In light of all this, perhaps the very notion of defining a "Beethoven style" is misguided. Beethoven himself wrote in 1826: "We can have no further since one must respond to the call of unconstrained genius." Pauer recalled that Beethoven chided other virtuosi of his time as "gymnasts" and expressed the opinion that "the increasing mechanism of piano playing would in the end destroy all truth of expression in music." Thus, perhaps the only unequivocal view was expressed by Czerny: "Beethoven's compositions must be played differently from - anyone else's. It is not easy to express this difference in words."
Yet, despite the lack of definitive or even reliable guidance, performers must try to evoke the composer's intention and feeling when approaching Beethoven's piano sonatas. One of the most touching, but perhaps revealing, descriptions of Beethoven's playing is quoted by Schonberg from Sir John Russell toward the very end of the composer's life, when he was stone deaf and his "playing" had become an abstraction - yet perhaps this is the most important description we have, as it portrays Beethoven's purest ideal as a performer, at last unfettered from the constraints of the actual instruments of his time:
How did Beethoven play his own ? There seems to be no direct evidence, and, indeed, the work was never performed in public during Beethoven's lifetime - hardly surprising, as an early critic had found it "incomprehensibly abrupt and dark - much of it is enormously difficult without there being some exceptional beauty to compensate for it." What little we can glean from contemporaneous written descriptions is confusingly abstract and often contradictory. Thus, Beethoven's pupil Carl Czerny stated: "His bearing while performing was ideally restful, noble and beautiful, without the slightest grimace." Others tended to admire his legato effects and exquisitely even scalar runs. Yet, Czerny also stated: "His playing, like his compositions, was far ahead of his time - The pianofortes of the period could not endure his gigantic style of performance." Beethoven's first biographer, Anton Schindler, said: "His playing was free of all constraint with respect to the beat, for the spirit of his music required freedom." Ernst Pauer, editor of an early edition of Beethoven's piano works, added: "He was not particular in polishing and refining his performances." Ferdinand Ries, who was a piano student of Beethoven from 1801-4, seems to take a middle course, recalling that during this phase of Beethoven's career: "Generally he played his compositions very impetuously but for the most part stayed strictly in time, only infrequently pushing the tempo a little. Occasionally he would retard during a crescendo which created a very beautiful and most remarkable effect." Schindler clarifies that this seeming anomaly arose from stressing the rhythm strictly while treating the melody more expressively (a foretaste of the style later to be perfected by Chopin). The result: "His playing thus acquired a highly personal character, very different from the even, flat performances that never rise to tonal eloquence." Harold Schonberg suggests that as a composer Beethoven had little concern for keyboard mechanics; rather, he replaced taste with expression by playing with unprecedented power, personality and emotional appeal. Schonberg further notes that Beethoven's teachers were not professional pianists and so he was largely self-taught; as a result his piano works were not pianistic in the sense of fitting well on the keyboard, and to Beethoven the idea was always far more important than the practical consideration of its execution.
Gottschalk was also the first and, one might well argue, possibly the last pan-American composer and artist. Not only did he travel frequently outside the United States, as did, by necessity, most virtuoso pianists at the time; he also lived in South America and the Caribbean for extended periods of time, incorporating, without prejudice but with critical judgment, many local influences and musical traditions. He also was politically outspoken on issues such as slavery and the Civil War, and while a true American patriot, he did not spare his countrymen acrimonious criticism whenever he deemed it appropriate.
A further challenge to modern performance lies in Czerny's suggestion that the scores themselves are only an incomplete indication of Beethoven's realization of his works, as he never had the time or patience to practice, so the result of playing his compositions depended upon "accident or his mood [plus he] made much more frequent use of pedals than is indicated in his works." (Yet, Ries wrote that Beethoven "seldom introduced notes or ornaments not set down in the composition.") Newman points out that even the autograph scores present vast difficulties to interpreters, since Beethoven used signs for articulation - the primary means by which a pianist creates expression from an instrument having no means to vary timbre but only control over duration and intensity - such as irregular slurs and beams are used inconsistently and even illogically, and several different staccato and accent signs can look confusingly similar in Beethoven's slapdash penmanship.
