Would Beethoven take care of his score?

October 22, 2009

Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas represent the ultimate milestone for a pianist. Everybody knows that. Yet there are plenty of different point of views about the right interpretation of this musical testament. Since great pianists began in the nineteenth century to perform Beethoven sonatas as Hans von Bülow, Anton Rubinstein, Artur Schnabel, Ferruccio Busoni, just to mention few important names, a tradition about the art of interpretation was born.
Exactly spoken two main streams of performance have been created since then: those who play with extreme fidelity to the written score and those who prefer to let play the spirit of the composer through his work.
For example Anton Rubinstein was known for his fervid playing, his purpose of deliberate piano virtuosity went beyond the score, creating a unique atmosphere for his audience. Rubinstein seemed to directly communicate with the composer while playing, establishing the connection as a re-creator of the composition and offering the completed work in its entire musical, philosophical, even spiritual dimension to the listeners. But he did not always achieve a consensus among the critics and audience of that time, probably because of his daring manner of virtuosic pianism, imposing histrionics and the power of an individual artistic expression.

On the polar side of interpretative tradition of Beethoven sonatas Hans von Bülow should be mentioned at this point. He proposed another model of recital programs, approaching the historical concerts from the intellectual structure line and defining the performance as an eloquent pianist.
Bülow strictly disapproved elementary recital programs with short piano pieces, rather he wanted to develop such an encyclopedic design of the presented works. His performance of the last five piano sonatas by Beethoven on a single concert evening produced enthusiasm and rejection at the same time. He simply caused this kind of reaction because he intended to educate the audience to achieve a higher intellectual perception and understanding of Beethoven’s musical message.

The quintessence of Beethoven interpretation probably remains a matter of taste. The reception of Beethoven’s music by the audience has been mostly influenced by the personality of the pianist and his own execution of the works.
Nevertheless the unavoidable question of choosing between a faithful reading of the score and a more creative, even inventive and inspiring interpretation still characterizes the main concern.

By paying attention to the concert scene, I notice that today’s concert pianists seem to follow the musical text adherence as a rule for the interpretation of Beethoven sonatas. Text adherence does not necessary mean to express the intrinsic being of Beethoven.
The creator of a masterwork is greater than his creation, the mental form of his work contains more than the written indications using notes, dynamic instructions, pedal signs and tempi. I truly believe that pianists who are seeking for the right interpretation of Beethoven sonatas should try to discover the truth in between the written notes. This truth may appear hidden at first glance, but understanding Beethoven is nothing but a work in progress.