Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Sonata No.15 in D major, op.28, “Pastoral”

Media Review / Comparison


2014-09-28 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2014-10-05 — Added link to summary posting
2014-11-13 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2015-08-20 — Added reference to Brautigam’s complete sonata recording
2016-07-27 — Brushed up for better readability


Outline


Introduction / The Recordings

This posting is one of a series covering the recordings of Beethoven’s piano sonatas in my music collection, about the Sonata No.15 in D major, op.28. References to the CDs are given in the respective section or in one of the related postings. For links to all related postings see “Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Summary“.

This posting is about Ludwig van Beethoven‘s Piano Sonata No.15 in D major, op.28, “Pastoral”, of which I currently have 7 recordings shown here sorted by the artist’s last name:

The recordings with Wilhelm Backhaus, Friedrich Gulda, and Artur Schnabel were also present in my LP collection, the others was added later, as CDs only, in order for me to have a broader scope for a comparison.


Background, About the Composition

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) wrote his Piano Sonata No.15 in D major, op.28 in 1801; the title “Pastoral” was added by the first publisher, not by the composer. However, it does describe properly the serene mood in this sonata, and it also anticipates feelings and a scenery that Beethoven later elaborated in his Symphony No.6 in F major, op.68, where the pastoral theme / country scenery was explicitly referred to by the composer in the annotations to the movements.


The Movements

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.15 in F major op.28 has four movements:

I. Allegro (3/4)

The sonata starts with repeated crotchets in the bass, providing a constant heartbeat, somehow almost a “musette”-like drone tone, as with bagpipes. A truly serene “pastoral” scenery:

Beethoven, piano sonata No.15 D major, op.28: mvt 1, theme #1, score sample

In the second theme (in F♯ major), the roles are inverted. The accompaniment now consists of resting notes, the right hand plays a chain of quavers:
The movement is notated in 3/4 time. However, playing crotchets in Allegro tempo would make the melody unbearably slow / stretched apart: the movement is “felt” in entire bars. On the other hand, this “bar beat” can’t really be played in Allegro, as this would render the fast passages unplayable.

Beethoven, piano sonata No.15 D major, op.28: mvt 1, theme #2, score sample

II. Andante (2/4)

The beginning of the second movement (in D minor) also has a heartbeat-like bass, though not initially with repeated notes, but more of a “walking” motif in semiquavers — note, though, that the time annotation is 2/4:

Beethoven, piano sonata No.15 D major, op.28: mvt 2, score sample

The second part of the theme takes up the repeated ostinato note from the first movement. There is also a little mystery about the annotation: one can’t possibly play this as an Andante in crotchets, as this would make the demisemiquaver passages towards the end of the movement unplayable (commonly, Andante is associated with a metronome rate around 70 – 80). The movement has a contrasting middle part in D major:

Beethoven, piano sonata No.15 D major, op.28: mvt 2, mid part, score sample

This part has no tempo annotation, but most artists (traditionally) appear to take this at a slightly faster tempo.

III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace (3/4)Trio (3/4)

The “annotation mystery” continues: this movement is written in 3/4 time, but felt in entire bars:

Beethoven, piano sonata No.15 D major, op.28: mvt 3, Scherzo, score sample

The second part of the Scherzo is repeated. The Trio has the first part repeated, the second part explicitly not (the repetition is written out):
and of course, the Scherzo is played again after the Trio.

Beethoven, piano sonata No.15 D major, op.28: mvt 3, Trio, score sample

IV. Rondo: Allegro, ma non troppo (6/8)

The Rondo theme takes up the “heartbeat”in the bass again — this time with alternating upbeat notes, forming a counterpoint to the theme in the right hand:

Beethoven, piano sonata No.15 D major, op.28: mvt 4, score sample

This is the only movement where the tempo assignment (Allegro ma non troppo) and the time notation (6/8 = 2 x 3/8) follows the classical convention!


The Interpretations, Overview

Beethoven, piano sonata No.15 D major, op.28: comparison, rating / M.M. table

In order to provide a rating overview, as well as an idea about tempo relations both within an interpretation, as well as between the two recordings, I have prepared the table below. The color coding for the tempo (blue = slower, green = faster) refers to the average between the recordings:Note that the metronome rates are approximate; for the first and the third movements I have measured entire bars (3/4) rather than (1/4).


