Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Barenboim Plays Beethoven: Sonata Pathetique

Daniel Barenboim, pianist, one of the outstanding interpreters of our time, plays one of Beethoven's signature sonatas, Op. 13, Pathetique. Listen first, then you can decide whether to read my ramblings:

I was probably about 13 years old when I finally confronted this sonata at the other kind of keyboard. Believe me when I say that a 13-year-old is not ready for this work, physiologically or musically, but sometimes I think that a 130-year-old would not be, either. My dear parents suffered politely as I hammered my way through the work ("Hammerklavier" takes on a different meaning when a kid does it). Dad took a second job at night and bought the piano for Mom and for me; Dad himself didn't play or... if we could prevent it... sing.

Barenboim may not be today's version of a Beethoven scholar; he is 72 years old now, and people of his generation had a different idea of how Beethoven should be played than many of today's original-instruments performers. But in the case of Beethoven and Barenboim, I am not one to quibble. When one of the great interpreters of our era applies his skill and inspiration to one of the great creators of art music of all time, we all have to listen with respect and enjoyment.

Beethoven was not afraid of the future; many have remarked that when it comes to piano in particular, the instruments of his day sometimes did not survive his relentlessly aggressive attack. I am willing to concede (as I do not with most composers) that Beethoven required of his instruments things they could not provide. A concert in a sports arena with a speaker stack blaring bright and loud in every remote corner would probably have suited his personal taste. Surely Beethoven would conceive the Pathetique more the way Barenboim renders it than the performances Beethoven heard (when he could hear).

(Some say today is Beethoven's birthday. Maybe so: it is better established that he was baptized on the 17th.)


  1. How I love the Pathetique. I first heard it as a child and was probably the first time my spirit exulted.

    1. Michael, the Pathetique was the first I realized that Beethoven wrote genuinely deep piano music. Before that, all I knew were the slow movement of the Moonlight and the work "Für Elise" for his student. The Pathetique blew me away, even as I realized I'd probably never be able to do justice to it at the keyboard. In my early teens I counted my pennies and bought an old Artur Rubenstein recording of four famous sonatas (the others were Das Lebewohl or Les Adieux, the Waldstein and (of course) the Mondschein. I came to realize why Karl Haas, pompous soul that he was, chose the humble middle movement of Pathetique for his theme. Ah, those were good days!



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