A Beethoven a day: He called it pathetic

A Beethoven a day: He called it pathetic


norman lebrecht

January 04, 2020

Welcome to the second work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

2 Piano sonata no 8, ‘Pathetique’, opus 13

Beethoven’s titles were mostly supplied by publishers with the aim of maximizing sales. This sonata may be the exception: the young composer liked seeing the words Grand Sonate Pathétique on the cover. It was 1798 and he was finding a healthy following among the moneyed classes in Vienna. The sonata is dedicated to Prince Karl von Lichnowsky and shows some influence of Mozart’s sonata K457, which is in the same key, C minor. The middle movement is literally child’s play. It’s one of the first things your piano teacher puts on the stand as homework.

Intelligent listening begins with Glenn Gould, and may well end there. Gould tries to tease out hidden meanings in Beethoven, not all of them evident to the human eye and ear. In his hands the sonata is not so much deceptively simple as comprehensively deceptive. The finale goes way off the metronome into a realm of excitement all its own.

The eccectric Austrian iconoclast Friedrich Gulda is so slow in the middle movement he’s almost static. Gulda’s personality, though, is hypnotic. You, too, don’t move while he plays. Of his three recordings, this is the one to try.

Idagio lists 133 recordings of this sonata, going way back to Frederick Lamond and Wilhelm Backhaus in 1926-7. Arthur Schnabel is the first to command attention: masterly, unemotional, subversively witty in unexpected places. No-one goes very far in this sonata without first hearing Schnabel, who offers lavish encouragement to the amateur in flourishes of wrong notes.

Edwin Fischer, in 1938, exemplifies a quieter authority – a technical agility that allows him to accomplish anything at high speed without appearing flashy, allied to a lively mind that drives the argument off the beaten track.

The Pathétique was a favourite of Arthur Rubinstein’s; his earliest take, dated 1946, wears a smiley face.

From then on, practically every person with a full set of fingers has given the Pathetique a go. The complete cyclists who record the full set of 32 tend to give it less individual attention than the more daunting sonatas. I’m ruling out Kempff, Arrau, Brendel, Ashkenazy, Barenboim, Jeno Jando, Bishop-Kovacevich, Buchbinder, Pollini, Levit, though each has merits.

Two that particularly catch my ear are the Austrian scholar Paul Badura-Skoda, who plays in 1953 with a sense of discovery as if the whole of music flows from this remarkable work, and the Argentine Ingrid Fliter whose touch in the middle movement is daringly dreamy.

I turned to my friend Amir Mandel, chief critic of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, whose favourites include Emil Gilels (romantic and powerful), Richard Goode (restrained yet very moving), Artur Rubinstein( aristocratic, non-sentimental, beautiful) and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (great touch; great structure). The last is a real surprise – recklessly fast, yet constantly revealing.

Final call? Gould, Gulda, Fischer, Fliter, Bavouzet.



  • fflambeau says:

    It’s really nice to compare pianists. I recently did the same thing with Robert Schumann’s “Des Abends” the first part of his Fantasiestücke, Op. 12.

    I listened to numerous choices at YouTube and decided that 3 stood out: renditions by Benno Moiseiwitsch (1890-1963) (Russian); Alfred Cortot (1877 –1962) (French/Swiss); and Wilhelm Backhaus (1884 – 1969) (German). His name is sometimes spelled Bachaus. All three (who oddly enough, were all contemporaries) are considered among the greatest pianists of the last century.

    There seemed to be a noticeable difference between the older pianists (more of an individual interpretation) and newer greats (Argerich, Brendel, Ax, for instance). Also, perhaps a lighter touch which fits this very dreamy piece well.

  • fflambeau says:

    You might want to listen to the late Wilhelm Bachaus play this Beethoven piece. Very different tempo (faster) than most. He was perhaps the leading German pianist of his day and is considered an all-time great.


    • Esther Cavett says:

      ==Schnabel, who offers lavish encouragement to the amateur in flourishes of wrong notes.

      LOL. Ruggiero Ricci in an interview once mentioned Schnabel saying that “he wouldn’t have a career these days”

    • Alexander Tarak says:

      Backhaus was a wonderful pianist.
      His interpretations (there are several to choose from ) of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto are for me the amongst the very best.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Richard Goode is a great pianist and excels at Beethoven, among others. Unfortunately, his Beethoven set on Nonesuch doesn’t do him full justice. I don’t hear in the the fluid sororities I have heard from him live. I am inclined to blame close miking.

    • A Pianist says:

      Who really suffered from this was Claude Frank. His Beethoven was just incredible in person. With all due respect to Music and Arts he is way too tight-miked and the recordings are just a shadow of what he could really do. He was disappointed in them too.

  • Derek says:

    I like Gould and enjoyed Brendel.

    Thanks, I will seek out Ingrid Fliter as she has been mentioned to me by others.

  • Novagerio says:

    Emil Gilels!

  • Edgar Self says:

    It more closely trminfd mr og Bach’s second partita also in C minor. The “Pathetique” first movement sounds to me like a French overture, like Bach’s partita. The first movement repeat seems to be misplaced and should go back to the opening grave instead of its following allegro. The first four notes on Beethoven’s rondo are the same as those of the partita’s allegro.

    Some pianists play it that way, repeating back to the opening Grave. If the repeat is omitted, the Grave is what comes next.

    I like Flambeau’s comment, and the mentions of Benno Moiseiwitsch, Alfred Cortot, Rubinstein, Edwin Fischer and Wilhem Bachaus, which how he originally spelt his name. I saw all five of them play live, along with Petri, Kempff, Gieseking, and Elly Ney, also Goode, Gould, and Paul Lewis, I am alas too young to have seen Schnabel, but I’ve listened to him.

  • Enrique Sanchez says:

    THIS comment has a link to Gulda but it goes to GOULD instead. Was that a goof?

    “The eccectric Austrian iconoclast Friedrich Gulda is so slow…”

  • Greg Bottini says:

    My fave “Pathetiques” (in no particular order): Gulda, Gilels, Craig Shepard, Nat, Schnabel.
    And for all of the sonatas, Badura-Skoda’s series on various period instruments is fascinating and enlightening. It should be reissued soonest!

  • Marilyn Roth says:

    “The middle movement is literally child’s play. It’s one of the first things your piano teacher puts on the stand as homework.”

    PLEASE stay away from that teacher. . . . .

  • Mark Ringer says:

    Schnabel “unemotional”?

  • Edgar Self says:

    Re Flambeau’s opening post about his comparisons of Schumann’s “Des Abends” from “Fantasiestuecke”. Benno Moiseiwitsch’s is the most beautiful and unforgettable recording I’ve heard of it. His subtle pedaling carries the opening note of many phrases over through the following notes, like a phosphorescence. Alfred Cortot’s is also memorable, and prescious as the only piece in this set he recorded, as the last side in an album of Bach-Vivaldi’s Concerto in D minor that omits the final fugue, arranged by Bach-Stradal-Cortot.

    Richter and Vladimir Sofronitzki are also notable, but Moiseiwitsch takes the cake as he does in the following “Warum” a little later in the set, and in the big Fantasy in C, which gave even Horowitz trouble.