The Interpretations, Detail

Most of the recordings below are part of complete sets, covering all Beethoven piano sonatas. The one exception here is Emil Gilels, who died before he could complete his set:


Wilhelm Backhaus (1961)

Beethoven: The Piano sonatas, Backhaus, CD cover

Beethoven: The 32 Piano Sonatas

Wilhelm Backhaus

Decca 473 7198 (8 CDs, mono / stereo); ℗ 1953 – 1969 / © 2006
Booklet: 28 pp. e/f/d

Beethoven: The Piano sonatas, Backhaus, UPC-A barcode
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This is part of the complete recording of Beethoven’s piano sonatas with Wilhelm Backhaus (1884 – 1969) that was first released in the ’70s, on LP; the recordings span a time of 17 years, between 1952 and 1969 (a complete re-recording was probably planned, but in the end, the publishers had to include older mono recordings, such as for the “Hammerklavier” sonata op.109, from 1952). This sonata was recorded in 1961.

Notes on the Movements

I. Allegro

Duration: 6’45”, exposition not repeated
Definitely an interpretation from a past period. The basic tempo is good, feels Allegro, but Backhaus uses strange (old-fashioned, but certainly consciously applied) tempo alterations: the movement starts very slow, but then rapidly picks up tempo. I have a hard time making sense of his tempo concept. Maybe it is for this acceleration that he did not find a good way to repeat the exposition? On top of that, Backhaus tends to use arpeggiando articulation. That’s something probably common in the early 20th century, maybe acceptable (even perhaps desirable) if used selectively, and probably more in slow movements, as a means of expression. But not to the degree this happens here, just obscuring the rhythmic structure.

II. Andante

Duration: 6’27”
See also above: Backhaus uses extreme rubato, often arpeggiando or very soft articulation. The staccato accompaniment in the left hand (D minor parts) appears arbitrarily articulated sometimes tenuto, sometimes not (probably using the sustain pedal to suit the melody in the right hand). In the D major part, the f signals are interpreted as sf on the first chord. Hard to enjoy, overall (if at all).

III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace — Trio

Duration: 1’53”
The repetition in the Scherzo is omitted; maybe the piece is taken slightly too fast? The articulation appears sloppy, there is too much rubato (Zeitgeist?).

IV. Rondo: Allegro, ma non troppo

Duration: 4’18”
Dramatic (especially towards the Coda!), fast, expressive, though with Backhaus’ extreme rubato and occasional soft / arpeggiando articulation, but well-played in general.

Overall Duration: 19’20”
Rating (see above for details): 2.0 — More of a historic document than an interpretation that can still compete with more recent ones.


Paul Badura-Skoda (1969)

Beethoven: The Piano sonatas 6, Badura-Skoda, CD cover

Beethoven: The 32 Piano Sonatas

Paul Badura-Skoda (Bösendorfer 290 Imperial)

Gramola 987 42/50 (9 CDs, stereo)
Booklet: 20 pp. d/e/f/Japanese

Beethoven: The Piano sonatas, Badura-Skoda, EAN-13 barcode
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In the 1960/70s, Paul Badura-Skoda (*1927) was among the pioneers of historically informed piano playing. He also played the fortepiano, besides forming a duo with Jörg Demus, and being a popular accompanist. In this recording (part of a complete set), made in 1969, however, he is playing a Bösendorfer 290 Imperial. The sound in this recording is somewhat dull, the sound of the instrument even farther away from that of a period instrument than, say, a Steinway concert grand.

Notes on the Movements

I. Allegro

Duration: 9’49”
Another interpretation with a questionable tempo concept (or lack of control?); oddly, the artists often tends to associate crescendo with accelerando, and there are also instances where the tempo tends to “run away” (i.e., it appears not to be actively controlled).

II. Andante

Duration: 6’42”
Also here, I have some questions regarding tempo control. Not all tempo changes appear entirely planned. Also, Badura-Skoda tends towards soft, even arpeggiando articulation — Zeitgeist? Some dynamics appear exaggerated. On the brighter side: the articulation in the D major part appears accurate, careful.

III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace — Trio

Duration: 2’22”
And again: tempo control? There is also some rhythmic sloppiness. On the other hand, I sense a clear concept, at least.

IV. Rondo: Allegro, ma non troppo

Duration: 4’46”
A questionable tempo concept: accelerandi destroy the tension. Some of the articulation appears sloppy, particularly in the “jumping semiquaver octaves”

Overall Duration: 23’38”
Rating (see above for details): 1.8 — I don’t really like this interpretation too much.


