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11 thoughts on “Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Comparison Summary”

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    Dear Rolf – I’m not sure if you have ever seen this titanic performance of Gulda on YouTube performing the Opus 110 but it is quite stunning and powerful and an unforgettable document.


    I only gave you the link to the final movement but the others are there too.

    I continue to find your insights on the Beethoven Quartets remarkably insightful. I agree with you about the Hagen Quartet. Overall I find their performances always sparkling and profound and exciting. And I never knew of the Artemis Quartet’s Beethoven. I’ve sampled some of their Beethoven and look forward to hearing more. Best, Michael

    • rolfkyburz – near Zurich, Switzerland – Classical music & concerts: blogging & reviews — Edu: science / chemistry — Past: software support, programming — Hobbies: photography, garden, nature

      Dear Michael, thanks a lot for your comment (I took the liberty to move into the “Beethoven / piano” section … )! I don’t think I have seen this particular video so far: thanks a lot for the pointer! Yes, that’s Gulda at his best! Actually, to differentiate a little more: It’s a while since I have listened to Gulda’s sonata recordings in their entirety — but I think that final part of op.110 always was his very best movement in all the sonatas (in particular, I’m thinking of his Amadeo recordings from the late 60’s), hardly matched by anybody on the modern grand (in other late sonatas, Pollini is often better, I think). This late recording is more emotional — so emotional that he hardly can hold back his body language in the end, and he doesn’t manage to stand still after the end, as he is so taken by this music himself. At the same time, he must have been pretty ill already, and his technique isn’t nearly as fail-safe as in the 60’s and 70’s, there are rhythmic inaccuracies, occasional missed notes etc. — but that doesn’t really affect the overall impression.
      My plan is to return to sonata comparisons some day — for the moment I have “parked” this project, as I hope to see Kristian Bezuidenhout start recording this repertoire on Walter and Graf fortepianos…
      I’m glad you like my postings on the string quartets! One could of course continue forever adding new recordings; I had to draw a line at some point (especially because as of lately concert reviews seem to take up more and more of my time) — but there are a couple exciting young, historically informed ensembles out there that I will keep an eye on (and recommend others doing so as well!), e.g.: Chiaroscuro, and a few others, such as the Cuarteto Casals … it’s good to see that there some really good and promising new talents out there! The Artemis … a pretty sad story, some people say. I do think that the ensemble has lost quality when Natalia Prischepenko left (now they vibrate too much, for my taste), and recently, Friedemann Weigele passed away…
      Best wishes, -Rolf


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    Rolf –
    Thank you for this very insightful comparison, which I’m very much in line with, and would like to point your attention to the recent re-release* of Stephen Kovacevich’s complete cycle, whose performances to the middle and late period sonatas have captivating power and spark. And talking of spark, the interpretations of Mari Kodama** are middle-of-the-road, but thanks to gorgeous recordings, I tend to come back to them.

    * https://www.amazon.com/Beethoven-Piano-Sonatas-Bagatelles-9CD/dp/B0714GDHFM/ref=pd_lpo_sbs_15_t_2?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=34XR0K9JTCJTNWDK2MW1
    ** https://www.amazon.com/Beethoven-Complete-Sonatas-Mari-Kodama/dp/B00M8NMML2/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1504375347&sr=1-1

    • rolfkyburz – near Zurich, Switzerland – Classical music & concerts: blogging & reviews — Edu: science / chemistry — Past: software support, programming — Hobbies: photography, garden, nature

      Hi Mark, I have heard segments from Steven Kovacevic’s recordings (and I have also reviewed one of hist concerts), so he definitely is on my radar. Given the amount of work that goes into these detailed comparisons (and how busy concert reviews kept me for the past 2 years), I can’t afford too many re-iterations. So, currently, I’m holding back Beethoven sonata reviews to some degree — one major reason also being that I’d LOVE to see more of this from Kristian Bezuidenhout, who is at the very top among my favorites (I have reviewed several Mozart recordings so far, and a recital with Mozart and Beethoven in Cully/Switzerland last year, and a concert in Zurich last November)


