The artists who make Beethoven laugh

The artists who make Beethoven laugh


norman lebrecht

February 28, 2020

Welcome to the 38th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Piano sonatas nos 16 to 18, opus 31 (1801-2)

The three sonatas grouped under this catalogue number are often seen as light entertainment. Alfred Brendel writes of opus 31/1 that ‘only the comic intent’ makes it ‘plausible’.  Jeremy Denk feels it ‘is not a serious piece with jokes in it, like those annoying ‘gag lines’ that people scatter into their boring speeches. Humor is structural, form-defining, essential; the whole edifice is laughing, laughing at its core.’

Beethoven as stand-up comedian?No way. He’s a young man in a hurry, at the top of his game, possibly in love. What he may be feeling is something akin to happiness and that emotion might bring a smile to his lips. But everything Beethoven writes has serious intent. The new playfulness that Brendel finds in the first of his three recordings of opus 31/1 is not Beethoven playing the joker in either sense of the term. Skip to the third movement and you’ll find him leading you down a contemplative path with no visible end, possibly into an abyss. For the fullness of the fun, Friedrich Gulda has all the best lines. For strait-laced solemnity, you’ll be well suited by Rudolf Buchbinder.

These are just three Austrian takes on the most/least fun anyone can have with a Beethoven piano sonata. As far as opus 31/1 is concerned you haven’t really experienced it until you’ve sat through the wild clatter of Glenn Gould on speed, or the delicate, composer-like reinvention of the Turkish pianist Fazil Say, who makes the middle movement sound like a reconstructed Mozart fragment played on a pub piano: fragile, and so beautiful. It’s my current go-to.

That same middle movement exists in a 1909 player-piano roll by the elderly French composer Camille Saint-Saens. I never thought of Saint-Saens as a Beethoven man. After hearing this, I still don’t.

For opus 31/2, also known as The Tempest, go to Heinrich Neuhaus, the most influential piano teacher in Russia, numbering both Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels among his pupils. Neuhaus cited Arthur Rubinstein as the pianist he would die for (he left a suicide note after hearing a Rubi recital in 1912), but nothing in his performance reflects his idol’s caprice and wit, nor the insouciant certainty of Richter or the stressful empiricism of Gilels. Neuhaus gives a rather tentative reading, delicate to the point of fissure and far from stormy. It’s a teacher’s interpretation, from the greatest of teachers. You want to know how to play Beethoven? Start here, then grow your own.

The storm breaks in the third movement and it is terrifyingly realised by Maria Yudina, reputedly Stalin’s favourite pianist and (like Neuhaus) a friend of the persecuted poets Pasternak and Mandelstam. Yudina’s account of the sonata as a whole, and the finale in particular, is wanton and wilful to a degree no living pianist would dare emulate. I listened to Helene Grimaud straight after and regretted it – not because there’s anything pallid about the French pianist but for its lack of blood and tears. Yudina lays her life on a line of black-and-white keys, and that’s more than one could reasonably expect from a musician who does not face the same existential threat as she did.

Richter, live at Carnegie Hall in December 1960, is like wrong weather forecast, utterly self-convinced there is going to be a storm even though the sun is shining outside and there’s a gentle breeze from the west. There’s no arguing with Richter when he’s in this mood. Gilels offers confident shelter in his storm, a mountain guide who knows his way home. For reasons I cannot fully understand, the Russian seem to own this sonata.  There’s one more I’d like you to hear. It’s by Käbi Laretei, Estonian-Soviet fourth wife of the Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman and the inspiration for his film Autumn Sonata. Fluent in six languages and a formidable intellectual, Laretei plays with a wisdom and tranquility that belie her turbulent family history and her wary approach to life and art. Undoubtedly a magnificent talent.


The first pianist I listened to with full attention in opus 31/3 was Arthur Rubinstein, and he was not my first choice. Polish and Jewish, Rubinstein started out playing Chopin and seducing ballet dancers, opera singers and wives of the British aristocracy. He was happiest performing the composers he hung out with – Debussy, Ravel, De Falla, Szymanowski, Stravinsky, Prokofiev. He allowed himself to seem too frivolous for Beethoven, but in this sonata he sounded like no one else. Endowed with far more technique than he needed for so classical a work, Rubinstein takes an introspective tempo, pondering the spaces in-between as mch as the notes itself. ‘Miarculous’ was the response of one of our panel members, the violinist and conductor Nikolaj Znaider. ‘We think of him as a virtuosic and charismatic performer, which he certainly was,’ says Nikolaj, ‘but his Beethoven was (similar to how we both think about Milstein) pure and timeless.’ In four recordings, made over 30 years, the tempo hardly varies. Rubinstein had one idea for this concerto and brought it off with matchless panache.

