No work of Beethoven’s is easier to play badly

No work of Beethoven’s is easier to play badly


norman lebrecht

April 11, 2020

Welcome to the 57th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Piano Sonata No 14 in C sharp minor op. 27/2 “Moonlight Sonata”

Beethoven’s second sonata under the opus 27 number bears the same title as the first: ‘Sonata quasi una fantasia’. The 14th sonata did not acquire the Moonlight title until a few years after Beethoven’s death when the poet Ludwig Rellstab said that’s what he was reminded of in the opening melody, the moon shining on Lake Lucerne.

The title stuck like chewing-gum to a shoe-sole and could never be removed. It has also featured as the title of a novel, a film, several documentary works, numerous paintings and as the origin of a Beatles’ song ‘Because’, yet that does not explain the enduring popularity of the original music. What gives the Moonlight Sonata its unique place in millions of hearts is the opening melody, which is so simple that that a child or an adult beginner can play it with perfect accuracy after no more than three or four piano lessons.

‘Surely I must have written better things,’ sighed Beethoven when the first royalties rolled in. Contradicting himself, on another occasion he told the piano specialist Carl Czerny that, together with the Appassionata, this was his favourite piano work.

There are 189 different recordings on Idagio and you’d go mad if you listened to more than a tenth of them. No work of Beethoven’s is easier to play badly, and none has been played worse by some of the greatest pianists on record. The hypersensitive Vladimir Horowitz, for instance, performed few of the Beethoven sonatas, choosing the three most popular when he did. He recorded the Moonlight Sonata three times. The first, at Town Hall New York in 1947, is barely listenable in distant, crackly sound. The third, taken in 1973 is aloof to the point of disinterest. The second, taped in his own living room in 1956, has certain unique qualities, such as record speeds in the finale and bizarre twists and turns, which persuade some critics to number it among the great Beethoven redorcirngs. What I miss is the unique timbre that Horowitz brings to every other composer he approaches. He just doesn’t have it in Beethoven.

Infinitely more interesting is the Russian pedagogue Heinrich Neuhaus (1888-1964). A pupil of Scriabin (he made his Moscow debut playing all 10 Scriabin sonatas), he was the teacher of Richter and Gilels and a close friend of Pasternak, who ran off with his first wife. Neuhaus is a Russian cultural monument. When he plays the Moonlight Sonata it does not splash light on a Swiss lake so much as conjure a cloistered contemplation of human dliemms, dreams and disasters. The sound is remarkably clean for Soviet standards and the playing unforgettable. Its antithesis is Maria Yudina, who denies the possibility of pleasure, as if morally deterred by the work’s popularity.

Evgeny Kissin, a pianist who is often likened to Horowitz, creates his own timeworld in Moonlight, and very persuasive it is. Like a university philosopher, Kissin has a way of throwing a bridge of an idea across a sea of ceaseless detail. He keeps the listener’s mind on the main theme as intently in the static opening movement as in the frenetic finale. Some find Kissin a tad detached; in this sonata he is all there.

Lang Lang has not recorded this sonata, at least not yet. His arch-rival Yundi Li, winner of the 2000 Chopin Competition, made a 2012 recording for DG which is exaggerated in both speeds and dynamics and was a great success among his teenaged groupies. Valentina Lisitsa, a Ukrainian with a huge Youtube following, lets herself down with muddy chords in the finale.

Rudolf Serkin occupies a position in American piano playing analagous to Neuhaus’s in Russia. As a teacher at the Curtis Institute and co-founder of the Marlboro Music School and Festival, he mentored three generations of US pianists in a non-intrusive way, cultivating varieties of personality and inclination in his studio. Never a flashy pianist himself, drawn to the drier and more thoughtful composers, he plays the Moonlight as a demonstration piece, his analysis almost audible as he plays. His mind runs twice as fast as his fingers. For comparison, go to the Swiss master Edwin Fischer (1949), who seems to turn inwards where Serkin looks out, yielding nothing to curiosity seekers.

No discussion of the Moonlight Sonata would be complete without taking in the dramatic role of Ignacy Jan Paderewski, formidable virtuoso and, from 1919, first prime minister of independent Poland. Paderewski first recorded the Moonlight in 1906 at a stubbornly deliberate plod when the engineers must have been urging him to speed up as the shellac was running out. He did, just in time. Twenty years later he recorded it again, in New York, wiser and faster. The third recording, and the most famous is the one he made in 1937 for the movie Moonlight Sonata, in which he co-starred opposite Marie Tempest and Charles Farrell.

The story? Young man tries to win the hand of rich girl. A plane with Paderewski on board makes an emergency landing in a field nearby. Turns out Paderewski’s playing brought the girl’s parents together 20 years earlier. Curtains, all live happily ever after. You can hear why people fell in love to Paderewski’s playing: it’s hypnotic.

The great man died three years later in New York, aged 80. His remains were returned to Poland in 1992.


