A transforming journey: Alexander Kobrin’s exploration of Beethoven’s piano sonatas

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The program notes for pianist Alexander Kobrin’s year-long Beethoven sonata series are headed by a quotation from a predecessor, revered pianist Edwin Fischer.  “A careful study of these works will transform us. For Beethoven will become our teacher and lead us to develop our own personalities and characters.”

Kobrin has come to the same conclusion about his series, which has stretched across an entire Eastman School of Music academic year and comes to an end Wednesday evening.

Kobrin, a Van Cliburn Competition winner, has served on the Eastman faculty since 2017 and was recently named the school’s Wentworth Professor of Piano. He has performed as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic and BBC Symphony orchestras, among many others, and has recorded piano music of Rachmaninoff, Chopin, and Schubert. This recital and recording project, however, is his first extended foray into Beethoven’s sonatas.

Alexander Kobrin (Photo courtesy of Alexander Kobrin)

The idea came to Kobrin during the COVID-19 pandemic: “I had nothing going on, and I wanted to record them (for Centaur Records),” he says. “I decided to give a little concert after each recording session.” (The sessions took place in Washington, D.C., and the first eight sonatas are now available on Spotify.)

Kobrin wanted to try playing all 32 Beethoven sonatas chronologically and brought the idea to Mike Stefiuk and Julia Ng of Eastman’s Concert Office. To his surprise, they liked the idea and made time in the busy Eastman calendar for eight monthly recitals, each one scheduled for the first of the month and consisting of three or four sonatas. “No pressure at all,” the pianist says with a smile.

Although he performs frequently at Eastman, Kobrin expected a small audience for the first recital on Sept. 1, 2023. To his surprise, Hatch Recital Hall was full, and a loyal audience has returned for each recital. This week’s conclusion should provide an equally enthusiastic audience.

“It has been very inspirational to see this response,” says Kobrin.

Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas include such melodious, popular favorites as the “Moonlight” and “Pathétique,” as well as some sonatas that are extremely demanding for the performer and the listener. They range from early works resembling Haydn and Mozart, to the heroic and intensely emotional late sonatas. Overall, they are considered an intellectual mountain that every ambitious pianist must scale.

“They are sonatas we all play,” says Kobrin, “and I knew most of them, but there were a few I had never learned.” In learning all of them, he has found that “the music is a journey. You grow into it, and with it.”

The May 1 concert offers Beethoven’s final four sonatas, the peak of his achievement as a keyboard composer. The program begins with his longest and perhaps most arduous sonata, the 29th or so-called “Hammerklavier.

This German word simply means “piano,” and was a fairly new term at the time (1818) for an instrument in which the individual strings producing tones are struck with hammers instead of being plucked. Kobrin points out that the instrument itself underwent great changes during Beethoven’s lifetime, and the powerful, percussive new sound is definitely part of the “Hammerklavier” sonata.

Part of the pianist’s preparation for this series was finding a piano with the right sound to reflect the continuing changes in Beethoven’s music. Kobrin is playing a Shigeru Kawai piano, an instrument he finds ideal for the changing sounds of Beethoven’s music: “Its action helps me to achieve certain sonorities and colors.” The Eastman School provides the Shigeru Kawai piano for the series.

Beethoven’s last three sonatas were written between 1820 and 1822, when the composer, only in his early 50s, was in constant pain and almost completely deaf. As with other late Beethoven works like the Ninth Symphony, the composer created a unique musical world that was his alone.

To Kobrin, “these sonatas become a spiritual experience, as if Beethoven is saying ‘I don’t care’ about earthly matters. With the last three sonatas, we’re out in space amid stars and planets. The music just floats.”

Pianist Alexander Kobrin will play Beethoven’s Sonatas Nos. 29 through 32 on Wednesday, May 1, at 6:30 p.m. in Hatch Recital Hall, Eastman School of Music. Admission is $10, free for UR ID holders. For more information about this recital, go here. To read program notes on the music, go here.

David Raymond is a Rochester-area freelance writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

One thought on “A transforming journey: Alexander Kobrin’s exploration of Beethoven’s piano sonatas

  1. I have had the greatest pleasure attending four of Mr. Kobrin’s Beethoven performances. Each recital has been revelatory. Sadly I missed the final recital because I was out of town for work.

    Thank you Mr. Kobein for sharing your artistry. Rochester is extremely lucky that you have brought your prodigious talents to our community!

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