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‘Beethoven Project’ comes on too strong

by Joan Reinthaler

Four years and 32 sonatas into her “Beethoven Project,” Yuliya Gorenman completed her marathon through all the piano sonatas with resounding performances of his final three, Opuses 109, 110 and 111, at American University’s Katzen Arts Center on Saturday.

This is as much a feat of the intellect and of endurance as it is of pianism, and Gorenman, a member of the AU faculty, has these in spades. Billed as “a fearless pianist,” she sailed through these adventures in Beethoven’s imagination, braving his raging outbursts with huge sonorities, his astonishing counterpoint with a virtuosity that barely broke a sweat and with trills that were crystalline in their clarity.

But these are deeply philosophical works, the labors of Beethoven’s last years, as full of expressions of reflection, peace and resignation as they are of determination and courage, and here the performance barely scratched the surface. It offered no true pianissimos or feelings of repose. Quieter passages sounded impatient rather than timeless so that many of Beethoven’s outbursts (moving from the first to the second movement of the Op. 109 sonata comes to mind) arose from activity rather than from peace. Note attacks in lyrical passages had an edge to them and (aside from the wonderfully thoughtful first statement of the Op. 110 fugue theme) there was a general heaviness to the whole evening.

Some of this may have been acoustic — the characteristics of the big Yamaha piano in a small lively hall (Beethoven wrote this for the much lighter and less resonant fortepiano) — but one of a performer’s challenges is to adapt to the surroundings and, in the end, this may be where Gorenman met her greatest test.

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