  • Yi Peng Li says:

    I made a mistake in putting my comment on the so-called “Moonlight” in the previous post. Up to now I’ve seen Mr Lebrecht consider grouped works together in the same post rather than individually as here. I’m sorry if I’m repeating myself, but I was wondering if I could put my Moonlight sonata comments on this post as it is more relevant.

    Although it is well-known, I find that many pianists and piano students have misunderstood it.

    Many pianists drag out the first movement, especially the triplet quavers. I see it done this way too frequently, and Fazil Say’s version might be one of the most recent offenders in this regard. Beethoven wants this movement to be a cut time Adagio, not a drawn-out common time Adagio. The minims need to set the pulse, not the crotchets or triplet quavers. If they do, the triplet quavers can move and flow more freely. Also, they can be a reminder of The Well-Tempered Clavier and anticipate the stormy semiquaver arpeggios in the finale.

    I like the pianists who get this balance right. Andras Schiff’s ECM version is one of them, though I don’t entirely agree with his decision to hold the sustaining pedal on his Bosendorfer for the entire movement and blur the harmonies. I know this is Beethoven’s instruction, but the effect on the modern piano is different from the same effect on the fortepiano. Perhaps pianists could try it out on the fortepiano and replicate the effect when reverting to the modern piano.

    Believe it or not, Wilhelm Kempff’s stereo version tilts in that direction too.

  • John Rice says:

    Thanks for the clip of “Moonlight Sonata,” no cinematic masterpiece but a fascinating example of classical music as “art-religion” taken to an amazing–and moving–extreme. You can see the whole thing on Internet Archive:

  • Anon says:

    I am deeply offended that you left out Rubinstein’s RCA recording of this piece!

  • Ignacy Lisiecki says:

    What is worth to mention and is often forgotten Neuhaus was cousin of Szymanowski!! Additionally, uncle of Szymanowski was Felix Blumenthal – teacher of Horowitz. ..

    • norman lebrecht says:

      That I never knew.

      • Ignacy Lisiecki says:

        I wish there was a greater awareness of how much a key figure for Polish music was Szymanowski. He was like a forefather of the modern music in Poland. There was big gap between Chopin and Lutosławski (Hard to imagine this chain of continuation by Lutosławski, Górecki and Penderecki which happened later…)
        There was no Wagner-period in Polish music…
        Szymanowski, we can say, was a “bridge” between romantism and modern.

      • Yi Peng Li says:

        What, never?

    • Antonio Hungria Rosa says:

      BlumenFELD , if you please , sir !

    • esfir ross says:

      Henrich Neuhaus never studied with A.Scryabin. Boris Pasternak did. HN teacher was Leopold Godowsky for 4 years.

  • Emil says:

    Murray Perahia played a phenomenal Moonlight in Montreal several years ago. I remember the beats at the beginning of the third movement being ever so accented, which made the arpeggio come out of the muddle, suddenly giving a direction and a sense to the movement.

    • Yi Peng Li says:

      His conception comes very close to what I described in my comment on the cut time pulse at the start and the stormy finale.

  • christopher storey says:

    The Paderewski performance is indeed hypnotic – and beautiful , but to my 21st century ears the broken left hand chords ( left a fraction of a second early ) are rather hard to take . Incidentally, no references in either Op27 posting to the John Lill performances, which by any standard are beautifully done

    • Petros Linardos says:

      I might have agreed with you about broken chords a couple decades ago, during the 20th century. But I have now acquired a taste for broken chords: when done well, they contribute to a good sound, clarity, and energy. I believe there are good scholarly arguments for their judicious use. Further info on the latter would be most welcome in this discussion.

      • Zsolt Bognar says:

        Hello Petros, Yours is a fascinating observation and topic for sure. I notice that many recordings of composers playing either their own works or those of others features exactly what you are talking about. I hope you are well and safe—I’m grateful to you as always. -z

        • David K. Nelson says:

          Indeed, listen to the famous Library of Congress recital of Szigeti and Béla Bartók and you will hear examples of what came to be regarded as “old fashioned” – but how wonderful – pianism by that arch-modernist.

  • riccardo says:

    ma perchè si scrivono fesserie simili? citare yundili,lang lang, la lisitsa(!!???) e dimenticare Richter, Gliels, Ashkenazy, Pollini e perfino Backhaus, considerato in tutto il’900 il maggiore interprete beethoveniano….roba da veri ignoranti, nati ieri…

    • Dan oren says:

      No Richter recording of this sonata, signoranti

    • Antonio Hungria Rosa says:

      I agree with Riccardo partially , but alas , he forgot Schnabel ! And how about Kempff , Gieseking , F.Gulda or E.Fischer , not to mention Brendel ? These are
      some of the few which convey Beethoven s message most faithfully , in my
      opinion – let s not forget they were brought up in the same Central Europe culture
      to which Beethoven had its roots , no matter how interesting it may be now and
      then to listen to ” Slavicized ” Ludwig van ,or even the distortions and eccentricities of …
      Even so , and having spent all my life listening , enjoying and comparing all the great ones ( I am a pianist and teacher myself ) , my choice for this particular work is Geza Anda .

