Dry Beethoven

by Dominic Blackwell

I don’t pretend to be an expert on keyboard performance practices. I am just a music graduate with an interest in historically-informed performance who likes playing Baroque, Classical and Romantic period pieces on the piano.

I don’t have a clavichord, harpsichord or fortepiano but I like to try to play as idiomatically as I can on a modern instrument. When I’m doing Baroque (mostly Bach), the decision making about the pedal is simple. Baroque keyboard writing is contrapuntal music written for instruments with no sustain pedal so any pedal gets in the way. Simple.

When I get to Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven things get more complex. Although sustaining mechanisms became available during when these works were written, I do not believe contemporary ‘legato pedalling’ was commonplace. When the pedal is asked for explicitly it seems to be as a special effect, not an ornament. And even Czerny’s statment that Beethoven used more pedal than indicated in the score may well refer to holding down the pedal to produce a hazy improvisational effect rather than continuous legato pedalling.

It seems to me that modern pianists tend to overdo the ‘tasteful’ pedalling. Clumsy pedalling is seen as a fault but unthinkingly using the pedal to add extra resonance is seen as standard practice just, as pre-HIP string players tended to add vibrato to all long notes.

My experiments have shown that playing Beethoven sonatas with no pedal except where indicated is very freeing, especially if combined with really going for the phrasing off of all the slurs. I love the way that you can drive Beethoven’s rhythms with crisp articulation and achieve a world of expressive effects using various lengths of silence between notes.

I modern piano performances of Classical period works are too smooth, resonant and even. I would rather risk what is commonly described as choppiness in exchange for liveliness, character and rhythmic drive. I like my Beethoven dry.

Why don’t you give it a go and see what you think?

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