The myth of Beethoven is something with which most of us are familiar. The rough, unapproachable and outspoken character lodges itself in the mind easily. And as with all such cliches, this one probably contains some truth alongside a fair bit of exaggeration. But what is highly suspect is the idea that this tells us anything about his music.
Spending time with Beethoven's music offers a broader and more honest view of him. No composer was more able to convey his innermost feelings with more lucidity and expressive clarity than he was. It is this directness, the ability to translate his message into an immediately comprehensible musical language, that continues to amaze, inspire and shock us 200 years on.
The piano sonatas, the 32 masterpieces that make up Beethoven's most comprehensive single body of work, represent the most far-reaching overview of the development of his musical style. Perhaps the string quartets offer more intensely personal glimpses of his character, especially in later years, but his piano sonatas remain the most candid autobiography of the ever uncompromising pianist-composer.
Although some consider the three sonatas Beethoven wrote as a 12-year-old to be part of the cycle, the first true masterpieces are the three works that comprise his Op 2. Here, in the faster movements, we can sense Beethoven in his element as a virtuoso pianist. Edwin Fischer described these sonatas as Beethoven's "sheer delight in the resources of the piano", yet the virtuosic effects are not achieved at the expense of the musical intention. Perhaps more remarkable, though, is what Beethoven achieves in the slow movements. If the outer movements explore every aspect of what we know the piano can do, then these early slow movements explore what we hadn't even realised the instrument was capable of. The way Beethoven writes, the colours he demands, the textures he explores, all require the pianist to achieve the seemingly impossible: to transform the sound of the piano.
Once you imagine the slow movement of Op 2, No 2 played by a string quartet, with its pizzicato cello and sustained inner lines, it becomes impossible to hear it again in purely pianistic terms. This, for me, is the genius of Beethoven's piano writing - his ability to inspire the pianist to take the sound of the piano to another level altogether. It's a huge challenge for those who take on the task.
I've spent the past few years working almost exclusively on these sonatas, and am still amazed at how unpianistically Beethoven can write for the instrument he played himself. Beethoven rarely, if ever, cares about how it all feels under the pianist's fingers. There are even times when the character of the music almost seems to be contradicted by the feeling of playing the notes. The serene, radiant nature of the first movement of Op 78 hides some fiendishly uncomfortable piano writing, while some of the left-hand semiquaver passages in the second movement of the "Leichte" sonata Op 49, No 1 are far from easy. I always felt three hands would be useful to play the second theme in the first movement of the "Pathetique".
There are, however, other times where it's important for the listener to sense the physical strain of the performer. The feeling of struggling to play the fugue of Op 101 is essential to its character. One of the instructions Beethoven gives here is "mit Entschlossenheit" - with determination. Anyone who has played the piece knows just how much of that is required.
Beethoven's music doesn't tell us about a long-forgotten way of life, nor does it describe how it feels to live under a repressive political system. The music doesn't require us to have first-hand knowledge of such things - its message is fundamentally human. Whoever we are, in whatever age we live, there is something we can all relate to in this music. Beethoven often puts us in touch with something we know about ourselves that we might otherwise struggle to find words to describe. In the "Hammerklavier", the greatest of all the sonatas, the slow movement conveys enormous suffering and sadness with an honesty that is disarmingly direct. The glimmer of hope that Beethoven occasionally allows us only serves to make the extent of the despair even more painful.
Much is made of the physical force of Beethoven's music. While it is true that there is often a strong physicality about it, it would be wrong to assume that his extremes are predominantly physically violent. For each time he roars, he also whispers. Every marking he writes needs to be understood in its context. A sforzando shouldn't always hit you between the eyes, a fortissimo shouldn't always punch below the belt. The force of Beethoven's personality in his determination to be understood shouldn't necessarily be interpreted as aggression. Even in a work as mind-bogglingly extreme as the Hammerklavier, the balance within the music still has to be evident. The idea that the fugue, as finger-crunching and brain-twisting as it is, should merely sound bewildering doesn't do the piece any justice. The effect should be overwhelming, but only within the context of a movement of huge expression, power and logic.
Beethoven never wants us to be in any doubt about what he is saying. Even when he asks the pianist to create an illusion, to make a sound with a specific aura around it, as in certain passages from the "Waldstein", or the ethereal halo that surrounds some of the writing in the arietta of Op 111, the intention behind the sound, and the message it conveys, remains clear.
So what's in store for the pianist who attempts to tackle the 32? A certain amount of anxiety, for a start. The one thing that made it possible for me to embark on this impossible journey was to realise that there is actually no end to it. No matter what you do, how far you go or how long you spend with these works, the music will always be bigger than you. As fast as you think you are unearthing its riches, you discover still more layers, and the closer you imagine you get to the summit, that summit suddenly disappears from view. There is no arriving with this music, which is, of course, what makes it endlessly fascinating for listeners and performers alike. As long as you accept this, then whatever your connection with these works, their infinite scope will never fail to reward, overwhelm and inspire.
· Paul Lewis's complete recordings of Beethoven's piano sonatas are out now on Harmonia Mundi