The Beethoven Obsession by Brendan Ward
In the world of classical music, the 32 piano sonatas from the great composer Ludwig van Beethoven are considered the pinnacle of the art form, collectively recognised as ‘the greatest piano music ever written’. In the late 1990s, only a handful of elite pianists had made recordings of the full set – but never had it been done by an Australian pianist, nor on an Australian-built piano. The Beethoven Obsession recounts the serendipitous series of events that led former TV cameraman, and Beethoven enthusiast, Brendan Ward to propose this marathon task to Dutch-Australian pianist Gerard Willems and Tasmanian piano-maker Wayne Stuart. Stuart’s controversial new piano, handmade from Huon Pine, sought to revolutionise piano engineering in the face of an industry rusted on to the Steinway standard.
Among the trials and tribulations of planning, funding, recording and releasing the most ambitious project ever realised in Australian classical music, Ward skilfully weaves together history and storytelling. From the biographies of each protagonist to the development of the Australian classical music scene and the politics of piano manufacturing, the Beethoven recordings are skilfully situated within a broader cultural context. As producer, pianist and piano-maker each grapple with the technical and cultural weight of Beethoven’s masterpieces, we gain valuable insights into the moods, inspirations and tortured life of the German composer.
Ward’s description of the music itself is also impressive, conveying the richness, beauty and fiendish difficulty of the sonatas clearly and evocatively – it’s a credit to Ward’s writing that familiarity with Beethoven and his sonatas isn’t necessary to enjoy the book. The Beethoven Obsession is a compelling and rewarding read for lovers of music, history and great Australian success stories alike.
Alan Vaarwerk is the editorial assistant for Readings Monthly.