Boris Giltburg: setting out to record – and film – all 32 of Beethoven's piano sonatas


Boris Giltburg has set himself the challenge of undertaking filmed performances of all 32 of Beethoven's piano sonatas this year. Here he introduces the project and gets things underway with the First Sonata

Beethoven 32 started as a personal exploration, driven by curiosity, a strong love of the (nine) Beethoven sonatas I had already played, and just as strong a wish to discover the (23!) sonatas I hadn’t yet played. And 2020, I thought, was as good a pretext as it gets.

But once I joined forces with Stewart French, the filmmaker behind Fly On The Wall, to film all 32, the project acquired extra layers: it became an ongoing observation of the birth and growth of interpretations, and also a discourse on the nature of recordings.

Those two are intertwined. The very fact of filming meant that the project was outward-facing; people would see this, this wasn’t something I was doing for myself. And combined with the strong artistic quality of Stewart’s films, I felt I had to do everything I could to present each sonata in a way that would do the music justice, despite the very short learning and preparation time.


This is where the nature of the Fly On The Wall format comes in. They are unique in combining elements from a live performance with those of a studio recording. The live element comes from every movement being a single, uncut take. The studio element comes from the ability to film many of those takes, to listen to each one immediately afterwards in studio-quality sound, and adjust your playing based on what you’ve just heard. Thus the filming itself becomes the last, accelerated, stage of preparation, as things crystallize, literally before your eyes and ears.  

The core of it all is, of course, Beethoven’s music itself. One thing I could not foresee is how deeply I was going to fall in love with the music. The first seven sonatas which we filmed over the last few weeks were completely new to me, and I can hardly recall being so happy working on new repertoire. All seven radiate life, alertness, musical purpose – and are tremendously infectious and energising. It has indeed been the endlessly fascinating journey of discovery I was hoping for. The inventive richness of those early sonatas; Beethoven’s quest for depth, poetry and beauty, right from Op. 2 No. 1; his humour, his explosiveness, the searing power of his emotions, the sheer visceral physicality of the way he handles the piano – I feel I’ve had the incredible privilege of making closer acquaintance with a composer I thought I had known all my life, but who turned out to be so much more than my image of him. Every sonata seems to add several extra facets to that image; this makes opening each new score that much more exciting.

The nature of this project is that things move on at a breakneck pace, but together with the undoubted excitement and wonder of the coming months (and some trepidation as regards that Everest, the Hammerklavier…), I am also looking forward to the time after the project, when I’m able to come back and stay for longer in the unique musical world created by each sonata.

Follow Boris Giltburg's Beethoven 32 project at beethoven32.com

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