Commentary Magazine


Beethoven & the Pianists

The good news on the classical-music front is that the 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas are still being played in concert and still being made available on CD recordings. In fact, interest in these cornerstones of the piano repertory has been renewed recently by the release on CD of two complete cycles, one old and one new. In 1991, the first complete cycle ever recorded—made for HMV in London between 1932 and 1935 by the Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel (1882-1951), a pupil of Theodor Leschetizky, who himself had studied with Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny—was reissued on eight CD’s.1 Then, only a few months ago, a complete cycle recorded over the past decade by the American pianist Richard Goode (b. 1943), a student of Nadia Reisenberg and Rudolf Serkin, was brought together in a boxed set of ten CD’s to wide acclaim.2 Indeed, not only has Goode’s cycle been acclaimed; it has even been found by at least one critic, Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times, to be superior to Schnabel’s.

Before going on to compare these two sets, however, I think it may be useful to begin with some elementary comments about the kinds of pianists who play the Beethoven sonatas, which of them they choose to play, and, above all, how they play them.

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Among great pianists, the most basic distinction to be drawn is between the virtuoso and the musician. Virtuosos—like the Pole Josef Hofmann (1876-1957) and the Russian Vladimir Horowitz (1904-1989)—play for the love of the piano and for the love of the audience which reacts first to their playing and then, ultimately, to them as personalities, existing not necessarily apart from the music but always tending to transcend it.

The virtuoso pianist feels that the music, no matter how incontestably great, is clay in his hands. Faultless execution, always seemingly effortless, defying the laws of gravity, is his goal; a sloppy, heavy-handed, earthbound virtuoso is a contradiction in terms. The virtuoso always seems to be laughing as he shakes his pianistic tricks out of his sleeve. However hard he slaves, however much the effort to be brilliant costs him, is none of his audience’s business. What counts is the defiance of mortal physical limitations.

Hence the virtuoso pianist’s repertory is concentrated on the more showy pieces of Schumann and Chopin, and on the dazzling works of Liszt. The virtuoso plays music from all countries, but he has a special affinity for Spanish and French works written around the turn of the century, and he also leans toward crowd-pleasing but often unknown encore pieces.

When the virtuoso ventures into the solo music of Beethoven, he tends to play the named sonatas—opus 13 (the “Pathétique”), opus 27, no. 2 (the “Moonlight”), opus 31, no. 2 (the “Tempest”), opus 53 (the “Waldstein”), opus 57 (the “Appassionato”), and opus 81A (“Les Adieux”).3 But there are two other named sonatas that the virtuoso tends to avoid—opus 28 (the “Pastoral”) and opus 106 (the “Hammerklavier”), evidently finding the former insufficiently exciting and the latter too long, too unpredictable in terms of audience reaction, and altogether not worth the ocean of effort its secure preparation requires. After all, virtuoso programs are made up on the principle of many short pieces rather than a few long ones; the virtuoso’s programming principle is, “If you don’t like what I’ve just played, you’ll adore what’s coming.”

By contrast, the musician-pianist chooses his programs on the basis of what he sees as the enduring value of the music. To him the music comes first and its perfect execution a distant second. In Schnabel’s apt formulation, one must always play “music which is better than it can be performed.”

Again unlike the virtuoso, the musician-pianist inclines toward long pieces rather than short ones, neglected masterworks rather than popular ones, complete offerings of all the compositions of a composer in a particular genre, and programs devoted entirely to a single composer, such as Mozart or Schubert or Beethoven. For if the virtuoso thinks in terms of an unbroken string of gorgeous moments, the musician thinks of large structures, of musical architecture that comprehends not only an entire work but a composer’s entire oeuvre.

Where the virtuoso sees his fingers and hands as weapons with which to conquer the public, the musician sees them as a means by which the composer is brought to life. The virtuoso violinist Jascha Heifetz’s well-known comment to a student about why he chose one fingering for a difficult passage in preference to another—“it pays off”—could not be further from the musician’s attitude toward his body. The musician is aware of his fingers only when they have failed, and not always then; he is too busy concentrating on the music he is playing, which is always beyond perfect human replication.

In short, the virtuoso is the music’s master, while the musician is the music’s servant.

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I can readily appreciate that what I have just written may seem damning to the virtuoso, and may seem to canonize the musician. But there are great virtuosos who make the music they play live in excitement and rapture; and there are musicians who let the music they play perish in pedantry, poverty of execution, and sheer boredom. Some virtuoso performances of individual Beethoven sonatas are indeed wonderful—I think immediately of Horowitz’s 1950′s RCA recordings of opus 10, no. 3 and of the “Waldstein,” both breathtaking if cool in their perfection and brilliance;4 I think, too, of the now little-known Russian virtuoso Vladimir Sofronitsky’s concert recording in the 1940s of only the first movement (alas) of the “Appassionato,” remarkable in its highlighting of melodies and the elucidation of large structural elements.

