Thursday, May 26, 2011

The " Waldstein" Sonata - How Did Beethoven Do This Passage??

The world knows of the power of the gigantic 1804 masterpiece that Beethoven titled "Waldstein."
It most assuredly ranks among the more important of the 32 piano sonatas of The Master.
But, among those who involve themselves, either as performers or listeners, of this massive work, inevitably have to come to terms with a passage toward the end of the third movement; specifically, how to perform, let alone deal with, this unique shard of piano writing.
It consists, at great speed, of a series of octaves done not with both hands, but with one hand, followed by the other hand, in scale patterns moving down, then up. Normally this kind of scale playing at top speed is assigned both hands in simultaneity, and we witness countless examples of this approach done by most composers who write for the piano, usually in transitional sections between melodies.
However, in the Beethoven statement, he asks that each hand do the scale in octaves separately, which makes it both inordinately difficult and a kind of mystery at the same time.
Did Beethoven play these legato? And if so, how can it be done?
Does he want them detached, which would, out of necessity, slow these passages down?
Does he want "glissando"(a gliding over the notes without specific articulation of the fingers, but with the risk of ripping one's cuticles and shedding blood)?
Pianists since Beethoven's writing of the "Waldstein" have wrestled with and come up with answers best suited to their techniques and philosophies.
The most impressive dealing with this problem I know of is the Gilels performance, done in Austria about forty years ago. He uses the "glissando" in a way that absolutely overwhelms me - it is utterly magical, and fits the greater text wonderfully. Additionally, this great pianist, for me, is the best of the Beethoven interpreters from the Russian School.
See if you can find this rather rare video, and marvel at what this man does, especially when he arrives at that daunting passage in the final movement!



Blogger Larry Devlin said...

The word glissando was not coined until the 1870s. Naturally, it does not appear in Beethoven's works.

The coda of the finale of the Waldstein is written Prestissimo, a tempo marking Beethoven uses sparingly. Out of the 32 piano sonatas, prestissimo appears in the finale of Op. 2 #1, the finale of op. 10 #1, the coda of the finale of op. 53, a cadenza in the scherzo of op. 106, and the second movement of op. 109. Beethoven probably wanted this section to be uncommonly fast.

We can adopt the currently accepted theory of tempo relationships between sections to approximate an appropriate lower bound for the prestissimo. The previous section is allegretto moderato. Comparing this to the allegretto of the third movement of the 7th symphony--Beethoven gives a metronome mark of 72. So lets set quarter equals 72 for a reasonable slow tempo for the allegretto. (It probably would seem very slow to most performers) At any rate, by using the 4x tempo relationship classical allegretto to prestissmo we have half equals 144 for a lower bound on the prestissimo section.

Now Beethoven marks the fingering for the scales. He intends all sets of scales to be taken in one hand only. Furthermore, they are marked pianissimo. He also marks them with slurs. So very very fast tempo. Legato technique. One hand octaves. Pianissimo.

Finally, there are NO indications that Beethoven wants the tempo reduced. No written indications, no phrasings, no portati, no "dolce" or "espressivo" markings that Beethoven uses to indicate subtle fluctuations of tempo. Finally, there is nothing of harmonic interest here. Beethoven is cycling between tonic and dominant. There is also nothing of melodic interest. This is all about exploring musical effects and tone color, one of topics of exploration of the whole sonata.

I think it's pretty clear. Regardless of which fancy or famous finger-wiggler did what in concert, Beethoven intended these octaves to be taken as glissandi. He just wouldn't have called them by that name.

March 27, 2016 at 5:04 PM  
Blogger Larry Devlin said...

Sorry i should have said 2nd movement of 7 th symphony.

March 27, 2016 at 5:10 PM  

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