Julian Brown | July 2022 | California
The distinguished conductor and pianist Hans von Bulow, a contemporary of Brahms and Wagner, described the Beethoven Piano Sonatas as “The New Testament” of piano literature, with Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier being “The Old Testament”. But, just as editors are confronted by many questions of language and history in deciding how to present their versions of the Bible, pianists face a number of difficult decisions when embarking on recording Beethoven’s piano sonatas. What kind of piano should you record on? Is it better to record on an instrument comparable to one that Beethoven would have played on or take advantage of the power of a modern instrument? Which published version of the sonatas should you use and how should you interpret Beethoven’s instructions regarding tempi? The Dutch pianist Ronald Brautigam has made a specialty of recordings on fortepianos, while Japanese-American pianist Tamami Honma is currently finishing her recordings on a modern Steinway. Vantage Magazine’s Julian Brown asked both pianists about some of the issues they faced in recording these iconic works.
JB: What are the main benefits of playing Beethoven’s works on period instruments?
RB: What I miss when playing Beethoven’s works on a modern instrument is the speed with which sudden dynamic changes can be realised. The damping on these early Viennese pianos is incredibly effective – far more so than on a modern piano – which enables you to be more articulate and make “sharper turns”. Another benefit is a much clearer sound in the bass due to the relative thinness of the lower strings. This makes lower voices come out much more easily. And perhaps the greatest benefit is exploring what these old pianos can handle: the physical joy of hearing the instrument moan and groan in the wilder passages, creaking, shaking on its legs is something I really miss on a big piano!
TH: For me, playing on any period instrument such as a harpsichord, clavichord or fortepiano is almost like playing on a completely different instrument! Each has its own unique sound world, which can offer wonderful new possibilities but at the same time notable limitations. For example, although fortepianos have significantly lighter action than the modern piano, they offer shorter lengths of sustaining, a more limited capacity of the pedals, and narrower dynamic range. Because this altered responsiveness of the instrument affects timings and tempi, agogic versus dynamic accents, and the lengths of breathing spaces, we are forced to change how we express ourselves on the instrument. However, I do agree that one benefit of playing Beethoven’s works on period instruments is that it brings to the surface compositional aspects we might not have noticed before, and gives many new insights and ideas that can be applied to the modern instrument.
JB: Do you think some of the piano sonatas are better suited to modern pianos? If so, which ones and why?
TH: The sonatas with long pedal effects such as the last movement of Opus 53, Waldstein, I would opt to keep on the modern piano. The middle to late sonatas, especially, call for a wider dynamic range from the performer. However, performances of these sonatas on both modern and period instruments are perfectly legitimate. They can sound wildly different but they can still be played as though they were perfectly suited to that particular instrument. Personally, I do feel more at home on the modern piano for the later works.
RB: Within the 35 sonatas there is a turning point where the advantages of using an old instrument become less obvious. For me this point lies somewhere around Opus 90 – Beethoven’s music starts to lose some of its wild hair, becomes more melodious, almost early romantic. Rather than “speaking” (hence “articulation”), the instrument starts to “sing”. And singing suits a modern instrument far better than a fortepiano.
JB: How much do period instruments vary in sound quality? Mr Brautigam, on your recordings you have used fortepianos based on models by Graff, Stein, Pleyel and other makers in Beethoven’s time. How do these newly constructed fortepianos compare with original ones that have been restored?
RB: There is an enormous difference in sound quality among these old pianos, depending on the original maker and the person that restored it. The excitement of playing an instrument that is as old as the music itself can sometimes be overshadowed by mechanical issues; after all, a 200-year-old piano action with so many moving parts will suffer far more than, for instance, an old violin. That is why I’ve always used good fortepiano copies for my CD recordings instead of original instruments. And, let’s face it, using a newly built instrument is in a paradoxical sense more “authentic” than playing an old one as Beethoven also used new instruments.
JB: Beethoven himself welcomed new innovations and improvements in piano technology, of which there were many during the course of his career, including the addition of lower and higher keys. What do you think he would have made of the modern nine-foot concert grand?