Daniel Barenboim (1984)

Beethoven: Piano sonatas 1 - 15, Barenboim, CD cover

Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas Nos.1 – 15

Daniel Barenboim

DG 413 759-2 (6 CDs, stereo); ℗ 1984
Booklet: 50 pp. d/e/f

Beethoven: Piano sonatas 1 - 15, Barenboim, UPC-A barcode
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Daniel Barenboim (*1942) recorded this sonata in 1984, as part of his complete recording, which was published in two parts (sonatas 1 – 15, sonatas 16 – 32).

Notes on the Movements

I. Allegro

Duration: 11’16”
Faster than Gilels, but still feeling slow, hardly an Allegro, the sonata often appears to drag along. Contrasts frequently appear softened (why are the sf chords in the second part of the recapitulation played arpeggiando?), and I can’t quite make sense of Barenboim’s tempo concept; some of it appears adopted from Backhaus’ interpretation, e.g., the piece getting gradually faster, then suddenly jumping back to a much slower tempo for the beginning of the recapitulation. Definitely not my favorite interpretation.

II. Andante

Duration: 7’40”
As with Gilels, this doesn’t really feel Andante: it’s too slow. One also feels that such a slow tempo is actually demanding: there are moments when one senses that the tempo is momentarily in danger of running away, some bars appear slightly rushed. The worst part of this interpretation is in the middle section in D major (slightly faster than the parts in D minor), where Barenboim completely ignores the staccato signs with the punctuated “signals” in both hands, by using the pedal for the entire figure.

III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace — Trio

Duration: 2’33”
The beginning is rather static, lacking Scherzo character.

IV. Rondo: Allegro, ma non troppo

Duration: 5’26”
To me, some of the articulation sounds sloppy; the general rests lack tension, and also the occasional accelerando destroys (or affects) the tension.

Overall Duration: 26’53”
Rating (see above for details): 2.3 — Not my preferred interpretation, not even within the traditional (non-HIP) ones.


Ronald Brautigam (2005)

Beethoven: vol.4 - Piano sonatas opp.26, 27 & 28 — Brautigam, CD cover

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas opp.26, 27/1, 27/2, 28

Ronald Brautigam (Fortepiano by Paul McNulty, 2001, after Walter & Sohn, 1802)

BIS-SACD-1473 (SACD/CD); ℗ / © 2006
Booklet: 28 pp. e/d/f

Beethoven: vol.4 - Piano sonatas opp.26, 27 & 28 — Brautigam, EAN-13 barcode
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Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas — Brautigam, CD cover

Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas

Ronald Brautigam (Fortepiani by Paul McNulty)

BIS-SACD-2000 (9 SACD/CD); ℗ 2004 – 2010 / © 2014
Booklet: en/de/fr

Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas — Brautigam, CD, EAN-13 barcode
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Also this recording is part of a complete Beethoven collection (still in the making), covering all solo piano works; Ronald Brautigam (*1954) is making his recordings using replicas of period instruments from the time of the composition. For this sonata (and the other, early piano works) he is playing a fortepiano built 2001 by Paul McNulty, after a model by Walter & Sohn from 1802 (tuned to approx. a’ = 432). The recording was made in 2005.

Notes on the Movements

I. Allegro

Duration: 10’26”
The change (coming from traditional interpretations) to a fortepiano has a pretty dramatic effect: the sound balance is totally different, the sound is more transparent. Fast passages are more dramatic and more prominent. Yet, second and third voices are clearly audible. Brautigam’s articulation, phrasing and agogics are all excellent, and even though the tempo is moderate, the movement does not feel too slow: it all makes sense — excellent, overall! I have been raving about the Walter fortepiani (or replicas thereof) in other posts, so I don’t need to repeat myself here.

II. Andante

Duration: 7’13”
At first, the tempo may appear to be on the slow side — but then, one realizes that Brautigam adjusted it to the sonority of the Walter fortepiano: that singing quality in the right hand is impossible to achieve on a modern piano. And even though it is on the slow side, the tempo still feels Andante, i.e., it retains a certain drive. The real marvel here is the D major part: Brautigam is the only artist in this comparison who follows the score by using the same tempo as in the outer parts. He does this with incredibly vivid and detailed articulation and phrasing: unmatched in this comparison!

III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace — Trio

Duration: 2’15”
Using a fortepiano completely changes the internal sound balance in this movement, e.g.: the balance between the two hands is obtained more easily, naturally. The period instrument also enhances the transparency. Brautigam avoids exaggerating the tempo; Scherzo character is achieved through local contrasts, and at the same time the artist does not neglect the big dramatic arches.

