UW's Craig Sheppard tackles Beethoven's life work

They stand there like Mount Everest, those 32 piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven.

And concert pianists can't resist surmounting them all, not just because they're there — but because they distill Beethoven's compositional lifetime into a series of miraculously achieved works for the instrument he knew and loved best. There are the early sonatas, written when Beethoven was still thinking about Haydn and Mozart. There are the later sonatas, when Beethoven was thinking about heaven alone knows what (how else do you account for the "Hammerklavier" Sonata?).

For pianist Craig Sheppard, who launches his complete cycle of all 32 sonatas Tuesday (7:30 p.m., Meany Theater), the sonatas are extra valuable as teaching tools.

"I feel it's incumbent upon any serious teacher to have played them all. Secondly, I adore Beethoven. Thirdly, I feel that coming to grips with such a magnum opus is a mirror into a lifetime's development of a unique artistic genius and soul — and, in a way, mirrors our own individual developments. I see life as a transformative process, and there is nobody who personifies this journey better than Beethoven."

Sheppard — whose international career spans several continents and has produced such plaudits as "Sheer talent does not come much larger than Craig Sheppard's" ("Music and Musicians," London) — balances the demands of teaching on the University of Washington faculty with concert dates around the world.

It will take Sheppard seven concerts to traverse all 32 Beethoven sonatas; the next two dates will be March 17 and May 21, with the remaining four dates to follow in the 2003-04 season. Performing the concerts closer together would have been preferable, Sheppard feels, but he also has about two dozen piano students to teach, and the availability of Meany Theater is very restricted. Besides, there is a lot of precedent for stretching out a Beethoven cycle to span two seasons; the last time the noted pianist Alfred Brendel did all the sonatas, it took him 2-1/2 years to complete the process.

Sheppard is playing the 32 sonatas chronologically to mirror Beethoven's compositional development. The first program on Tuesday will have the three from Op. 2 (F Minor, A Major, C Major) and the Op. 7 in E Flat (206-543-4880).

Watch for him also playing Schumann with the Emerson String Quartet, arriving Jan. 15 at Meany.

More pianists coming

Right on Sheppard's heels comes the Thursday performance of Avery Fisher career-grant winner Max Levinson at Meany (8 p.m., 206-543-4880), as part of the President's Piano Series. Levinson, an American-born pianist who has performed with the Colorado, Oregon and Richardson symphonies, also will appear with the Tokyo String Quartet and Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival this season.

At Meany, Levinson will play Bach's Partita No. 4 in D Major, Bartók's Dance Suite and, after intermission, Schumann's ever-popular Davidsbündlertänze.

The noted French pianist Philippe Entremont arrives Thursday at the Benaroya Hall stage for the first time, leading and soloing in two Mainly Mozart Series programs that sound like don't-miss musical opportunities.

Famous for his exquisite touch and beautiful phrasing, Entremont plays the Piano Concertos Nos. 17 and 23 of Mozart, and he conducts the great, next-to-last Mozart Symphony, No. 40. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. next Friday (206-215-4747).

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com.