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An Interview with David Korevaar

By Robert Hjelmstad

During the Covid-19 quarantine period, pianist David Korevaar took to social media to share an ambitious personal project; he set himself the challenge of recording (from his living room) and sharing (via Facebook and YouTube) all 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas. The original time frame for the challenge was 60 days--he eventually finished the project in 41. The recording project was enjoyed by his long-time fans and also introduced the artist to some people for the first time. I recently had the opportunity to speak with David about Beethoven, his recording process, and the role of the 32 Sonatas in the pianistic canon.

RH: How old were you when you played your first Beethoven Sonata? Which one was it?

DK: I remember learning the first movement of op. 49, no. 2 when I was very young (9? 10?); later (at 13) I started learning op. 10, no. 1—which was really the only Beethoven sonata I played by the time I auditioned for Juilliard at age 16. Hardly a gigantic repertoire!!

RH: Before this project, how many of the sonatas had you already learned and performed, and how many were new to you for the recording project?

DK: The easiest way to answer this is to list the ones that I never performed (and now have only performed for my laptop in my living room!)—the new ones for this project:

Op. 2, no. 2; Op. 14, no. 2; Op. 31, no. 3 (!!); Op. 49, no. 1; Op. 54; Op. 81a. That makes 6 out of the 32.

RH: Which recording of the 32 did you use the most takes on?

DK: Op. 54, believe it or not. I did op. 31, no. 2 in one take (used the first one); and two takes (used the second) for most of the rest. A few went to more than that. Almost every video on YouTube represents a single, unedited take, with a few exceptions—I cut out an extra repetition of the first part of the theme in op. 14, no. 2 (an accidental repeat); I did some slicing out of false starts in op. 79 (which turned out to be harder to record than it had any right to be—the first movement is really hard!); I did a patch from the fugato to the end in the finale of op. 101; and, I redid the finale of op. 106 as a separate take (the edit is in the introduction, which was a better place to make the connection sneakily than between movements 3 and 4). Much to my own surprise, I only needed to do two takes plus the redo of the last movement in op. 106.

RH: Which pianist is your favorite to listen to for the Beethoven Sonatas?

DK: Hmm. My least favorite question. I do like Richard Goode’s recorded cycle. I heard a phenomenally beautiful Waldstein at Carnegie by Rudolf Serkin toward the end of his career (I never much liked his recordings, though). I like some of Schnabel’s recordings—weird ones, like op. 54, especially. Unfortunately, some of the late sonatas are just too fast, rushed, and sloppy to be really enjoyable. I was blown away by Murray Perahia’s op. 106 a couple of years ago (live)—exemplary, I thought. I grew up on Rubinstein’s LP of the Pathétique, Moonlight, and Appassionata Sonatas, but have almost no memory of those performances. And, I remember being pretty blown away as a teenager by Earl Wild’s op. 10, no. 3 in a live performance. I also liked his version of op. 31, no. 3.

RH: What was it about the global Covid situation that inspired you to tackle this ambitious project?

DK: You know, like many others, I found myself a bit lost when everything shut down. There was this moment of complete panic for me as I contemplated the loss of direct contact with my students and the adjustment to teaching piano lessons at the highest level over the internet—something that I’d always assumed was an impossibility. Now I’ve learned that it isn’t impossible—there are even some good things about it. But it certainly isn’t the powerful experience that in-person teaching is, and a lot of my main concerns like sound production get lost in the digital hamsters eating the sound (you can ask my students about the digital hamsters). And, like everyone else, I was facing this odd void where performing for people was simply an impossibility. I decided I needed to cook up a project—something to keep me occupied and sane, and something that I could share with people. I’m in a privileged position as a university professor—I have a salary, and our institution remains committed to maintaining what we do in spite of the current situation. This was a way of returning something to my local community (many of the people who have been listening to the sonatas are people who know my playing from performances in Boulder) and also to share with the community at large. And, for me, it has been an important learning experience and whetted my appetite to perhaps do more with the cycle as a whole.

RH: There are a great number of renowned pianists who have recorded all 32 Beethoven sonatas. With the multitude of recordings available, can you speak about why this project is still so alluring to so many pianists, including yourself?

DK: As someone once said about Mt. Everest…. I’ve often resisted this idea of doing all of something—after all, there are a few pieces in the 32 that probably don’t really belong (most obviously the two op. 49 Sonatas) in a list of canonical masterpieces. But there is a temptation, and certainly a feeling of accomplishment. I also really wanted to fill in some important holes —op. 2, no. 2; op. 31, no. 3; op. 81a— especially since I’ve taught these pieces. I’ve learned a new appreciation for the oddball two-movement sonatas from the middle period (op. 54, 78, 90); come to really adore the two op. 14 sonatas (mini-masterpieces); and renewed my admiration for the earlier pieces. Beethoven was, believe it or not, a genius.

RH: You set an ambitious goal of finishing the Beethoven Sonata cycle in 60 days. I believe you actually finished it in 41. Can you discuss what role the time crunch played in the thrill and excitement of this project?

DK: It’s an interesting question—I didn’t feel hurried, actually. It was fun to relearn old friends (op. 10 no. 3 just fell right into place, as did the “Moonlight” and “Tempest” sonatas), fun to deal with the yawning gaps in my knowledge (I felt quite intimidated by the approach of op. 81a!). So many of these sonatas are full of joy and humor. And Beethoven, more than most composers, seems to be looking over our shoulders when we play—sometimes laughing with us at some particular compositional turn, sometimes giggling wickedly at the traps he’s laid. So, I felt stimulated throughout the process, and, actually, I’m trying to cook up some more Beethoven as I write these answers….