IV. Rondo: Allegro, ma non troppo

Duration: 4’50”
Good tension, dramatic, with drive; occasionally a bit too loud (p), and also sometimes, the articulation (to me) is too soft / using too much arpeggiando.

Overall Duration: 25’10”
Rating (see above for details): 4.8Clearly, my preferred recording (even though the last movement doesn’t quite hold up to the standard set by the first three movements) — definitely worth listening!


Emil Gilels (1982)

Beethoven: Piano sonatas, Gilels, CD cover

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas

Emil Gilels

DG 00289 477 6360 (9 CDs, stereo); ℗ 1972 / © 1996
Booklet: 14 pp. e/d/f

Beethoven: Piano sonatas, Gilels, UPC-A barcode
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Emil Gilels‘ (1916 – 1985) recorded this in 1982, as part of a planned complete recording of the Beethoven piano sonatas — which unfortunately remained incomplete due to the artist’s sudden death.

Notes on the Movements

I. Allegro

Duration: 12’11”
Very nicely phrased and carefully articulated. However, the piece starts extremely slow: definitely not appropriate for an Allegro; he does accelerate over time. But that then forces the artist to pretty drastic (and somewhat odd) slow- or step-downs in tempo for the return to the beginning of the exposition, or for the recapitulation, and even for the Coda.

II. Andante

Duration: 8’38”
This is very slow again: Gilels appears to take the Andante for the semiquaver accompaniment, ornaments and past passages are played as melody, the actual melody gets stretched out beyond comprehension. The outer parts (in D minor) appear tragic, sad. But Gilels uses very careful, excellent phrasing and articulation. The real marvel in this interpretation lies in the middle part in D major, taken slightly faster, but beautifully played, serene, calm.

III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace — Trio

Duration: 2’20”
Well articulated, big phrases / arches, with forward drive.

IV. Rondo: Allegro, ma non troppo

Duration: 5’51”
Rather slow: definitely not feeling Allegro (not even Allegro ma non troppo), at least in the beginning. On the other hand, extremely well articulated, with excellent phrasing and dramatic arches, as well as tension within the general rests. Very impressive and expressive (if only it was a bit faster!).

Overall Duration: 29’00”
Rating (see above for details): 3.3 — A very good (conventional) interpretation in general, full of tension and drama. However, the impression is a bit hampered by Gilels’ preference for slow(ish) tempi.


Friedrich Gulda (1967)

Beethoven: The Piano sonatas & concerts, Gulda, CD cover

Beethoven: The 32 Piano Sonatas, The 5 Piano Concertos

Friedrich Gulda,Horst Stein, Vienna Philharmonic

Universal 476 8761 (12 CDs, stereo); ℗ / © 2005
Booklet: 2 pp. + Track listing German

Beethoven: The Piano sonatas & concerts, Gulda, UPC-A barcode
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Friedrich Gulda (1930 – 2000) recorded this in 1967, according to his own words “at a time when the brain is functioning already, and the technique still does”. This is Gulda’s third and last complete recording of the Beethoven sonatas, first published (sonatas only) by the label Amadeo.

Notes on the Movements

I. Allegro

Duration: 9’04”
Gulda may not be the specialist for subtleties and refined dynamics, but he articulates and phrases extremely well, uses very good agogics, and accents / sf / sfz are precise stand out clearly. Also, the tempo is excellent — finally a version that feels like an Allegro!

II. Andante

Duration: 6’11”
Very good tempo: at last, somebody who makes the melody / right hand feel Andante! Articulation, phrasing and dynamics are excellent. It’s definitely the best of the “traditional” interpretations. There is also a major difference in the D major part, which Gulda doesn’t just play as a lovely, harmless interlude: here it is rather dramatic and expressive, as also the D minor parts.

III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace — Trio

Duration: 2’01”
The fastest interpretation: truly Allegro vivace, and with Scherzo character! Despite the very fast tempo, the playing / articulation is very clean, virtuosic. Maybe the Trio is a little fast? Gulda’s articulation sometimes appears to make the piano (remotely) approach fortepiano sonority.

IV. Rondo: Allegro, ma non troppo

Duration: 4’55”
Maybe the weakest movement here: somewhat casual, occasionally almost harmless, even though well-played, with excellent tempo control and tension in the general rests.

Overall Duration: 22’10”
Rating (see above for details): 3.8 — To me, the best of the interpretations on a modern instrument, despite a somewhat weaker last movement.


