From June to September, the Italian seaside village of Positano is a mecca for seekers of dolce far niente . The Mediterranean bustles with the world’s showiest yachts; the shops throng with people whose bodies fit comfortably into the skimpiest beach wear. For me, however, the most alluring attraction is an event that involves struggle, not idleness. It happens every June in a cliffside villa set in a magnificent, terraced garden-a course for aspiring young concert pianists who come to the Amalfi coast from all over the world for two weeks to hone their skills in the piano literature of Beethoven. Their teacher is the eminent Irish pianist John O’Conor, and the hovering spirit is that of Mr. O’Conor’s teacher, the legendary German pianist Wilhelm Kempff, who first started teaching at the villa in 1957 and died there 13 years ago, at the age of 95. In Positano last month, as a privileged eavesdropper at several of the master classes, I learned more about what goes into a successful performance of Beethoven than I have in a lifetime of concert-going.
The steps leading up to Kempff’s villa, which bears the name Casa Orfeo, are many, winding and steep, and as I climbed them in the blazing morning light, I was reminded of an essay I had recently read about Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas by another celebrated German Beethoven interpreter of the last century, Edwin Fischer. “There is, with [Beethoven], no mere juxtaposition of beautiful musical ideas,” Fischer wrote, “nor a spinning-out of atmospheric moods. His works are built, as it were, stone by stone-each based on the one below and bearing the weight of the one above.”
The studio where the classes were being held was a high-ceilinged white building with French doors open to the sea. I silently took a seat near a Yamaha grand piano, which was positioned alongside another larger, older piano, a Steinway grand that had been a favorite of Kempff’s. (I was later told that it had taken 27 men to carry it up the steps.) A young Greek pianist, with an intense, sorrowing gaze, sat at the Yamaha. Mr. O’Conor, a round, well-tanned man with a pronounced twinkle in his eye, sat at the Steinway. A half-dozen other students-from Finland, Ireland, Spain, Russia and Korea-looked on, holding an album of the sonatas in their lap.
The sonata under scrutiny was one of the early ones in the cycle, in which Beethoven was still developing his own tersely eloquent voice in the shadow of his less argumentative teacher, Haydn. Mr. O’Conor’s method was to let the student play one movement in its entirety, then go back to the beginning and take the whole thing apart, stopping and starting, as he discussed how to make every detail count, not just for maximum effect at the moment but for its relationship to the whole. He talked about the need to give a different “color” to a phrase in order to signal the significance of a harmonic change, reminding the students that nothing Beethoven wrote was frivolous or merely rhetorical: “For him, the shift to F major was something extraordinary-it’s like the sudden black cloud appearing when you’re on a boat out on the Mediterranean.”
He was keen about the finely graded nuances of emotion in the sonatas: “Here, it’s more joyous than just beautiful.” He mentioned how mindful Beethoven was of his older masters, sometimes impishly: “In the Scherzo, he’s having a bit of fun with Bach. Get rid of the stereotype of Beethoven as a glowering figure. He was the most multidimensional of composers.” He enjoined the class always to take Beethoven at his word: “I want to hear every sforzando. If Beethoven went to the bloody trouble of writing all those sforzandos into the score, then you can go to the bloody trouble of playing every one of them!” He suggested that some of Beethoven’s dynamic markings might have a significance that was sharply personal: “The grazioso is expressive of his inability to have a proper love relationship.”
There was talk about various technical considerations (“think of the phrase in two beats instead of four”). There was the occasional admonition that the students were playing for an imaginary audience (“Don’t put your hands in your lap during a rest-people will think you’re finished”). There were corrections of obstructive physical mannerisms (“Don’t raise your shoulders during the most melodic passages-you don’t want to look like Frankenstein”). But the overriding message was that playing Beethoven well is not an academic exercise but a human one, and not just a musical challenge but a life challenge. Bringing out the richness in Beethoven, Mr. O’Conor said, requires an immense investment of oneself. “It needs to be much stronger-it needs to come from within you.” And: “I need to hear what you’re thinking and why-not just that you’re playing difficult notes.” When a trill came close to the sound of a power drill, Mr. O’Conor stopped the pianist and said, ” Enjoy it!”
Mr. O’Conor has recorded all the Beethoven sonatas superbly for the Telarc label (next fall and spring, he plays the entire cycle in Dublin), and he was able to demonstrate his points with panache on Kempff’s more sonorous keyboard. The object was not so much to show a master’s touch as to stimulate the students to become greater-more sensitive, more intelligent, more courageous-than perhaps they had thought possible. Judging from the classes I heard, as well as from a group recital that was held for prominent local patrons, virtually all the students had come to Positano formidably equipped. Two, in particular, struck me as having the stuff for a major career: Antti Siirala, a young man from Finland who had recently won first prize in the Dublin Piano Competition, of which Mr. O’Conor is the chairman, and Tatiana Kolessova, a 19-year-old Russian from Moscow. Both had the hallmarks of a potentially great concert artist: the fire, an open channel of communication and, above all, the ability to conjure up a complete complex world of the composer’s-and their own-making.
The depth of Mr. O’Conor’s knowledge, as well as his quick, affectionate wit; the marvelous setting; the eagerness of the students to wrestle with knotty Beethoven while their peers outside were tooling around in Vespas or lolling on the beach-all played a part in what was clearly a transformative experience. It ended, appropriately, with the dissection of Beethoven’s last sonata, No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111. Over and again, Mr. O’Conor had another young Finnish pianist, Mikko Merjanen, play the last variation of the second movement. It’s perhaps the most sublime stretch of music in the whole cycle, and it’s described by Kempff, in the album notes for his incomparably luminous traversal of the complete sonatas on Deutsche Grammophon, as “a guiding light to those of us still in the world below.” After the journey had reached its final resting place in C major and the pianist had lifted his hands off the keyboard for the last time, Mr. O’Conor clapped and exclaimed, “That’s it! That’s Mikko !” The rest of the class applauded their comrade and laughed in self-recognition.