  • Antonio Hungria Rosa says:

    By the way , although I heard so many of the greatest pianists of different age and schools , no one impressed and moved me so much as Geza Anda !

  • Laurence Mallon says:

    Anche dimenticare Barenboim ! I am not a fan of Barenboim as a conductor, he is not made for that profession. But as a pianist he is excellent and I regularly play his DG recording of the Moonlight. Looks like it was recorded in 1984, according to the back of the CD cover (coupled with the Pastoral and Storm sonatas, nos. 15 and 17, on my Classical Choice reissue). It is neither too slow nor too fast, just ideal IMO. The last movement is suitably fast but articulate.

  • Jan Laron says:

    In this short article many very important pianists are missing:Solomon Backhaus(2) Kempff (2)(even Mr Gould played in His special way) , Gulda (3 recordings) Gilels. One excellent pianist is Rudolf Buchbinder who make 3 different version, Badura Skoda……

    • esfir ross says:

      I heard 3-6-20 Alon Goldstein in concert the most arresting “Moonlight sonata” and excellent the rest of program in San Rafael, CA. It was last concert that I attend before cancelling rest of season. Andras Schiff rendition was loatham.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        3rd June?

      • Antonia Potter says:

        I adore Schiff’s Bach.

        Why can’t world-class pianists play all major composers with stylistic integrity, passion, and excellence? I’ll never understand this. At the university level, this is supposed to be happening in the formation of pianists. What is it- an emotional blockage of some sort with regard to a genre or a composer?

  • Kirill says:

    Listen to a great recording of a Russian artist Maria Grinberg – this is an exemplary Moonlight sonata interpretation.

    Also, Mikhail Pletniev’s recording is very interesting/unusual

  • Feurich says:

    Lang Lang mentioned, not sure why, but no mention of Kovacevich who in my opinion has recorded the best version I have heard?

  • Edgar Self says:

    I heard it first at home from my older sister, then Serkin Rubinstein, Horowitz, Elly Ney, Schnabel, Kempff, Solomon, Paul Lewis, and Edwin Fischer.

    Karel Szymanowski was a youthful friend of Rubinstein, to whom he dedicated the Sinfonia Concertante, which I saw Rubinstein play in San Francisco, and four of the op. 50 Mazurkas. Szymanowski’s crazy-beautiful Concert Etude in B-flat minor, Op. 4, is one of Van Cliburn’s best record, although Szymanowski himself also recorded it.

    Felix Blumenfelf wrote sets of preludes and etudes, among them the celebrated Etude in A-flat fr left-hand alone dedicated to Leopold Godowsky and immortalzied by incredible Simon Barere, twice ,one studio and and a better one live. Other pianists embarrassed themselves attempting it including Leon Fleisher and Michael P.onti.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Shostakovich, a virtuoso pianist himself, loved the adagio of this sonata, alluding to it obsessively and finally quoting it directly in his final work, a sonata for viola and piano, which he finished in hospital three days before he died.

  • Patrick says:

    Paderewski sounds fantastic here. Remember his style is closer to Beethoven than us. Any unusual playing (think Huberman) is difficult to appreciate on first hearings. It can even sound ugly. The test comes when you miss it, when hearing boring predictable players later.

  • Jazzotter says:

    I agree that there are several worthy recordings of this composition. I offer an Honorable Mention to Walter Gieseking’s 1956 recording at Abbey Road.

  • fflambeau says:

    I enjoy the great Claudio Arrau playing this. Emil Gilels is another great interpreter. Also: Rubenstein and Richter.

    In short, all the greats.

  • Rachel Bat-Sarah says:

    That LL has not recorded this sonata is the best news this sonata has had since it was written.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Many above comment on Paderewski’s performance surprisingly, most find good things in it. I didn’t know about his earlier records of it but love his 1928 “Revolutionary” Etude, which storms grandly through the fog … this piece awaits a definitive version for me … and his own poetidcNnocturne in B-flat, with its impressionist “B” section, a piece Stephen Hough took up and recorded, like many others.

    Hough once played it as encore after Chopins four ballades and four scherzi intermingled, still up for it though clearly taxed by his formidable program.

  • Gabriele says:

    Sorry I have red twice your article but I cannot get the sense…at first it seems you want to say that the adagio seems to be very simple to be played but also famous artists performed it badly…then you mention Horowitz saying he does not charachterize his interpretation like as he does playing other composers music….an so? In my opinion this could even be a compliment. Then it follows a very heterogenous lists of artists spanning from Paderewski to Lisitsa without a logic sequence.
    What for? It seems that the original topic (to demostrate how difficoult playing the adagio can be even for stellar artists) is definitely abandoned and now you are just listing a few historical performances in random order . I cannot explain otherwise not mentioning for example Backhaus Kempff or in recent time Pollini Shiff or Barmboim. Honestly if this article had been written by a music blogger I would have considered it enjoyable at least because very good for opening a nice discussion. From a well known author and musicologist like as mr Lebrecht readers would expect something more.

  • Joe Soap says:

    Why does he play it like rock and roll with the right hand before the left hand melody … NO NO NO NO NO!!!! … terrible