Artur Schnabel (1935)

Beethoven: The Piano sonatas, Schnabel, CD cover

Beethoven: The 32 Piano Sonatas

Artur Schnabel (recorded in London, 1932 – 1935)

Regis / Forum FRC 6801 (8 CDs, mono)
Booklet: 8 pp. (mostly track listing) English

Beethoven: The Piano sonatas, Schnabel, CD, EAN-13 barcode
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Artur Schnabel (1882 – 1951) was the first pianist to make a complete recording of all Beethoven piano sonatas (with complementing recordings of variations, bagatelles and other small pieces). This sonata was recorded in 1935. Schnabel was well-known for his uncompromising approach to classical compositions, his dedication to finding out about the composer’s intent through thorough studies of the scores & literature. Many pianists still regard his recordings as reference interpretations, to this day.

Notes on the Movements

I. Allegro

Duration: 7’19”, exposition not repeated
An amazingly modern interpretation, (virtually) free of Zeitgeist features as in Backhaus’ interpretation! Schnabel tends to use “emotional agogics” (such as stringendi for culmination points), but otherwise exerts excellent tempo control. He does not repeat the exposition. This is likely due to the time restrictions with the early 78 r.p.m. discs.

II. Andante

Duration: 7’22”
The tempo is at the lower limit, but it’s dynamic and always fully controlled. Very nice and subtle: the implicit / notated fermata in the middle of the second half of the D minor parts. The D major part is distinctly faster, lively, almost vivace. One could argue that the last note in those punctuated staccato “signals” in the D major part are really staccato (they are a bit long). Schnabel might have argued: Within staccato, how do you want to distinguish a quaver from a semi- or a demisemiquaver?

III. Scherzo: Allegro vivace — Trio

Duration: 2’05”
Not the best movement, from today’s perspective, with lots of “emotional articulation”, quavers often sounding hasted, like arpeggiando playing.

IV. Rondo: Allegro, ma non troppo

Duration: 4’33”
Very dramatic in agogics / rubato, with tension & drive (extreme drive, even!), with good and detailed (accurate) dynamics. Too extreme for current interpretations, but impressive nevertheless!

Overall Duration: 21’15”
Rating (see above for details): 3.0 — A remarkable historic document!


Addendum

For the non-pianists: I use pocket scores (typically Lea Pocket Scores or Kalmus) to follow this music. The sonatas are covered in 5 volumes:



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8 thoughts on “Beethoven: Piano Sonata No.15, op.28”

  1. These Brautigam performances on a modern reconstuction of a Walter fortepiano are a revelation for me, Rolf! This is not the same Beethoven I have been trying so unsuccessfully to warm up to for so many years. I listened to the Gulda, which no doubt is all you say, but the sound seems so muddy by comparison that I, who used to think Beethoven would have loved the new Steinway of the mid-19th century, now think he might well have turned up his nose at it. For good reason. It’s not the same music on a more modern instrument. It’s not Beethoven.

    My usual rant, but I am sincerely in your debt for these Brautigam performances.

    • Hi Thomas, glad you really like these!! Mind you: if Kristian Bezuidenhout ever starts recording Beethoven, Brautigam will be facing fierce competition!!! 🙂

  2. I love your blog and your insights. I think Perhaia is the best current available version of the Pastoral. It’s also recorded brilliantly and vibrantly with tremendous clarity and power. Would love to hear your thoughts on this version. I also think that the latest (digital) Brendel is also top notch. On the historical front, I’m a big fan of the first Decca Gulda. His Beethoven has power and poetry in equal parts.

  3. Thanks for your comments—I really appreciate them! I appreciate Murray Perahia as pianist and artist, even though so far I don’t have a single (!) recording of his in my collection—yet adding his Beethoven sonatas is facing the problem that I have too many recordings already. Plus, you may note that my primary focus (for CD recordings of music from the classic and earlier periods) has moved into the area of HIP performances on authentic instruments or replicas thereof (eagerly awaiting Kristian Bezuidenhout’s Beethoven!).
    Brendel: his performances never “clicked” with me—never over the past 45 years… but I don’t want to disrupt anybody’s fascination for this artist, hence I will limit my comments about him. Unlike with Perahia, I do have a couple recordings with Brendel, though.
    As you can see from my early bio posts, my very first recording (LP) was one from Gulda’s first Decca recording (Pathétique, Appassionata, op.49/2), and I really like that—I haven’t listened to this in about 40 years. Yet, I still feel intimately familiar with that recording, but so far didn’t venture adding it on CD—for reasons of capacity…
    I do certainly like and respect other people’s comments and opinions on their favorite artists and recordings, and input such as yours is always welcome!

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