By Marten Noorduin
(Image: Beethoven in 1818. Pencil drawing by August von Kloeber. Beethoven-Haus Bonn)
Between late 1817 and early 1819, Beethoven wrote one of his most substantial works for piano: the Sonata op. 106 in B-flat major, now often known as the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata. Although it has now secured its place in the repertoire, it only acquired this position several decades after it was written, unlike some of Beethoven’s other works which were popular straight away, such as the Septet op. 20. This can be at least partially explained by the fact that throughout its lengthy playing time the performer of op. 106 is confronted with almost insurmountable technical challenges, often exacerbated by the rather fast tempo that Beethoven indicates. This is particularly clear at the beginning of the first movement. Here is Artur Schnabel’s admirable but by no means flawless attempt to tackle these difficulties, recorded in the 1930s:
Other pianists have delivered much more controlled performances, but have often done so by playing all four movements at a slower speed than indicated. A good example of such a pianist is Alfred Brendel, whose performance of the first movement in particular has a much less hurried feeling than Schnabel’s:
Of course, twentieth-century pianists were hardly the first to struggle with this sonata, as the piece was considered unusually difficult to understand in the first decades after publication. This can be seen in an article published on 5 January 1835 in the French periodical Le Pianiste, which discusses all of the opus numbers individually up to and including the sonata op. 101. The remaining sonatas (except op. 111, which the reviewer does not even mention) are described as almost impenetrable, a judgment that is applied to op. 106 in particular.
(Anon., ‘Notices: Luigi Van Beethoven, considéré comme pianist …’, Le Pianiste, Journal Spécial Pour le Piano, les Théâtres lyriques et les Concerts, 2e année, no. 5 (5 Janvier 1835), 33-34.)
Op. 106, 109, 110. In these three works, —106 in particular,—the musical sense is almost as clear as in a philosophical treatise of Kent, or a chapter of M. Cousin. There is no doubt that Beethoven—who was more deaf than ever at this time—did not understand himself what he wrote; but his infirmity, so fatal to a musician, had perhaps rendered his intuitive sense more delicate, and enabled him to see nebulae which we cannot distinguish. In general, his last works are imbued with a sort of mysticism that is impenetrable to the common people.
The next year, however, Franz Liszt played op. 106 in Paris, and Hector Berlioz reviewed it in some detail La Revue et Gazette musicale de Paris. According to the review, Liszt (consistently spelled Listz in this periodical!) had broken through the perceived impenetrability, resulting in what appears to be the first positive review of a performance of this sonata.
(H. Berlioz ‘Listz’, La Revue et Gazette musicale de Paris, 3e année, no 24 (12 juin 1836): 198-200.)
Liszt has explained the work in such a way that if the composer himself had returned from the grave, joy and pride would have swept over him. Not a note was left out, not one added (I followed the performance with the sheet music), not one alteration was made in the tempo that was not indicated in the text (….) It was the ideal performance of a work with the reputation of being unperformable. Liszt, in bringing back a work that was previously not understood has shown that he is a pianist of the future. Honor to him!
Whether or not Liszt actually followed the metronome mark in the score is difficult to say, but Berlioz’s article seems to suggest that Liszt’s performance was probably not far off. Three years later, Moscheles played this sonata in England, and although the reviewer of his performance seems to have been less familiar with the work, Moscheles’s performance still left a good impression:
(Anon., ‘Musical Intelligence. Metropolitan’, The Musical World, New Series, Vol. IV, No. 64 — Vol. XI, No. 158 (March 21, 1839): 182-83.)
Although the reviewer is certainly not as dismissive of op. 106 as the author of the article in Le Pianiste mentioned above, the enthusiasm that characterized Berlioz’s writing on Liszt’s performance is not present, the reviewer’s praise for Moscheles’s technical abilities notwithstanding. Instead, the reviewer points out that there ‘is much to be developed by a full and perfect acquaintance with this work’, indicating that the piece was not as well understood. Perhaps indicative of this are the alterations that Moscheles made to the sonata in the Cramer edition, which he edited, apparently unbeknownst to this reviewer. One of the more noticeable and presumably impactful ones was changing the metronome mark for the first movement from =138 to ♩=138, since the former seemed unreasonably fast to him. Most recent scholarship, however, and many performers too have come down on the side of =138 as the intended speed.
The unusually slow metronome mark in Moscheles´s edition of op. 106 did attract skepticism, especially from pianists. In 1857, one correspondent, a certain R.A.M, wrote the following passionate letter to the editor of the Musical World, pointing out a particular problem with taking a speed of ♩=138 in performance:
(R. A. M., ‘The Metronome. To the Editor of the Musical World’, The Musical World, Vol. 35 — No. 34 (August 22, 1857): 532.)
Miss Goddard, who both the editor and R.A.M refer to, was a young pianist who had recently given several performances of op. 106 in England, and with great success. Provided that the editor did not misrepresent her interpretation, she seemed to have played the piece at a speed of around of =100. Despite this alteration—or perhaps because of it!—her performances appear to have constituted the emancipation of this work in the United Kingdom, as several reviews of the time show:
(Anon., ‘Miss Arabella Goddard (From the Morning Herald), The Musical World, Vol. XXXI, No. 17 (April 23, 1853): 253.)
(Anon., ‘Miss Arabella Goddard (From the Atheneum), The Musical World, Vol. XXXI, No. 17 (April 23, 1853): 254.)
It is of course unlikely that we can get a much clearer picture of how Liszt or Goddard played the sonata beyond these descriptions, considering the absence of recording technology and the scarceness of the evidence. Even the degree to which they followed the metronome mark of the first movement is difficult to assess, although it appears that both Goddard and Moscheles simply played the movement slower than indicated. Whether Liszt adhered to the speed is hard to say with certainty, but a recent performance by Stephan Möller shows that the indicated speed is at least within the realm of possibilities, even on a modern piano:
For a detailed discussion of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata op. 106, see András Schiff’s lecture from 2004 in the Wigmore Hall in London.
Search tip: Concert reviews are available in RIPM in many languages, and the database contains a wealth of information on the repertoires, venues, reception, and even performers themselves. As the above shows, searching for particular repertoires can bring to light the struggles of past musicians and the critical trajectories of certain repertoires, but entering the names of performers into the database can often provide interesting biographical information on prominent musicians of the time, many of whom have now been largely forgotten. Consider the following letter to the editor of the Musical World, dated 22 August 1857, on the popular Austrian bass singer Joseph Staudigl (1807-1861).