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    Having a rather extensive collection of classical music with full Beethoven Piano Cycles by more than a dozen pianists and access to lesser known artists on Amazon Music who also have done full cycles such as Dieter Zechlin I have assembled a playlist of all 32 sonatas played by my favorite artist which we listen to in the car. Here are my current preferences:
    1- Tackas 2- Goode 3- Zechlin 4- Arrau 5- Zechlin 6 – Lortie 7 – Arrau 8 – Craig Sheppard
    9- Goode 10 – Richter 11 – Gilels 12 Annie Fisher 13 Kovacevich 14 Horowitz (50s)
    15- Goode 16 – Levinas 17- Zechlin 18 – Gelber 19 F. F. Guy 20 – Pollini 21- Zechlin
    22 – Goode 23 Rubinstein (55) 24- Levinas 25 Goode 26 Takas 27 – Levitt 28 – Gilels
    29- Schiff 30- Pollini 31- Badura Skoda (modern piano version) 32- Gulda
    If you can tell nothing else it’s that I have spent a bit of time comparing performances to find the ones I like. Even so there are a few where I might still find better performances than the ones I chose, but this seems a good starting point. Now just to throw in an observation about performance practice I must say I regret the excessive literalism that seems to make all performers sound too much alike in tempo and often leads to the complete omission of phrasing pauses. If anyone is interested, in trying to reorganize my large collection I came across a performance of Schumann’s Fatasiestucke Op. 12 by Harold Bauer and the Des Abend section is simply sublime but it is also 4:30 which is longer than any modern performance I could find. Because Bauer has what seems the lost art of rubato, and phrasing pauses that are far more liberal and extensive than any of the modern performers. It is unfortunate that competition to be heard on records and in concerts has resulted in less diversity of expression.

    • rolfkyburz – near Zurich, Switzerland – Classical music & concerts: blogging & reviews — Edu: science / chemistry — Past: software support, programming — Hobbies: photography, garden, nature

      Hi Gene, thanks (again!) for your detailed comment!

      I’ll let your text stand as is, as a comment. I have no intent to venture competing with you and your collection (life is finite, after all!). Still a few words:

      it’s interesting to note that out of the 20 pianists in your list, my own collection features a mere 5 (and 6 sonata performances): Gilels (11, 28, assuming yours are the DG recordings), Pollini (30), Rubinstein (23, recording date actually 1954-12-30), Badura Skoda (Bösendorfer 290 Imperial), and Gulda (32, assuming you are talking about his 1967 recording, not the 1957 series).
      there is no objective rating here — many people will agree with your selection, others may vehemently oppose. I haven’t listened to to most of your recordings (nor do I see a chance to do so, let alone the many that you don’t mention).

      So, I can’t really comment on your input. For one, there is simply way too much to cover here. Then, I see where your preferences are, and they are not the same as mine. There is no way to reconcile our preferences. Which is good: it would be really bad if there was one single, “right” way to perform the Beethoven sonatas. I take your preferences for what they are—your opinions / preferences, all justified, as much as I retain the right to have my own.

      Some additional comments: I agree that there is a lot of uniformity and undesirable coherence in today’s interpretations. I see two main reasons for this: one has to do with the fact that the modern concert grands all sound so much (almost) the same. They are built to to offer a harmonious, continuous (if not uniform) sound / sonority from bass to descant (crossed string arrangement). This alone leads to uniformity in sound. Then, in today’s world, people travel and communicate a lot, everybody listens to everybody else through concerts, CDs, and streaming media. Plus, piano students typically travel the world to have lessons with several / diverse teachers. So, there is much less of a chance for “pockets” or “schools” with diverse interpretation styles to emerge around a prominent artist / pianist / teacher. Such schools were prominent in the first half of the 20th century (say, around Cortot, or the “Russian school”, etc.). Another factor for (apparent) convergence may well be that (some) emerging artists are pulled into the marketing machine early on, which causes them to perform and record before they had a chance to develop a convincing personal view.