(1960, London LP) - While conceding his reputation as a Beethoven specialist, Schonberg views Backhaus (1884 - 1969) as an exemplar of the "German school" of piano playing, which he characterizes as "one of scrupulous musicianship, severity, strength rather than charm, solidity rather than sensuosity, intellect rather than instinct, sobriety rather than brilliance. It is a school that stresses planning and leaves nothing to chance." He singles Backhaus out for monumental solidity and impassivity. To the extent that this suggests reliable integrity that lets the music speak for itself, it's an accurate and fair characterization of his latter performances, including this , the product of a fully mature artist, which grips with its rich patina and unfolds with inexorable logic (although Backhaus's earlier Beethoven sonata recordings tended to be considerably more expressive).
Stephen is the winner of Northwestern University's $50,000 Jean Gimbel Lane Prize in Piano Performance. The award is given to "pianists who have achieved the highest levels of national and international recognition."
(1960, RCA LP; 1972, Columbia LP, Sony CD) - Horowitz (1904 - 1989) represented the virtuoso approach to Beethoven's piano music, playing only a handful of the most popular sonatas with breathtakingly precise technique. In the notes to his RCA LP, Horowitz asserted that he sought to deliberately strip the first movement of lyricism "because for me it is from first to last," and that he had no wish to disturb the rage or hold the passion in check. Yet, while he certainly avoids any slide into sentimentality, his phrasing and tempos are sufficiently plastic to differentiate the constantly shifting moods inherent in the music itself. Horowitz also boasted of taking the finale at a moderate pace to stress the qualification of the tempo indication, but the sheer splendor of his execution and sharpness of his attacks provides ample thrills without reckless velocity. Above all, the famous "Horowitz sound" of phenomenally controlled power and razor-sharp attacks creates a magnificent realization. Of his two nearly identical recordings, his Columbia remake has richer sound that adds weight to the overall impact.
"This is Stephen Hough, master pianist (and, of course, Gramophone Gold Disc winner) at his formidable best. In a hotly contested month, it would take something special indeed to be CD of the month. This is it."
(1945, 1954, 1963 and 1975 (live), RCA) - Although Rubinstein (1887 - 1982) is often hailed as a quintessentially romantic pianist, I tend to agree with Harvey Sachs (in his , Grove Press, 1995) that his approach to Beethoven, at least in the studio, was direct, with no posturing, monumentalizing or rhetoric - which pretty much characterizes his three studio . Yet there is another far more remarkable side to Rubinstein that is far less documented - an electric vigor that energized his concerts, of which only a handful have been released. The last is a 1975 recital that he gave at the very end of his professional life. Critics have uniformly savaged it - Sachs calls it "banging, disjointed and sloppy" - all true, and yet although Rubinstein was 88, nearly blind, in precarious health, and with diminished energy (he skips the last movement repeat), he plays his heart out and manages to conjure a degree of abandon and risk that transcends his comparatively sterile studio forays. Forget the wrong notes, stuttering rhythms, unbalanced voices and jagged phrasing - and there are loads of them - as well as the thin, distorted and compressed sound. This is an intensely moving document that - despite its many flaws - indeed, perhaps because of them - throbs with the composer's humanity and overwhelms with its sense of soulful communication.
(1939; Philips CD) - Gieseking (1895 - 1956) was known as a specialist in the French impressionists and Mozart. (He recorded the first complete set of the Mozart piano sonatas with an even-handedness that chafed against the accepted wisdom of the time that relegated Mozart to rococo insignificance.) His exquisitely light touch, infinite grading of dynamics and sense of subtle coloration produced an that makes us hang on every note, especially in the , where he transforms the usual break between the boisterous outer movements into a succession of heartfelt moods that adds a sense of logic to the transition to the finale, which in his hands is more of an evolution than an abrupt breach. His finale bristles with virtuoso fireworks, played nearly perfectly at a thrilling tempo but never with any sense that he is on the verge of losing control. While his approach may not seem idiomatic, it succeeds in presenting the in a wholly new light that proves its universality. Gieseking's EMI LP remake from the early 1950s is nearly as good, but lacks some of the extreme delicacy of his earlier version.