The 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth and the centenary of Shostakovich’s birth shape much of this season’s concert scene. However, pianist John O’Conor devotes a two-performance marathon to Beethoven’s monumental last six piano sonatas on Thursday, April 6, and Friday, April 7, at Princeton’s Richardson Auditorium. He plays the six last sonatas on successive evenings for the first time when he appears in Princeton. On Wednesday, April 5, at 4 p.m., Scott Burnham, chair of the Princeton University music department and author of “Beethoven Hero,” gives a lecture on the works O’Conor performs.
O’Conor attracted attention in the United States in 1986 with the release of the first volume of the complete Beethoven Sonata cycle on the Telarc label. His repertoire also includes Mozart, Shostakovich, Schubert and Dvorak.
In addition to his advocacy of Beethoven, O’Conor is known as a champion of his Irish compatriot, John Field, the inventor of the nocturne. Still, there will be no Irish music this time around in Princeton, not even an encore, O’Conor says in a telephone interview from Dublin. “They’d have to invite me back for Irish music. Late Beethoven stands by itself.”
When I ask O’Conor why he has selected Beethoven, he passes the buck. “Nate Randall wanted it,” he says, referring to Princeton University’s concert manager. After I point out that he could have argued, O’Conor makes it clear that he never intended to discuss the matter.
That is because Beethoven is a continent. The observation about Beethoven’s magnitude comes from Osvaldo Golijov, the Argentinian-American composer, who was in residence at Rutgers University within the last fortnight. (US 1, March 15, 2006.) “I have a geographical view of classical music,” Golijov says. “I think of Beethoven as a continent. Many other composers are like isolated islands. It’s pleasant to visit, but you want to come back.”
“I would agree with Golijov,” says O’Conor after he chuckles. “There’s so much to explore. I always come back to Beethoven. I have to come back. I just did another Beethoven cycle in Dublin. Every time you approach the cycle, it’s like a new time. That’s why it will never lose its fascination. You constantly see new possibilities. There’s always wonder and excitement.”
O’Conor draws back from outlining any recent insights into the Beethoven canon. “I have no overall concepts,” he says. “Particular phrases have a new meaning. Sometimes I add extra urgency. It’s easy to generalize, but the generalizations are facile. It’s difficult to generalize in a meaningful way.”
“What makes the last six sonatas special?” I ask. “Beethoven never wrote another piano sonata after No. 32,” O’Conor says. “The only things he wrote for piano were the Bagatelles and the Diabelli Variations. He went into string quartets. Quite likely, he was becoming increasingly frustrated with his hearing, and imagining the four lines in a string quartet was more reachable than hearing piano music in his head.”
O’Conor considers the two-movement last sonata, Op. 111, as an almost inevitable concluding point. “There’s the simplicity of the theme in the second movement, then a lot of complexity, and finally, a return to the simplicity again. It finishes with a simple C major chord. I wonder if he knew he wouldn’t write any more sonatas. Where would you go next? It’s a sublime moment. How do you top that?”
If one thinks of Beethoven as a continent, it is inviting to imagine the last six sonatas as a craggy mountain range dotted with flower-covered meadows and shaded by snow-covered peaks, a vast region where the formidable abuts the delicate, and shifting light evokes every manner of emotion.
O’Conor talks about living in this musical territory as provoking both awe and stamina. “The slow movement of the ‘Hammerklavier’ [Op. 106] is one of the longest slow movements for piano. It takes 20 minutes, but I feel it’s a privilege to play it. The movement is a pinnacle of writing. The fact that you have to tackle the fugue afterward is a problem.” The slow movement occupies more than 11 pages in my Henle edition of Beethoven sonatas; the fugue runs to more than 15 pages. O’Conor quotes his mentor, the Beethoven master, Wilhelm Kempff: “With this work you’re going to wage war for rest of your life.”
Born in Dublin in 1947, O’Conor was the youngest of four children, two boys and two girls, in a working class family. His father hoped that he would become a banker. His mother saw pursuing a musical career as a sign of lack of ambition. Despite their skepticism, his parents agreed to let him study music and he earned a university degree is in musicology.
O’Conor’s curiosity about the piano surfaced when he was three. His piano lessons started at age six. Although music was a major part of his life, he boxed and played rugby as a teenager. “I wanted to be as macho as the rest,” he told NPR’s “Performance Today.” After a rugby knee injury at age 17 he withdrew from sports.