      Besides the trend for interpretations to converge globally, the perception about what is “right” / “correct” changes with the decades. You mention rubato and phrasing. In the late 19th / early 20th century, pianists used rubato much more than they do now, often bordering on arbitrariness and exaggeration. How much rubato is “right” is an ongoing debate among pianists (as is the question about the “right” tempo). I can’t say that I object to rubato in general, but I listen with the score (in mind, at least), and I prefer a conscious rubato / “reasonable” use of rubato, not arbitrariness and exaggeration.

      Phrasing: hard to comment on this without concrete example. However, one benefit of historically informed performances is that there is now (again!) much more focus on articulation and “local language” — which does not imply that larger phrases / structures should be ignored, of course. The concept of Klangrede has done miracles to the performance of baroque keyboard music, and I’m ever so happy that historically informed performances are now bringing a similar focus on articulation to works in the classical period as well. Do we know that this is “right”? I think yes, because instruments at Beethoven’s time were still much closer to baroque instruments, where articulation was the primary means of expression.

      Moreover, a historical fortepiano offers infinitely more color and life to performances. Modern instruments simply cannot compete. Conclusion: I do appreciate the historic (romantic) Beethoven performances that you mention (and after all, I grew up with these!)—however, for my CD collection, my personal focus has long shifted towards historically informed performances, as you will see in my reviews. I don’t think my preferences will ever move away from my current favorites (Bezuidenhout, Brautigam, etc.). For recordings, I’m not so much interested to see what pianists produce from Beethoven’s scores on modern instruments, but I prefer to learn how Beethoven’s music sounded at the time of the composition.

      Concerts are a different matter: performances on fortepiano are still rare, i.e., I have to accept modern instruments. On the other hand, in a live performance, the focus shifts away from perfection, towards towards an artist’s ability to “speak to the audience”, to maintain tension and flow, to bring music to life, etc. …

      Sorry for the lengthy blob… 🙂


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    Regarding informed performance practice: I think it is a mixed bag. There are some very good examples. I happen to like Andreas Staier, and Alexi Lubimov. For large forces there is Herewhege, Suzuki, and Norrington. But, to me, the interpretation is more important than whether it is played on original instruments. I have the Brautigam Beethoven, BTW, but don’t find his interpretations to be at all compelling, I’m afraid. I could pick one and explain my thinking or you could suggest one.

    As regards phrasing – like speaking the lines of Shakespeare or singing Schubert Lieder – it needs to sound natural. There most certainly are many different approaches to phrasing which, in part, will depend on what the performer considers to be the motive element. But there should always be some phrasing. Perhaps the Netherlands Bach Society is an example, to me, of the worst of informed performance practice for they tend to have almost no phrasing whatsoever. Compare them with, for example Akademie für alte Musik Berlin whose Handel Messiah is positively breath taking (pardon the pun). Much like acting, where phrasing gives meaning to the words or, at least makes them more understandable, the role of phrasing in music just cannot be overstated. Listen, for example to any of the performances by Carl Schurict of the beginning of the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. The first few bars may sound jarringly fast, and then the cellos come in, and they speak. They play the same musical phrase that will be sung just a little later. But how often have you heard the cellos play this as through there are no phrasing pauses even though it is about to be sung with them. It should not be too much to expect to have an orchestra phrase music as though it were to be sung. There are, of course, exceptions in modern music. And perhaps that leads to another point.

