Chamberfest: Hinrich Alpers rolls over Beethoven’s sonatas in two concerts

Hinrich Alpers. Photo: Hannes Caspar

The pianist Hinrich Alpers is a prize winning German musician with a long connection to Chamberfest in Ottawa and to Canada. He is a laureate of the Honens Prize. In the past he has tackled some big subjects such as the music of the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. But in this year’s festival he’s on a Beethoven marathon. He’ll play 15 sonatas over two concerts. He’ll tackle the rest over the next two festivals. ARTSFILE wanted to know more.

Q. Tell me about your introduction to Beethoven.

A. I was seven years old when my parents gave me a music cassette for Christmas — it was about the life and works of Beethove, and I was fascinated by the stories that were told, and of course the music. I still have the cassette, and now my children are listening to it.

Q. Beethoven is a genius, but there are many musical geniuses. What distinguishes him in your mind?

Beethoven was one of the first creative forces who didn’t mainly write music “for immediate use” — he always composed with the future in mind and was not easily rushed to finish a piece. Fully aware that he had something to say that not many others would be able to say, he kept working and struggling even when he lost his sense of hearing — his most important sense. For us today, going on with his work seems to have required an almost superhuman effort where others may not even have seen the point — and that is what makes him, in my opinion, a giant among giants.

Q. He wrote some 720 pieces of music in his lifetime of every kind of classical music. That is a tremendous output. As a musician and as a pianist what does his work signify?

A. Beethoven’s music is complex, rich, beautiful, satisfying enough to accompany a musician for a lifetime. I don’t believe that there is one single musical key element that says: “It’s Beethoven” — but I have a feeling that he allowed his complex personality (which we know about from many testimonies of friends and contemporaries) to be interwoven with his music, producing a certain tone of “humanity,” with all its ups and downs. And I might even say that that’s what may have fascinated me about his music from very early on.

Q. His ambition even resulted in changes to the piano so his music could be played the way he wanted. What do you think of that kind of ambition? What exactly did he do.?

A. One aspect is actually quite simple: he was so hard of hearing that he asked piano makers to make louder pianos. But he also felt that he needed higher and lower registers on the keyboard than Haydn and Mozart had been content with (an aspect which Liszt helped to carry even a few black and white keys further after Beethoven’s death). Without any doubt the modern concert grand (perfected in the late 19th century and essentially unchanged since then) would not exist without Beethoven. For sure he was hard on his piano makers and always difficult to please — but we shall all thank him for that!

Q. Talk about the piano sonatas. Of course these are some of the most famous pieces for piano ever. You’ve chosen to play them Why?

A. Every pianist plays Beethoven Sonatas from a young age. I have simply decided to take on a tradition which has always been carried on by a few pianists — to play them all, and that’s what I’ve been doing in cyclical performances for several years now.

Q. He wrote these throughout his life. Do they connect one to the other?

A. One of the most astonishing discoveries when playing all 32 sonatas is the fact that really no two are alike — not even remotely. The keyword in your question is “life”, because for me the Sonatas are a time journey through Beethoven’s life, which I’d like audiences to join me in.

Q. Do you have a favourite?

A. It may surprise you, but I never have “that one favourite.” In fact, I feel rather lucky that whenever I am playing a piece of music, be it by Beethoven or by someone else, that particular piece becomes my favourite piece right then.

Q. The Moonlight Sonata is more than the first movement. What do you think of this work?

A. Franz Liszt had a beautiful way of describing the three movements of the so-called “Moonlight” Sonata: “a flower between two abysses”. Isn’t that perfect! Of course I could go into more detail — the rather rare and exotic key that it stands in (c sharp minor), the way the entire piece appears to speed up through its movements (Adagio, Allegretto, Prestissimo) and so on. But then you’ve said it all yourself: it is more than the first movement.

Q. How long has it taken you to prepare these 15. Have all of them been in your fingers for a long time?

A. In fact, I play all 32 (the cycle will continue over the next two years), but naturally that hasn’t always been the case. When I played my first full cycle, there were a few sonatas which I polished up specifically for that purpose. But ever since then, I’ve played them over and over again.

Q. What is the toughest?

A. In a way every pianist who has played them all would give you a different answer to that question because, for example, learning Waldstein Sonata at age 16 may be a tougher challenge than at age 26, and some of that struggle always rubs off on the interpretation and how the piece continues to grow in you. But in another way we’d also all give you the same answer: “Hammerklavier”, op. 106. It is, in so many regards, the peak of what Beethoven had produced (he said so himself) that it is one of the toughest mountains to climb for any of us.

Q. Is this program just for Chamberfest or are you doing more with it?

A. I always play the cycle in chronological order, because of the “time journey” aspect that I had mentioned earlier. But the exact way that this cycle is structured — four sections, two of which will be performed this year — is a first for me. Usually I play eight recitals, but the upcoming Beethoven anniversary in 2020 called for a more intense experience.

Chamberfest presents Essential Beethoven
With Hinrich Alpers
Where: Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
When: July 30 at 1 p.m.
Tickets and information:
When: Aug. 1 at 1 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.