32 Beethoven piano sonatas in 55 minutes



Robert Casteels et al

Esplanade Concert Hall


About 30 years ago, a duo called the Cambridge Buskers concocted a work for recorder and accordion which compressed all nine symphonies of Beethoven into a matter of a few minutes and performed it at the 1988 Singapore Arts Festival to a bemused audience.

Belgium-born Singaporean composer Robert Casteels has done something similar in his Grosse Sonate (Great Sonata) for piano solo, which incorporates themes from every movement of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas.

A work in four movements lasting some 55 minutes, its world premiere was performed by three young Singaporean pianists at this recital, a supplement to the Piano Concerto Festival organised by The Performing Arts Company.

Casteels did not add a single note of his own, nor did he need to transpose any passages.

Robert Casteels skilfully stitched together “bleeding chunks” of themes from every movement of  Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas which cohered surprisingly well

Instead, he skilfully stitched together "bleeding chunks" which cohered surprisingly well as it worked its way from Beethoven's Op. 2 No. 1 to Op. 111, a musical journey spanning some 27 years.

Purists will balk at this "Frankenstein's monster", but listening to it was an illuminating experience.

Familiar measures sat comfortably with some which made one wonder, "Was this really Beethoven?".

More importantly, it displayed Beethoven's wealth of expression and inexhaustible creativity.

Leslie Theseira was tasked with the two most difficult movements, the 1st and 4th, which corresponded with the opening movements and finales.

Although one would scarcely imagine him to have played all 32 before, his solid technique suggests that some day he will.

Muhammad Nazzerry played the 2nd movement, interpretively the most demanding because it coalesces all the slow movements.

He got through the notes, but the draggy pacing suggests that some editing might have helped the course.

Most witty was the Scherzo and Trio 3rd movement, the shortest but one with the most surprises.

Choon Hong Xiang sounded under-rehearsed here and could have done with some coaching as to where to better place his accents.

The second half opened with a two-piano arrangement of Saint-Saens' Danse Macabre, which saw Nazzerry and Choon giving an exciting, rough and ready account.

Casteels' Tintinabulum for two pianos was premiered by Choon and Theseira.

Its six short movements of bell-like variations were all based on a theme formed by the notes C-E-C-B, taken from the initials of the Credit Industriel et Commerciel Bank, which commissioned the work.

Casteels himself joined Nazzerry and Ng Chian Tat in Rachmaninov's Waltz And Romance for six hands.

Originally written for three young sisters on one keyboard, the three grown men were spared from falling off the piano stool by spreading themselves out on two pianos.

They oozed salon charm, and did anyone notice Casteels playing a theme in the Romance that would later become part of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto?

The final work, Casteels' Rakhmania for two pianos, was a tribute to the great Russian himself. It was an expansion and elaboration of Rachmaninov's Prelude In B flat Major (Op. 23 No. 2), playing on the canon-like quality of its main theme.

Ng and Nazzerry did the honours in this thundering number, which was both a deconstruction as well as a conflation.

Bell sounds filled the air, bringing this most unusual piano recital to a satisfying close.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2015, with the headline '32 Beethoven piano sonatas in 55 minutes'. Print Edition | Subscribe