TH: People often cite the Waldstein Sonata (Opus 53) as the first to make use of an expanded keyboard range. It’s true that Opus 53 goes a third higher than previous sonatas, reaching up to an A three octaves above middle C, but this, in itself, was a relatively modest change. Beethoven actually waited until Opus 101 before making use of lower notes – many years after English pianos had already begun to offer them. What’s more remarkable about Opus 53 is how Beethoven stretched the canvas of pianistic colours, deploying effects that had already, in principle, been available on existing pianos but requiring his ingenuity to discover. Nevertheless, he often complained the piano was an inadequate instrument and I think he would have delighted in the expanded keyboard and dynamic range of the modern piano. I suspect, given his use of sustained sound washes in his later sonatas, he would also have taken special interest in the sostenuto or middle pedal, which allows certain notes to be selectively sustained.
RB: Beethoven would certainly have appreciated a modern piano but, in his own characteristic way, he would have searched for the limits of what the instrument could handle, in the same way that experimental composers have expanded the possibilities of piano playing (such as clusters, prepared piano, amplification). I’m sure that something weird and wonderful would have materialised!
JB: Of course, another consideration is that, starting around his late 20s, Beethoven would have appreciated anything that made the piano louder because this meant he had a better chance to hear the instrument with what remained of his rapidly deteriorating hearing. Also over time, as you both indicated, his compositional style evolved in a way that would have suited a more powerful instrument. In 1817, when he was in his late 40s, Beethoven received a new piano from the English maker John Broadwood that he prized over his earlier Viennese instruments and has been said to have inspired his composition of the groundbreaking and thunderous Hammerklavier Sonata. So, given the changing nature of the instruments in Beethoven’s time, is there a case to be made for recording the sonatas on different instruments depending on the year in which it was composed?
TH: I think it’s part of our homework to understand the historical circumstances that surround each work, including which instrument the work was originally intended for. But if we are too much in an originalist’s frame of mind – I’m reminded of certain Supreme Court judges here in America trying to channel the Founding Fathers in interpreting the US Constitution without regard to conditions of the world today – then none of the works would ever be played on the modern piano! I think that would be a pity and I for one would be sorry to lose the opportunity to play not only Beethoven’s works but also the works of the great baroque composers.
RB: We should not forget that Broadwood’s pianos had a very different action, and therefore “feel”, than the lighter Viennese instruments. Beethoven obviously appreciated the more resistant keyboard, “hearing” the music through his fingers rather than his ears. It sounds wonderful to be able to pick the right instrument for each sonata, but at the end of the day it’s the music that has to take centre stage, not the instrument.
TH: Speaking of Broadwood pianos, I do own one from 1855, which I acquired for research purposes. There are so many differences! This was one of the last built in the original Horseferry Road warehouse in London before the facility was destroyed in a fire in 1856 and it has the single escapement action similar to the kind of pianos Beethoven played on. I have found it enlightening and deepens our understanding of how the differences between older and newer pianos can affect the execution of Beethoven’s music.
JB: When you are performing or even recording the piano sonatas, which published edition of the score do you use? How important is it to observe the latest musicological scholarship on these works?
RB: I use various editions of Beethoven: Henle, Artur Schnabel and, more important, autographs (where available), first editions. All editors use the same available material, so I tend to use Henle as a basis, and then do my own research.
TH: As a student, which was well before the current internet age, we had to do significant detective work to track down source material. There were some sketch facsimiles (including the Kafka collection) in the Academy’s basement library. As a postgraduate student I could order copies from outside institutions for more autographs, older editions and rarer items. I was given membership to the British Museum and discovered even more archival materials. Specialising in Beethoven aesthetics, I inevitably came across the work of the musicologist Barry Cooper and his studies of Beethoven works. His edition of the sonatas includes many hundreds of corrections and details on executing ornaments in addition to a bar-by-bar commentary on many issues that might remain open to question. Dr Cooper has cross-referenced multiple sources using not only original autographs but also early published editions, documents such as letters and other contemporaneous records. Deciding what exactly should be incorporated is often difficult because different sources can disagree with one another and Beethoven, although usually very particular in his notation, sometimes made mistakes that had to be corrected later. Bringing in Dr Cooper, with his decades of historical and musical research, is invaluable. He’s also been kind enough to personally answer any questions along the way and I appreciate this effort enormously.
JB: Indeed, I consulted him in writing the programme notes for your [TH’s] forthcoming recordings so I can fully attest to his expertise and helpfulness. His ABSRM [Associated Board of the Royal College of Music] edition includes the three sonatas Beethoven composed when he was 12, which many pianists have ignored, especially when they still refer to the “32 Piano Sonatas”, even though Beethoven completed and published 35. It’s easy for people to dismiss these early sonatas as not worthy of the mature composer. Alfred Brendel dismisses Beethoven’s entire output from Bonn, for example, which seems a bit extreme. What do you make of this?