The counterweight to Rubinstein is the Russian pianist Maria Israelevna Grinberg, whose tough life left no room for levity. Taught primarily by her mother in Odessa, she came to the fore in her late 20s, only to see her father and husband murdered by Stalin in 1937 and herself reduced to accompanying provincial ballet troupes. She was not seen on stage again until after Stalin’s death and was only allowed out to one western country, the Netherlands. As her eyesight failed, she recorded the 32 Beethoven sonatas for the state record company Melodiya in 1970, only to suffer the indignity of negligible distribution. Maria Grinberg died, aged 69, in 1978.


Her no-nonsense opening to opus 31/3 belies an interpretation of the most colourful and intriguing character. Check in at three minutes into the second movement and you will hear Grinberg decnstruct a Beethoven phrase into nothingness, like sand slipping through fingers. So much about her approach is inimitable that it ought to carry a health warning: do not try this at home. But every origial effect that Grinburg brings to ear has an inherent logic in the structure of the sonata. When you finish listening, you know why she played this way. Beyond that, you know the 18th sonata will never sound this way again.


  • Greg Bottini says:

    ALL these pianists are marvelous, and wonderful, and should be heard.
    But I must add to this listing the name of Craig Sheppard, an American pianist whose live concert recordings of the 32 sonatas were released on Romeo Records.
    An amazing musician who studied with, among others, Claude Frank, Lillian Kallir, and Clifford Curzon, he has to be heard to be believed.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    I think the Op. 31 sonatas by Beethoven are to be listened/programmed all together. They form a cohesive “trilogy” – the “comic”, the “tragic”, and the “lyrical” sonatas according to scholar and pianist Charles Rosen. I like very much Rosen’s recording.

  • Paul Pellay says:

    Saint-Saëns not a Beethoven man? I’d say his Variations on a theme of Beethoven for 2 pianos op.35 – which is in fact based on the Trio of the Minuet from LvB’s 18th Sonata – should suffice as a contradiction to such a claim……

    • David K. Nelson says:

      You hear more of a “Beethovenian” side to Saint-Saëns in some of his relatively ignored chamber music than in the music that is most popular. His own piano teacher had been a pupil of Kalkbrenner, who had at least some direct contact with Beethoven, with whom he shared a teacher (Albrechtsberger). And Saint-Saëns was well-acquainted with George Bridgetower, with whom Beethoven was closely associated for a time.

      He played Beethoven’s third piano concerto at his debut concert; at the concert where he conducted the premiere of his “Organ” symphony, he played Beethoven’s 4th concerto. That may be no guarantee of sympathy for the Beethoven style I suppose, but it does suggest that when the stakes were highest, Saint-Saëns would turn to Beethoven.

      Piano rolls (and even acoustic recordings) and be an iffy way to judge any artist but Saint-Saëns had enough links to the era of Beethoven (and enough respect for and knowledge about earlier eras of music, into the Baroque) that any fragment we have of his playing Beethoven should be listened to carefully.

    • Herbert Pauls says:

      Part of the Saint-Saëns lore was that he could also play the complete Beethoven sonatas at the age of 10.

  • Edgar Self says:

    I like Paul Lewis i his complete set, and Rubinstein in Sonata 18 Op. 31/3 more than Norman does. Rubinstein first recorded just the Menuetto as final side in his first “Appassionata” on 78s, the first “Appassionata” to make sense of some passages and still one of the best.

    Walter Gieseking was good in the “Tempest” Richter is always worth hearing in Beethoven, also Schnabel.

  • David R. Moran says:

    kovacevich in these (and all else, esp the earlier rounds of his work): such strength informing the wit

  • Edgar Self says:

    Saint-Saens also wrote a first-movement cadenza for Beethoven’s fourth concerto that Rubinstein played and recorded.

  • GrazziDad says:

    Agree totally on Yudina and Rubinstein (Arthur), but wanted to question whether the Rubinstein that Neuhaus was referring to was Anton (not Arthur, as it says in the article).

  • Edgar Self says:

    GrazziDad,– Heinrich (Genrich) Neuhaus (Neighas) and the younger Arthur (Artur) Rubinstein were lifelong friends from Warsaw days. I think it likely was he. Rubinstein visited Neuhaus in hospital in Moscow a few days before he died. There is a photograph. After a lifetime of “Artur” thanks to Sol Hurok and Rubinstein’s own statements, I’m too old to get used to Arthur and reserve it for Friedheim. But I’m glad you agree in liking his Op. 3l, No. 3 18th sonata. Another that Rubinstein played early and late was Sonata 26, “Les Adieux” (Leebwohl).

    I’m also glad to have a chance to mention Josef Hofmann, who impressed me in the fast scherzo of No. 18.

  • Edgar Self says:

    AArrau made Beethoven laugh in the “Eroica” variations, or vice-versa, particularly at the point it gets stuck on a stubborn acciacatura, and anyone can make Beethoven laugh in “Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu”, even Cortot-Thibud-CSls, but no-one yet has made me laugh at “Rge over a Lost Groschen”. There are laughs apenty in the symphonie and piano concertos1, 2, and 5.