Beethoven, though primarily thought of as a great composer, was also the greatest pianist of his age. Only Franz Liszt could approach Beethoven’s virtuosity, and that was decades after Beethoven’s death; Liszt also had the benefit of improved piano technology.
Beethoven was most passionate about his sonatas. He kept composing them, 32 in all, long after he stopped composing his more public works such as the five piano concertos and nine symphonies.
Three great sources of Beethoven’s angst were his encroaching deafness, his tortuous stomach ailments, and the fact that the pianos available to him were utterly inadequate vehicles to capture his genius.
Whereas Beethoven performed public concerts of his larger works, in fact, the only people lucky enough to hear Beethoven’s piano sonatas were guests in private homes. There was only one public concert of his sonatas during his lifetime. The truly lucky would hear Beethoven himself at the piano, but the instruments available to him were less than adequate for the dynamics and nuances of his playing. His dissatisfaction and frustration with the pianos available to him is outlined in Jan Swafford’s new biography on page 194:
“What Beethoven wanted from pianos, as he wanted from everything, was more: more robust build, more fullness of sound, a bigger range of volume, a wider range of notes. As soon as new notes were added to either end of the keyboard, he used them, making them necessary to anyone wanting to play his work. From early on, piano makers asked for Beethoven’s opinion, and they listened to what he said.”
Beethoven was tremendously frustrated by the inability of the fortepianos of his day to emote his compositions. Innovations made by the Steinway Company after Beethoven’s death made for a much stronger, more robust sound. British piano maker Broadwood finally produced a grand piano designed to Beethoven’s satisfaction in 1817, only he’d already lost most of his hearing by then.
Beethoven fans: there is a recent, masterful biography of the composer by Jan Swafford: Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, a large tome coming in at over a thousand pages that my music buddy, Joseph Cevetello, gave me as a birthday present. For anyone interested in the life of one of the greatest artists of any time, it is a must-read. Swafford’s use of the word ‘anguish’ in the book’s title is pertinent. To see why we only have to go to the Heiligenstadt Testament that the composer penned.
Finally, you can hear the pianoforte typical of the ones Beethoven used on a new, beautiful recording of the Beethoven Sonatas & Variations for Cello & Fortepiano, performed by Matt Haimovitz (cello) and Christopher O’Reilly (piano). Recorded on period instruments on the new Pentatone label, this recording is the inaugural release of this label and is an exceptionally well-produced SACD recording.
For this recording, period instruments were used, including an 1823 Broadwood piano, which is the model immediately following the Broadwood that Beethoven played. This particular piano was borrowed from the Beethoven Center at San Jose University for this production. Listening carefully, you can hear how far modern pianos have come from Beethoven’s time. The Broadwood used in this recording sounds strained during fortissimo passages, which are frequent in his sonatas. The top octaves sound thin and tinny. Nevertheless, O’Reilly and Haimowitz more than make up for that; they play with the elegance of a Vladimir Horowitz or a Bill Evans, with the passion of a Hendrix or a John Coltrane. But mostly they play like Beethoven, with respect, passion, and authority. To add to this: with the great recorded sound and acoustics this SACD, the sound of these old, rare and imperfect instruments make these sonatas sound even more interesting.