be nothing final about these results – years of repeated exploration await), nor a list of listening guides or analyses, but that very intensity of feeling. To try to capture and share those fleeting changes of emotion, of falling in love with the music, of discovering a grand architectural plan to a movement or a tiny detail in one bar; of grappling for days with a section as you feel you can’t make it work yet, can’t yet make the music justice; and then, sometimes, the happiness of finally finding it, whatever ‘it’ is.

I realize now that what I’d love to emerge from this year is a kind of a dreamscape, shaped around the pillar of the sonatas cycle, born of an interaction of sound, word, emotion and thought. Why dreamscape: Hesse wrote that music scores are frozen tone-dreams; but so are interpretations, since what we imagine, what we hear inside our heads while looking at a piece of music, can often be miles away from what our fingers are actually producing. And so, each performance is but a frozen (though fluid) snapshot of that dreamed-of interpretation, and much of the daily practising struggle is trying to bridge the divide between the two. And the dream-interpretation changes and morphs as well, as you yourself change with time and experience.

I’m typing these paragraphs, and inside there’s a whole bubbling fountain of other things I’m eager to write about: experiences from the past weeks, thoughts, impressions and questions about each of the first four sonatas, the recent filming session, etc etc. But I’ll leave it to the next posts.

I will end with a technical announcement – I’m very happy to say that the complete cycle will be available on Apple Music, simultaneously with the YouTube releases. This necessitated a change in the original schedule, and the first sonata video will be released on January the 17th. From that point on, a new sonata will follow every one or two weeks, always on a Friday. The end point remains the same – if all goes to plan, Op. 111 will be released on New Year’s day 2021.

About the project

To celebrate Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year, I will be learning and filming all 32 of his sonatas over the course of 2020. This is a massive undertaking – I have played 9 of them so far, so 23 will be completely new, including some of the most challenging.

I’ll be releasing a new sonata every few weeks starting on the 17th of January, and I’ll be writing about my experience throughout the year. You can follow the entire project here on