    Yes, I agree that the competition created by the marketing machine has a lot to do with the lack of diversity of performance but more it has elevated technique above all else. You don’t have to play a note perfect version of the Beethoven Violin concerto for me to like it. More important would be your interpretation The result is that we get the Yuja Wangs of the world, short dresses and all, highly technically proficient but with not a clue how to play Schubert. This machine that turns out these artists is the main reason, I believe, for the lack a variety schools as in early 20th century. Rubato, of course, is one of the issues these schools and the times tended to address. And it is quite right that Rubato can be overdone just as playing without any is overdone today. Rubato, I believe, goes hand in hand with phrasing. In the passage from the 9th I mentioned above when the cellos first enter with an ascending 5th it is natural to hold the top note a bit longer than the score indicates. Doing so creates tension, is the beginning of the first phasing pause for them, begins the dialogue, and is also a form of rubato – a very effective one. This is what we, or at least I, expect from music n matter if the instruments are original or not,

    • rolfkyburz – near Zurich, Switzerland – Classical music & concerts: blogging & reviews — Edu: science / chemistry — Past: software support, programming — Hobbies: photography, garden, nature

      Hi Gene, first: I moved this comment trail away from Beethoven’s op.54 to a (I believe) more suitable location: it no longer relates to that sonata. Also, I don’t think we are ever going to reconcile our opinions—we are in opposite camps. I do, however, understand and appreciate your opinions and preferences—which, after all, are not so far from my own… 45 – 50 years ago. By the time I started blogging (soon 10 years ago!), I had long moved away from the post-romantic views (with heavy vibrato, thick instrumentation, etc.) towards historically informed performances, for anything up to classical and early romantic works. About your response:

      • informed performance practice being a mixed bag: sure — but I can say this just as well about historic performances from 70 years ago.
      • In the area of Beethoven’s piano sonatas: 10 years ago, I preferred Brautigam’s performances because they offer the original soundscape and seemed superior to other performances that I looked into (I didn’t try doing a “world survey”, though). Time has moved on, though—and by now, I’d rather opt for Bezuidenhout, by a long shot — if only he had recorded the Beethoven sonatas!
      • phrasing: I never denied the importance of phrasing, and I’m sure sensitive to it—but the same attention goes towards the areas of articulation (and, alas, vibrato!), dynamics, transparency, sound, tempo, agogics / Klangrede, and how a performance relates to what I see in the score.
      • actually, I do have some nostalgic ties towards performances by Bruno Walter and other famous musicians from the middle of the 20th century — but I think that to some degree, these performances are losing relevance / significance in view of today’s concert performance practice. Time has moved on—and so has my taste. For example: 50 years ago, I was fascinated by and liked the Beethoven string quartets with the Melos Quartett Stuttgart — and now, their constant, nervous vibrato drives me nuts. Similarly, the uniform, characterless sound of some modern concert grands (in the hands of some pianists, that is) often leaves me clue- and emotionless, especially when I compare it with performances on period instruments.
      • one may deplore the “marketing aspects” in today’s music life, along with the excesses in self-promotion among young artists—however, inevitably, the music market now is undergoing fundamental and radical changes (and the pandemic may reinforce this tendency). In this situation, the preservation of recordings and performance practices from the middle of the 20th century is certainly not negligible, but has become secondary (to me, at least). On the bright side, I see the emergence of plenty of highly promising, young talents — and I think it is of utmost importance to help these talents develop character, their own, personal style and personality, etc. — if we all succeed in this, then I have no doubt that music life will continue to prosper for the decades to come.

      In the face of the monotony in today’s concert life (pre-pandemic, that is), to some degree, my personal focus has shifted away from the Vienna classics repertoire, towards areas which I think deserve (more / extra) attention. Examples:

      • as mentioned, supporting emerging talents
      • contemporary (classical) repertoire
      • lesser known composers (baroque, classical, romantic)
      • Russian repertoire that is underrepresented in Western-European concert life
      • Renaissance (Palestrina, Lassus, Desprez, etc., up to Monteverdi)
      • still, and always: historically informed performances

      Way too much to cover in a lifetime — and I’m not getting any younger!


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