RB: I’m pleased to say that my Beethoven Sonata box contains all 35 of them. Thanks to the three early Bonn sonatas one gets a far more complete picture of Beethoven and his compositional development. And, let’s face it, his “Venni Amore” Variations (1790–91) are amongst my favourite Beethoven works. Some of the variations already foreshadow his late piano sonatas.
TH: Dr Cooper makes the point that the musical distance between the two Opus 49 sonatas, which were likely works intended for students and never intended for publication by Beethoven (until his hand was forced by his brother), and the Hammerklavier Sonata is much greater than the distance between them and the three early works. The three early works are also more substantial, each having three movements, unlike the two-movement forms of the Opus 49 sonatas. So the argument is that, if the Opus 49 are worthy enough to be included, so too should the WoOs. I am very happy that Mr Brautigam has also included these works as part of his complete set of sonatas and I very much agree that including these early works gives listeners an important insight into Beethoven’s evolution as a composer.
JB: What do you make of the arguments that still go on about Beethoven’s metronome markings on some of the sonatas, for example the Hammerklavier Sonata? Many pianists have commented that they seem too fast – even unplayable – especially in the first movement?
TH: I think, first, it’s quite possible that, although he turned on a metronome, being a new invention it may have been NWAI [not working as intended]. Second, even if it had been working correctly, once he started playing it’s quite possible he couldn’t hear it or he wasn’t looking at it all the time as he was composing or playing. Three, it is easier to play at these faster tempi on his instrument or modern recreation of his piano rather than on the nine-foot instruments we have today.
RB: In Beethoven’s autograph of the song “Nord oder Sud” he writes as a metronome marking: “100 according to Malzel but this can only refer to the first measures only, for sentiment has also its own peculiar rhythm; but this cannot entirely be expressed in this figure” [Editorial note: In 1816 Johann Nepomuk Malzel became one of the first manufacturers of the metronome, based on an invention by Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel]. This is exactly what he should have written above the Hammerklavier Sonata: 138 for the half bar refers to the first four bars; after the fermata things relax considerably.
JB: It’s notable that some pianists have come back to these works multiple times over the course of their careers because obviously they felt they had grown in some way as artists and wanted to bring something new to them. Any final thoughts on how to approach these works in your recordings?
RB: A recording is, and will always be, a frozen moment in time: a documentation of work in progress – there isn’t a musician who wouldn’t jump at the chance to re-record older material. But would it really make such a difference? To me it is far more rewarding to play the sonatas in front of an audience where the interaction makes every concert a unique experience and no two interpretations are ever the same. This mercurial character of music can never be fully achieved in the relative safe environment of a recording studio.
TH: Clearly there are parallels in our approaches whether we are working on a period instrument or on a modern one. Our job as interpreters, by definition, is to take the instruments we have at hand and, at least, make the effort to get as close to the composer’s original intentions as we can within the constraints imposed by our chosen instruments. It’s good to keep in mind Beethoven’s famous remark: “To play a wrong note is insignificant. To play without passion is inexcusable!” How that passion comes through from an artist, guided by score and the composer, to the audience in our recordings is often shaped by decades of experience. In performances, we strive to imagine what the composer heard in his mind. To say it must be for only a certain instrument or at one tempo is obviously too restrictive. Feelings ebb and flow and the pulse of the music needs to have a matching organic quality. Dynamics, phrasing, speeds, at least to some degree, are all being calibrated during a performance. Two performances should never be exactly the same, was the philosophy of one of my teachers and I stand by that. ′
Ronald Brautigam’s recordings of Beethoven’s Complete Piano Sonatas are available from BIS and can be downloaded from https://www.eclassical.com. You can read more about Mr Brautigam at http://www.ronaldbrautigam.com.
Tamami Honma’s recordings of the Beethoven’s Complete Piano Sonatas will be available from Divine Art later in 2022 at https://divineartrecords.com. You can read more about Ms Honma at https://www.tamamihonma.com.
About the author: Julian Brown is a writer and violinist based in Mountain View, California. Born in the UK, he lived for many years in London and has performed in both London and the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the co-founder of the Cal Arte Ensemble, which performs numerous chamber concerts a year in the Bay Area, aiming to make great music available to a wider audience. He also serves as concertmaster for several orchestras including the Cambrian Symphony and the Palo Alto Philharmonic. For more information see https://www.julianbrown.xyz.