Her 4-year plan: to play Beethoven sonatas

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Her 4-year plan: to play Beethoven sonatas

One of the greatest challenges for a pianist is tackling Beethoven's piano sonatas. The world's most renowned pianists, such as Artur Schnabel, Wilhelm Kempff, Alfred Brendel, Daniel Barenboim and Vladimir Ashkenazy, have had to perform and record all 32 sonatas to be considered masters.

The pianist Choi Hee-yeon, a 34-year-old professor of music at Seoul National University, will be making her attempt at this most difficult of repertoires, embarking on performing all the Beethoven piano sonatas. Beginning April 4 and lasting until 2005, Ms. Choi will complete the sonatas over a total of eight performances. This will be the first time a Korean has attempted to perform the entire cycle since Lee Kyung-sook, a professor at Yonsei University, did so in 1988.

"After entering my 30s, I felt a profound change," said Choi. "I had spent 13 years studying abroad, then came back to Korea to teach. In my 20s, I enjoyed playing pieces by Debussy, Ravel and Liszt, which have brilliant techniques. But these days, works by Schubert and Beethoven move my heart. Even in solo recitals, unity and color prevail more than diversity in the repertoire."

Choi became the youngest professor in Seoul National University's College of Music by a unanimous vote of its 14-member screening committee in 1999. Her style has been described as being calm and poised, with skillful performing finesse unmatched by her contemporaries. In 2000, accompanied by the Bucheon city orchestra, she played Clara Schuman's seldom-performed Piano Concerto at the LG Arts Center. Her penchant for attempting the novel has become her hallmark among younger pianists.

Choi will be undertaking a national tour as part of her performance of the complete sonatas of Beethoven. At first, she contemplated playing only Beethoven in her shows, but for the sake of variety she decided to add Debussy and Ravel.

"I thought of doing this project over a short span, like how Alfred Brendel completed the sonatas in seven months in 1982 and '83 at Carnegie Hall in New York City. But I believe both the audience and the performer need time to get accustomed, therefore I have decided upon four years to complete the sonatas. What use will it be if I finish them in record time?"

Brendel said that in order to play Beethoven's sonatas the pianist must become a character actor to express the musical world of Beethoven. In other words, even though a piece may appear hard and logical, the pianist needs to transform it into something moving.

"This is my first time doing the complete works," Choi said, "especially Beethoven's Sonata No. 1 is new to me, and I will have to work hard on it. It contains the true and deep world of the composer. I can sense the hope of life, an uncompromising and strong energy just by staring at the score. It is like a spectacular epic drama, with passion and affliction interwoven to produce the most intricate and sophisticated harmony. It is quite dynamic."

When asked about her thoughts on taking upon this great endeavor, she replied, "It feels like the torch at the temple of Beethoven has been lit and I am a marathoner who is carrying on the first light of the fire."

She added, "I want to burn with the vitality of Beethoven's musical fire for the four years of this tour."

Single, Choi enjoys climbing Mount Gwanak whenevers she has time. She also enjoys reading, watching movies and going for walks while contemplating her next performance.

Choi will be performing with the Seoul Baroque Ensemble, playing Shostakovitsch's Piano Concerto No. 1 in November.

by Lee Jang-jik

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