Yet all this having been admitted and even stressed, the fact remains that it is not virtuoso pianists who play complete Beethoven cycles, but musician-pianists like Schnabel and Goode, and it is to their performances of the cycle that I would now like to turn. The playing on these CD’s cannot be discussed, however, without first taking note of the different recording processes involved in the production of the two sets.

The Schnabel discs were originally made in the early days of electric recording—the process had only come into use in 1925—and thus were still in a sense technically experimental. They were done on four-minute 78-RPM sides, requiring the artist to cut each movement most often into two or more parts. The challenge thus posed for Schnabel was to maintain musical continuity among segments of a single movement, and among the different movements of an entire sonata, when each section might be recorded separately from those before and after it by a matter of minutes, hours, or even days and months. And of course each four-minute disc had to be accepted or rejected by the artist in toto. No corrections were possible without junking the entire side and trying again, with the chance always present of making even worse errors in the new attempt.

As is well known, recordings such as those of Goode can now be produced quite differently. Whole movements and entire compositions can be taped in long stretches and, if so desired, in one continuous performance. Any errors or passages felt to require improvement can be cut out and inaudibly replaced by corrected versions called splices or inserts in a process made even easier by the new digital techniques. It is because of this ability to make corrections, not because of any improvement in performing standards, that new recordings are note-perfect, while old ones are often technically sloppy, slapdash, and therefore irremediably flawed.

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Even though the Goode recordings may well have achieved note-perfection by such “artificial” means, it is exhilarating to listen to the Beethoven sonatas played with every detail in place, and without the assorted messes so characteristic of the recordings of older artists (and without the messes characteristic of much live playing by today’s artists in concert). Chords are clean; scales are even and unrushed; accompaniment patterns are audible but never too prominent; tempos are naturally blended into each other; exhausting technical passages never seem to exhaust the pianist. And of course the actual sound of the piano is vastly better, without any trace of the distortion and surface noise that still dog even the best CD transfers of 78-RPM originals.

There is no doubt that Goode’s playing is excellent. He has a strong feeling for the line of the music and, even after all allowance has been made for the possibility of splicing, a fine technique. He tends most of the time to play these sonatas lightly, especially the early ones (those written before the three opus-31 works). But I wonder how comfortable he himself is with this prevailing quality of lightness; often his sforzando5 notes and chords boom and blast, putting pressure even on today’s dynamically capacious recording techniques (though, in all fairness, some of this may be due to the overbrilliant quality of many American Steinway concert grands made toward the end of the 1980′s).

It is perhaps not enough to call Goode’s playing light. His tone is characteristically detached rather than legato, with each note separated from its predecessors and successors not by an instant of silence but by a sensation of attack. The effect of this kind of playing may be heard in the pristine repeated chords at the opening of the “Waldstein” and in the evenness of the supremely difficult glissando octaves at the end of the finale. It may also be heard in the exact execution of the opening pages of the “Hammerklavier” and in the transparent voice-leading in the closing fugue. This detached quality is characteristic of post-World War II piano playing in general and in particular of American playing, in which clarity is stressed at the expense of a cantabile tone.

As is always the case, an artist’s technical approach is not simply confined to technical effect; it fundamentally determines his musical effect as well. For example, Goode’s tempos, probably to preserve his articulation, are often slower than they might otherwise be. Then, too, Goode appears to be striving—I suspect once more in the interest of clarity—for a balance between melody and accompaniment in which the melody is only slightly more pointed up dynamically than are the subsidiary figures which provide the harmonic underpinning.

Overall, however, there is a rather less attractive aspect to Goode’s redoubtable clarity. Every one of the myriad melodies—and in Beethoven the term melody includes scales and arpeggios as well as lyric outpourings—is subject to the same disjunct piano sound as his brilliant technical passages. Melodies do not soar, neither do they melt. In this playing, the listener is conscious of note following note as one fence post follows another on a road. The connecting melodic tissue of the music is forgotten and the grand scale of each sonata lost in the exact execution of each detail.

If we are to rely for taxonomic purposes on the customary division of the Beethoven sonatas into three periods—the early sonatas from opus 2, no. 1 to opus 28; the middle sonatas from opus 31, no. 1 to opus 90; and the late sonatas from opus 101 to opus 111—we can say that Goode’s prevailing lightness both makes evident the roots of the early pieces in the 18th-century world of Haydn and tends to suggest that the middle and late works also share the same 18th-century origins.

