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My Interpretation of Sonata Op. 10 No. 1 by Beethoven

Cory Hall

Beethoven's fifth piano sonata, Op. 10 No. 1, in C minor is one of the least difficult of the 32 Sonatas, which is traditionally rated around level 8 or 9. For this reason, it has been on of the most popular Beethoven sonatas for late intermediate to early advanced piano students. However, this sonata is by no means "easy" and as Andras Schiff so rightly points out in his informative lecture (see video below), even in his less difficult works Beethoven never made compromises. As in any great work of music, even the "less difficult" works require the utmost care in detail and expression to make a successful performance. This sonata has grown on me after learning it and teaching it over the past few months. It has become one of my favorite of all Beethoven's sonatas. Many aspects of my interpretation are quite different from the norm, especially the first and second movements, which I would like to illuminate in this blog. In order to become oriented with this work, I highly recommend listening to Schiff's 50-minute lecture (accompanied by some playing) of this work: [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E5_FL5LLU7E&w=420&h=315]

Next, Here is my performance of the work played on my 1929 Model "L" Steinway, which I recorded in one afternoon on November 11, 2013. Accompanying my performance following this video are some of my thoughts pertaining to my performance. The timings are listed below so that you may fast-forward to select movements.

I. Allegro molto e con brio [0:05] II. Adagio molto [5:37] III. Finale: Prestissimo [12:29]

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2dDguzTw3Q&w=560&h=315]

First Movement

One of the first things one notices about the opening of the first movement is that I hold the pedal down over the first two measures. I do this for all the "Mannheimer Rocket" motives. (Schiff aptly refers to this ascending motive as a "Mannheimer Rocket" motive, popular in the classical period.) Most pianists do not hold the pedal during this ascending motive, which in my opinion is a big mistake. Holding the pedal adds power and sonority to an otherwise "dry" passage.

The next thing one notices, especially pianists who have played this sonata, is that I distribute the notes of this ascending motive between the two hands rather than playing them all with the right hand, as indicated. I do this every time the ascending motive appears, which adds to the joy and fun of playing it. After becoming used to playing alternating hands for this motive, I cannot even go back to the "normal" way of right hand only. To all pianists out there: Please give this a try and I guarantee you will never want to go back to playing the right hand only! Playing both hands is not only more fun and gratifying, but it virtually guarantees absolute precision every time. Playing one hand is much more "risky" and very easily results in slightly incorrect rhythms.

Speaking of rhythm, I believe the opening dotted rhythms are best played as triplets rather than as literal dotted eighths and sixteenths. This is because Beethoven implies triplet subdivisions due to the triplets in measures 17-20. It is significant that this movement is completely absent of sixteenth notes except for these dotted rhythms. Listen to Schiff, Alfred Brendel, or Richard Goode play the opening motive. In my opinion all of these openings are terrible because they play literal dotted eighths and sixteenths rather than triplets. Their readings sound unnatural, too pointed, and "forced." Sometimes music benefits when the rhythmic values are not taken so literally, as we will also see in the second movement.

A few other things in the first movement are worth pointing out. Notice how I play the transitional theme in measures 48-55 slightly slower than the usual tempo. I like this because it helps to emphasize the playful character of the second theme in measure 56, which I play at my "Tempo I" speed of 72 per measure. Also, notice in measures 76-77 how I break the arpeggio up between the hands, which I do simply because it is more "fun" this way. I take measure 76 with the RH fingers 1-2-3-2-3-5 followed by crossing over the LH 2-3-2-1 and then the crossing over the RH 1-2-4. I know this may seem complicated at first; however, I am confident pianists will love this fingering. I do a similar thing in the parallel passage in measures 253-254, but in this case I use RH 1-2-4-1-2-3-5, LH 2-1, RH 1-2-3-5. I also hold the pedal over these passages, which adds power and sonority. Many pianists play the closing theme (measures 94-105, 271-281) slower and more "Maestoso" than their "Tempo I"; however, I strongly advocate not doing this because I don't think it sounds good. Both Brendel and Schiff slow down considerably here, which in my opinion kills the "Allegro molto" and "con brio" characters.

Second Movement

This is one of Beethoven's most beautiful slow movements out of all his sonatas, but I believe it is one of the most misinterpreted movements in that it is played much too slowly. I also have reason to believe that this slowness is not necessarily performers' fault, but rather, has to do with the strong possibility that Beethoven (or his printers) made some major inadvertent errors in rhythmic notation. Most performers gauge their tempo from the highly ornate measures 28 and 30, 75 and 77, in that, at least in theory, one's overall tempo should be no faster than one can play these passages clearly and accurately. But even at an excruciatingly slow tempo, these measures are still very difficult to play.

I have never liked these measures because they stick out like a "sore thumb" and disrupt the tempo flow for the entire movement. That is, choose a tempo slow enough to where these passages become playable, in which case this tempo obviously becomes much too slow for the whole movement, or, choose a more musical (faster) tempo from the beginning, which unfortunately makes these passages unplayable. I have a simple solution to this problem, which you can hear in my performance. First, I choose a tempo that is considerably faster than virtually all other pianists at 72 per eighth note (which is still within the realm of a classical "Adagio"); Second, when I arrive at these famous passages, I double the note values -- that is, I change the eighth notes in the left hand to quarter notes and subtract a line from all the "fast" notes values above. I believe Beethoven was not thinking clearly here and in fact intended the note values to be doubled. More evidence that Beethoven chose the wrong note vales here is further suggested in measures 8 and 53. In these measures, the only way the trills can be correctly played along with their two-note terminations followed by 32nd and 64th notes is if all these notes values are doubled, thus adding one more quarter-note beat to these measures and turning them into 3/4 measures. Indeed, this is what I do in my performance and it is also what many other pianists do perhaps without even realizing they are adding an extra beat to these measures.

In sum, the second movement in my opinion is greatly enhanced with a flowing tempo such as 72 per eighth note, and it is further enhanced by doubling the note values in the improvisatory passages in measures 8 and 53 (turning these into 3/4 measures) as well as measures 28, 30, 75, 77 (turning each of these measures into two measures). It simply does not make musical sense to let four measures determine the tempo of the entire movement, especially if this tempo causes the movement to die. My tempo of 72 per eighth and total duration of 6:40 is perhaps the fastest second movement of Op. 10 No. 1 on record. Compare my time of 6:40 to Brendel's slothful 9:00 or Gilel's painfully slow 11:45! The average time for most pianists seems to be a full two minutes slower than my performance.

Third Movement

My interpretation of the third movement does not differ much from the traditional approach taken by most pianists. I am simply happy to have been able to play it very fast and clean at a regular, quasi-metronomic tempo. This "Prestissimo" movement is extremely beneficial for early advanced piano students. My favorite passages are in measures 34-35 and 91-92, which is one of the few places in all of Beethoven's piano works to feature three against four (3:4) polyrhythms. There is simply no guesswork or approximations here -- either one can play three against four or one cannot. I highly recommend that students learn 3:4 polyrhythms with a C-major scale while working on these 3:4 passages, which are by far the most technically difficult sections of this movement. I know through experience that few pianists play 3:4 polyrhythms correctly (even many professional pianists) and that piano teachers rarely assign 3:4 exercises to students (because they often cannot play them themselves). Once one can play these passages correctly, they tend to fly off the fingers with little effort. Please see the video below for a tutorial on 3:4 polyrhythms!

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gl0rK_vsB04&w=420&h=315]