The independent musical tradition in the Ireland where O’Conor grew up was thin. Handel’s “Messiah” debuted in Dublin in 1742, which was then the second city of the British Empire. But, generally, high culture in Ireland declined as Protestant England oppressed Catholic Ireland in the 19th century.
In 1800 the Irish Parliament was abolished, and Protestant-Catholic tensions defined Irish civic life. Until Ireland gained its freedom from Britain in 1921, O’Conor explains, “the written and spoken word were very Irish. It was a matter of keeping up opposition to the British throne. The Irish voiced their objections in ballads and stories. There was no education for the Irish [Catholics], so how would they learn to appreciate classical music?”
O’Conor credits Protestants with keeping classical music going after Irish independence. “Since 1921 classical music was considered foreign, and, therefore, bad. But a large Protestant minority was very involved in the arts, and kept the arts going.”
The awakening in the arts preceded Ireland’s economic miracle of the 1990s. “When I was a kid in Dublin, there were few classical concerts. I became actively involved in music in the early ’60s. At that stage there were free concerts of the Irish National Symphony Orchestra on Tuesday and Friday nights. And there was the odd recital. As students we made our own music, playing chamber music or listening to recordings. We had what we called ‘gramophone societies.’ Now there are three concerts a night in Dublin.”
O’Conor studied piano performance in Salzburg with Carlo Zecchi and in Vienna with Dieter Weber. In 1973 he won first prize in Vienna’s International Beethoven Competition. During the competition, for the first time, he heard Wilhelm Kempff perform the Beethoven piano sonata cycle. Studies with Kempff followed.
O’Conor worked with Kempff on Beethoven sonatas and on his Diabelli Variations in Positano, Italy, where, beginning in 1957, Kempff gave an annual Beethoven Interpretation course at his villa. “It wasn’t so much that he taught but that we discussed the possibilities,” O’Conor told Allan Evans of Fanfare Magazine. Since 1997 O’Conor has led the Beethoven studies in Positano.
Participation in the workshop is limited to eight professional pianists. “I don’t like casual droppers-in.” says O’Conor. “A great bond develops. It wouldn’t be possible if there was an audience of 100.”
Like Kempff, O’Conor performs the Beethoven cycle chronologically rather than programming the sonatas in what he calls “a potpourri.” He prefers to “grow with Beethoven throughout his life.” The piano sonatas give a better consideration of Beethoven’s development than any other set of compositions, notes O’Conor, pointing out that the first piano sonata is Opus 2, whereas the first symphony is Opus 21, and the first string quartet is Opus 18.”
The five Piano Concertos occupied a comparatively limited swathe of Beethoven’s creative life, beginning with Op. 15, and ending with Op. 73. O’Conor’s next project for Telarc, whose catalog includes more than 20 O’Conor items, is recording the Piano Concertos with the London Symphony Orchestra, Andreas Delfs conducting.
O’Conor married in the early 1970s. His wife, who had been his pupil, is a sex therapist. His elder son, Hugh, is a film actor, who appeared in “Chocolat.” O’Conor’s younger son, Keith, is at work on a Ph.D. thesis at Dublin University’s Trinity College. He is interested in programming for computer games.
The Far East has found its way onto O’Conor’s map. In 2004 he visited China for the first time. Now he goes to China regularly, as well as to Korea and Japan. “There are 40 million pianists in China,” he says. “It’s been an explosion of Chinese interest in classical music. The Chinese are spending a lot of money, inviting the best musicians to perform and to give master classes. They want to absorb classical music.”
The Chinese have found a veteran teacher in O’Conor, who is director of Dublin’s Royal Irish Academy of Music. In his director’s welcome on the RIAM website O’Conor calls both teaching and learning a gift. “Without learning,” he says during our conversation, “you stop understanding what’s going on around you. It’s a privilege to be able to learn, and to find a teacher you can learn with. A good teacher provides the opening of possibilities. I was incredibly lucky with my teachers, to learn music, literature, and art, and to learn to argue with them. The arguing was important. Having to back up your positions in an argument stimulates more learning.”
John O’Conor, Thursday and Friday, April 6 and 7, 8 p.m. Princeton University Concerts, Richardson Auditorium. Irish pianist in concert. 609-258-5000.