This approach may be deemed valid, and it is sustained by the many excellences of Goode’s playing and his deeply musical conception of these pieces. But it must also be realized that a classical conception can only be chosen at the expense of the great romantic features of this music—precisely those features that are so richly expressed in Schnabel’s approach.

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Schnabel, of course, is very much subject to the limitations of early 1930′s technology. Thick passages are often covered by a buzz of distortion; in very quiet passages the surface noise created by the cutting of the original wax with a mechanical stylus is all too evident; the dynamic range, though surprisingly large, still seems constricted; and the listener is often conscious of the engineer “riding gain” on the volume, making soft passages louder so that they can be heard through the surface noise, and loud passages softer so that they will not cause the blasting distortion for which early electrical 78-RPM discs were known.

But there is also something quite wonderful about the sound of the Schnabel records, and I suspect that it is not simply a matter of Schnabel’s beautiful tone:6 the Bechstein concert grands upon which he very likely made these records were beautiful pianos indeed, marked by a bell-like but sustained timbre in the treble.

Moreover, Schnabel (despite certain failings) did in fact possess a remarkable pianistic facility. His trills were among the fastest, most even, and most nuanced of which we have recorded evidence; his fingers were fleet and delicate; his chord playing was full and rich; and above all his ability to control subtle shadings in both melody and accompaniment remain unparalleled to this day in the playing of Beethoven.

On the other hand, it is also obvious from these records that Schnabel was not always equal to the technical exigencies of the music. On occasion, passages are smudged and tempos are lightning fast, and sometimes—the most egregious example is the dreadful jumble he makes of the first page of the “Hammerklavier”—his technical defects distract the listener from the music.

Most often, however, the listener, regardless of the pianist’s manifest technical imperfections, is caught up in the sweep of the music. For Schnabel is always conscious of the melodies, where their phrasing is leading, and their role in articulating the large-scale structure of these ineffably large-scale works. Because of his concentration on the melodic line, because of his unique ability to bring out the melody without forcing the tone, Schnabel is able to demonstrate the music’s movement, its direction, its purpose.

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In addition to playing the Beethoven sonatas, Schnabel was also the editor in the 1920′s of what remains by far the most distinguished 20th-century interpretive edition of these works,7 and as a performer it was his genius to obey Beethoven’s text. My own favorite example of his attitude toward Beethoven’s instructions is contained in a curt and peremptory footnote in his edition of the “Waldstein”:

Pedal is the Composer’s and must be observed. To change the Pedal in the third and fourth bar would destroy the very apparent intention of always letting the fundamental note sound, until the next fundamental note sounds.

But Schnabel also leavened his fidelity to the text with mercy and understanding. In a footnote to his edition of the “Tempest,” he deals with a conflict between the complete and much respected 19th-century Breitkopf and Hartel edition of Beethoven’s works and an earlier, unedited, original-text edition:

The complete critical edition (Br.a.H.) has a rallentando [a slowing down] here which is missing in the original text edition. The editor does not in any way consider this rall. to be an offense against the spirit and essence of this piece. Whoever “feels” it, may execute it unhesitatingly; who does not, may leave it alone.

Trite as it may be to say so, I think something of the essential Schnabel is caught in the word “feel.” Schnabel, for all his learning, for all his respect for the text, for all his dislike of mere virtuoso piano playing and music, was indeed governed by feeling. For him, as a creature of the romantic era, communicating the emotion contained in the music was of prime importance. And so he succeeded in doing through all these performances, all eight CD’s of them.

Indeed, there is about Schnabel’s playing of this music the palpable aura of greatness. Though Richard Goode brings to his playing manifold virtues of mind and body, no similar aura attaches to him. At the present time he may well be the best we have playing this immortal music. Greatness, however, is something else again.


Footnotes

1 Angel CDHH-63765.

2 Elektra Nonesuch 9 79328-2.

3 Vladimir Horowitz, though, did record opus 10, no. 3 and, late in his career, opus 101.

4 Opus 10, no. 3 is now available on RCA CD 60986-2; the “Waldstein” is available on RCA CD 60375-2-RG.

5 A musical term meaning a sudden loud sound in the middle of a quiet passage, an expressive device often required by Beethoven.

6 Hearing Schnabel live in (I think) 1947, playing two Mozart concertos with Pierre Monteux and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, I was conscious of the weakness of his fingers—he was not a well man, and it was only four years before his death—but I was also conscious of the golden strength of his tone.

7 By interpretive edition I mean one which makes performance recommendations not contained in Beethoven's often sparse notation; the other great interpretive edition was done in the late 19th century by the great pianist (and Liszt and Wagner disciple) Hans von Bülow. Interpretive editions are to be distinguished from textual editions, such as that by Schenker and Rätz, which confine themselves (except for fingering suggestions) strictly to Beethoven's own directions.

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