The Waldstein Sonata

The 32 piano sonatas composed by Ludwig van Beethoven between 1795 and 1822 are seen by many as a pinnacle of Western classical music. Some of them are so well-known that they have names, for example the Moonlight Sonata (Claudio Arrau, 1970), the Pathetique (Vladimir Ashkenazy, 1972), the Tempest (Glenn Gould, 1967) and the Appassionata (Emil Gilels, 1973). Numerous recordings are available, I have selected for this blog “old” ones.

Several pianists have recorded all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. For example Artur Schnabel (1932-1935 !), Wilhelm Kempff (1964-65), Daniel Barenboim (2020)

My personal favourite has changed over time. At the moment it is sonata no 21 in C major, opus 53 , the Waldstein sonata, composed in 1804, when Beethoven was 33 years old.

Here is the score of the sonata, by clicking on it you can follow it. Recorded by Wilhelm Kempff

The Wikipedia article about the Waldstein sonata (see the link above) is very informative, it gives a description of the three movements with several sound samples and concludes: It is considered one of Beethoven’s greatest and most technically challenging piano sonatas

Almost all pianists have played the Waldstein and many recordings are available on YouTube. I have selected a few, click on an image to hear the recording. They span almost a century with Lamond the oldest I could find (1923 ?) and Yoshikawa a very recent one (2022).

There are many more. In an article “Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’ Sonata: a guide to the greatest recordings“, Patrick Rucker, himself a professional pianist, discusses twenty recordings. Not much overlap with my “amateur” selection, only Lamond.

I am a fan of András Schiff. I like his playing, I like to see him play and I also like to hear him talk. Talk, yes, because almost twenty years ago, he has given “lecture-recitals” in the Wigmore Hall, London , where he analysed Beethoven piano sonatas before playing them.

Here is what he has to say about the Waldstein. Click on the image to listen to the lecture.

Personally I find his way of lecturing very charming, his way of talking is gentle and softspoken, it gives the impression that he is more or less improvising, although I am sure that his lecture has been prepared in details, with some little jokes every now and then. Very informative, just give it a try.

Of course he talks in this lecture about the second movement of the Waldstein. Beethoven had originally written a different one, but when he played the sonata for his friends, they objected, that it didn’t fit with the other two movements. Apparently Beethoven got angry, but he wrote a replacement anyway, calling it an Introduzione, and for me it makes the Waldstein special.

The original second movement, Andante Favori, is often played as an encore. Here you can listen to both, left the original Andante Favori, right the Introduzione. Both played by Schiff, click on the image to listen. If you have not listened to the full sonata, you may be surprised by the ending of the Introduzione. Actually the third movement follows immediately (“attacca”)

Schiff is a versatile musician, not only a pianist, but also a conductor. He looks to me a very amiable person, but not everyone agrees with that, click here for some sever criticism . I may write a separate blog post about him another time 😉

To end this Waldstein blog, here is a special visual recording. Click to watch. Left hand blue, right hand yellow.

And here is the first page of the manuscript for the Waldstein sonata, written down by Beethoven himself.

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