Sarah Walker is well known as the presenter of BBC Radio 3’s Sunday Morning. She also hosts many of Radio 3’s Lunchtime Concerts from around the world and is a regular contributor to Record Review, In Tune and the BBC Proms – and we’re delighted that she’s a member of the BSO’s livestream presenter team! Her early career as a piano and keyboard teacher led her to create many volumes of original music for young players, published by Faber Music and ABRSM, and she completed a PhD on the subject of English Experimental music. Sarah spoke to us about her lifelong love for the music of Beethoven…
Beethoven’s music has always been close to my heart. One of my earliest musical memories is of learning Für Elise. It’s such a lovely early piece for a student to play-it’s not too complex or demanding musically, but feels ‘grown up’- and I absolutely loved it. In my teens, I became captivated by his string quartets and symphonies, and enjoyed playing the Egmont Overture as a flautist in the Barnsley Youth Orchestra. Beethoven’s storytelling, like his character, is often complex, and perhaps for this reason my first encounters with the piano sonatas weren’t so positive.
I remember learning two of the shorter sonatas, the Op.78 in F-sharp major and Op.54 in F major, as a student. Whilst short, they’re technically demanding and it took me a long while to understand the abrupt mood changes in them – I’d imagine a backstory to carve my way through the narrative. These days, as a ‘free range’ pianist, I love to follow my instincts, exploring the rest of the sonatas. I’ve enjoyed working on the Moonlight Sonata, the final movement goes like the wind!
As a piano teacher in the 1990s, I rarely taught Beethoven’s music. Most of the children I taught didn’t have access to traditional pianos, they were learning on electronic keyboards. I soon put my classical tutor books away and began writing specifically for the keyboard, not by adapting piano music or pop songs, but creating original material for electronic keyboard by embracing the effects available. In those early days, I remember meeting Dame Fanny Waterman, and discussing the challenges for piano teachers in modern schools: she gave me an ad-hoc piano lesson, quite spontaneously! I never forgot her generosity.
We’re lucky that there were many biographers during Beethoven’s day, capturing his life in so much detail. It would’ve been wonderful to meet him: he had a real knack for friendship and warmth even though he was tremendously volatile. If there was a key moment in his life that I could witness,it’d be when he took custody of his nephew, Karl. Sadly, the qualities that made Beethoven a great artist-idealism, perfectionism- didn’t translate into being a good parent figure: it’s a shame that no one was able to intervene at that moment and warn him that the pressure he put on Karl could lead to tragedy.
I feel so lucky to have witnessed some of the greatest living exponents of Beethoven’s piano music through my work. Hearing Artur Pizarro perform the full cycle of sonatas at St John’s Smith Square, in the early 2000s, is one of my great highlights- I really admire his playing, he’s such an intelligent musician with lots to say. Witnessing rehearsals, hearing the corners that great pianists practise over and over again is always fascinating. Paul Lewis and Angela Hewitt are two other pianists whose interpretations of Beethoven I admire: Paul’s playing is so direct and and exciting, and Angela taps in to the romanticism and the humour. Beethoven’s humour is often lost when we’re learning, focussed on the technical aspects of his writing.
Hearing Sunwook Kim recently play-direct Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with the BSO- and make his European conducting debut with the Seventh Symphony-was pure joy. We may be 251 years on from Beethoven’s death, but this music remains fresh and full of life!
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