RH: Has recording the cycle in this format whetted your appetite to want to do a commercial recording as well? Besides the obvious, what differences do you see between those two approaches?

DK: I suppose a commercial recording would be fun. But there’s no funding out there for it, and no real market any more for anything like that. I fear that the CD is essentially dead and gone. So what could replace it? Well—I’d actually love to do well-produced videos with a beautiful piano in a beautiful acoustical space. And, I’m not sure I’m interested in doing a “studio” type recording with all the edits and all. There’s something refreshing about keeping the imperfections of performance, and video does allow you to do that—it’s a bit more forgiving that way, since the listener is often also watching.

RH: As a pianist myself, I’d be fascinated to hear about the practice schedule surrounding the project. Did you work on them in bunches, or did you really just focus on one at a time, as they came for the recordings? And how do you manage to fit in a massive Hammerklavier?

DK: I started out with no real idea of how to proceed. Fortunately, spring break showed up a week into our shutdown here in Colorado, and it gave me an opportunity to get a bit ahead of the schedule. I would try to practice three or four sonatas ahead of where I was at first, but couldn’t always do that. And, I was trying to occasionally work on things that I hadn’t played before, since I couldn’t depend on my relearning skills or memory for those. And then, even some of the ones I knew well, like op. 31, no. 1 and the Waldstein and op. 101, ended up being really hard to get back in the fingers—they’re just really difficult pieces. I did manage to keep on a one-sonata-upload-per-day schedule until op. 78, but then my learning curve got a bit behind where I was. I have new respect for the sheer technical difficulty of a lot of this music, believe me! The Hammerklavier loomed ahead all of the time—like climbing a mountain, and getting occasional glimpses of the summit (or of a false summit), and being intimated by what you see. I did try to work on it from time to time, but didn’t really commit until I’d gotten op. 101 in the can. At that point, I turned 100 percent of my energy to relearning the Hammerklavier—and it did take several days of concentrated work, especially the last movement, which I completely refingered (partly because I was playing off a score I’d never used before, the Barry Cooper edition, which also includes no editorial fingerings in any of the late sonatas). It was quite a relief to move on to the last three sonatas! Those came back relatively easily, and it was a great pleasure to work on op. 111 especially.

RH: Your students have certainly made up their own contingent of viewers of this recording project. If they learn one thing from watching you complete this project, what do you hope it is?

DK: Be ambitious. And take things one step at a time.

RH: In his book Piano Notes, Charles Rosen decries the fact that while the standard repertoire is finite, no students take the time to read through the complete works of any given composer. Does completing this project influence your opinion on the importance of engaging in whole-scale familiarization of repertoire? What advice would you give others about this topic?

DK: I think students should read through as much music as possible. I also think that too much focus on the standard repertoire is perhaps not ideal—it’s a lot of music, and there’s so much else to explore. Byways are wonderful places, too. The real problem is that very few students have the reading skills to really read through music in a meaningful way. For me, reading music has been a great solace—not only now. I wish everyone could do it.

RH: I remember being in your piano literature class, and you encouraged us to try to improvise in the style of Galuppi and Alberti. If you were to improvise or compose in the style of a Beethoven Sonata, what would be the key elements to you?

DK: Concision and development—two things that are really hard to do when you improvise! And rhythmic energy. Beethoven almost always chooses extraordinarily simple elements as his starting point, with an emphasis on arpeggios or scales (and often alternating those two ideas) and obvious rhythmic ideas. And seeing the kind of crazy transformations he can achieve (look at op. 78, a sonata in which every time I play it I discover another amazing transformation of the original material) is daunting—is that something you can do when improvising? Apparently many of the early variations' starts began as improvisations—he was a clever guy. Intimidating question!!!

RH: Many conservatories and universities require Beethoven Sonatas as part of their audition repertoire. Having taught these pieces for years, and having just played all of them, can you talk about your view of the pedagogical role of these pieces?

DK: There’s a reason these pieces are considered part of our canon as pianists. Beethoven was not only the greatest composer of his own time, he also composed at a time when the piano was just coming into its own, a time when the instrument was beginning to show the kinds of colors and possibilities that would develop over the nineteenth century. In addition to the obvious virtuosity of his writing (look at the demands of the op. 2 sonatas—he was determined to outdo even Clementi and Hummel in the mid-1790s), Beethoven requires a student to develop concepts of sound and rhythm that are fundamental to the instrument. Rhythm, especially.

RH: Hans von Bulow once referred to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, or “the 48,” as the Old Testament of the piano repertoire and the Beethoven Piano Sonatas, or “the 32,” as the New Testament. You’ve played both now. In what ways do you agree or disagree, and if the repertoire is now old enough for a third book, which pieces would fit in that next slot for you?

DK: That comment reminds me of some CU College of Music keyboard history: I’m told that Storm Bull, in his day, implemented a repertoire project for the DMA degree that offered the student the choice of learning the 48 or the 32. And then, the committee would tell the student a week ahead which of them to play (from memory, of course). Isn’t that an awfully limited view of the world? Everyone has their own strengths and interests, and not everyone needs to play the same repertoire. And, while music literacy and pianistic literacy might suggest a “canon,” it’s not clear to me that it’s really such a great idea to look at things that way. But how can I resist the temptation of adding to von Bülow’s list? The Chopin Etudes, Preludes, and Ballades…. The Debussy Preludes and Etudes…. The Ligeti Etudes… All of Brahms’s solo works… And much, much, more. Probably better not to start down that path at all!

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