REVIEW | Sunday 18 August 2013 | The Australian

Three men and a piano tackle Beethoven's piano sonatas

Review by STEPHEN DOWNES - Published on The Australian - Sunday 18 August 2013
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The Beethoven Obsession THe Australian ReviewAMONG the many works in which Beethoven displayed his genius were several piano trios. Now Brendan Ward has written another kind of trio: an excellent literary one on a ground bass of the little master's 32 piano sonatas.

The Beethoven Obsession tells the true story of three men and a quirky project. The trio is Ward, a former television cameraman for the Nine Network; an eccentric Tasmanian inventor named Wayne Stuart, who aimed to revolutionise the grand piano; and an unknown Sydney keyboard academic with an unbeatable moniker - at least for a concert pianist - of Gerard Willems. Somewhat loose-knit at first, they join forces to record all the Beethoven sonatas on a handmade Australian piano, an unimaginable task.

Willems will summit this Himalayan peak of keyboard music using Stuart's piano, and Ward will produce and market the result. It will be a first for Australia and the new piano will haul the world's favourite musical instrument into the 21st century.

Against formidable odds, they scratch their itch, and the recordings - made between 1997 and 2000 - become bestsellers and win awards. But this is an Australian story, so hang about for a predictably bathetic denouement.

These days, classical music fans know of Willems, the Sydney Conservatorium piano lecturer who migrated to the other side of the world from The Netherlands at 12. The Beethoven recordings made his name. Less well-known is Stuart, who was obsessed from an early age with improving the mechanics of pianos - what he called their "gizzards".

And the least-known is Ward, who grew up in Queensland's peanut country and drove the project from first to last. What a team.

Apart from having early lives in families that loved music - especially Beethoven's sonatas - the men were very different. Nothing had really prepared them for the challenge, and Willems, in fact, spent several years with his parents and siblings in a Nissen hut for migrants in Scheyville, northwest of Sydney. Stuart grew up with five siblings on a dairy farm in northern Tasmania, and Ward's apprenticeship for a career as a record producer took place in 1950s Kingaroy, "four bone-rattling hours", as he puts it, from Brisbane.

As his career behind the lens tailed off, Ward decided to resume the piano lessons that had lapsed decades earlier after he was sent to boarding school. His goal was to pass the Australian Music Examination Board's diploma. In a bid to persuade the board to bend the rules in his favour, he sought out its "keyboard adviser" - Willems.

Hand-in-hand with his mania to pass a piano exam was a throbbing bassline: why hasn't an Australian recorded the cycle of Beethoven's sonatas?

Ward eventually meets Willems, believes him perfect for the Beethoven project and, after constant pestering, gets the academic, who has played piano recitals sporadically throughout his life, to come on board.

But only, he tells Ward, if they use a Stuart piano, the prototype of which had just been launched. The circle joined, the trio set to.

By any standards, the resulting CDs are a significant achievement. Whether you like or dislike Willems's interpretations or the timbre of the Stuart piano, they are a testament to Ward's persistence and his marketing and networking skills.

But I would have liked to have known more about the ledger. The project's receipts and costs must have been fascinating. We're told about sponsors and philanthropists, but few figures are revealed. More than $1 million, for instance, went into ensuring Stuart had the best piano factory in the southern hemisphere.

But what was the project's budget overall? How much did the Australian "32" cost? Did anyone make any money out of the venture? All unanswered.

And the tail of the tale? Stuart built 54 pianos, but because of a lack of international and local interest, and Steinway's muscle, his workshop is these days "officially balled".

I enjoyed The Beethoven Obsession immensely, and the detail about the circumstances in which Beethoven composed his sonatas and the romances that influenced them were a bonus.

The Beethoven Obsession 
By Brendan Ward 
Newsouth, 269pp, $29.99 - Order Printed Book or Order eBook on Itunes

Stephen Downes's most recent book is A Lasting Record, a biography of American pianist William Kapell.


REVIEW | Thursday 29 August 2013 | BOOKTOPIA

THE BEETHOVEN OBSESSION - Caroline Baum's Review

Review by CAROLINE BAUM - Published on BOOKTOPIA Website - Thursday 29 August 2013
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Brendan Ward never does things by halves. I know this, because we were briefly colleagues and I've witnessed his uncompromising intensity and dedication first hand. Still, he does not expect more of others than he does of himself. I never knew that Beethoven mattered to him to such a degree, thanks to his mother's passion, which she passed on to her only son from the earliest age, when he learned the piano in a modest Queensland home. 

Now Ward tells the surprising story of where this obsession has led him: into a seemingly crazy project to record all of Beethoven's piano sonatas with an Australian pianist on a unique Australian made piano. It's a terrific yarn about so much more than music: it's about friendship, audacity, vision and innovation. It's about why some dreams fail but are worth dreaming anyway. It's about how the spirit of the Olympics lit more than one torch, allowing us for a moment to think bigger, better, bolder, before spluttering out, extinguished by cold realities.

With characteristic commitment and willingness to embrace the newest methods, Ward has also produced a richly curated e-book version which includes one hundred music files and images, making it a great gift for anyone who loves classical music and technology. 


REVIEW | Monday 29 July 2013

The Beethoven Obsession by Brendan Ward

Review by Alan Vaarwerk - Published on Monday 29 July 2013
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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 a freelance reviewer.