Barenboim’s Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas as Rite of Passage

Manuscript page of Beethoven's Piano Sonata 30, opus 109.


If the Well-Tempered Clavier of J.S. Bach is the Old Testament of keyboard music, the 32 piano sonatas of Beethoven are the New Testament. This is the judgment of the late 19th century pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, a staunch Wagnerian, but also a close friend of Johannes Brahms.

Bülow was the first artist to perform the entire Beethoven cycle from memory. Artur Schnabel, in the late 1920s, was perhaps the next (though legend has it that the 10 year old Camille Saint-Saens offered to play any movement from any of the sonatas as a concert encore.) Schnabel was also the first to record the complete cycle. According to the notes of the Naxos CD remastering of the 1935 set:

Artur Schnabel’s pioneering Beethoven Sonata Society recordings were originally issued on 204 78-rpm sides in fifteen volumes, each containing six or seven discs. The first twelve sets contained the thirty-two sonatas, usually packaged as one early, one middle and one late sonata per album. Variations, bagatelles and sundry short pieces occupied the final three volumes.

Since then, a recording of the complete sonatas has been a mandatory rite of passage for scores of pianists aspiring to world class status; many of them have recorded the works multiple times as markers of their own growth, embracing the latest technologies: recording fidelity of solo piano has always presented one of the greatest engineering challenges.

The most recent pianist to undertake climbing this musical summit is the 24-year-old HJ Lim, who has a new set available, not on CDs, but exclusively via online download from iTunes—yet another marker of the progressive dismantling of traditional recording practices. EMI has released a video promo of Lim explaining the rationale of undertaking such a formidable task so early in her career. You may want to just dip into the flavor of her interview, as it’s rather unfocused.

True, Lim scores worthwhile points about the efficacy of internet distribution and the easy access it affords to people around the world for whom CDs may be unavailable. But just what are you getting with these digital downloads? If the clips I’ve heard are indicative of her interpretations, then the playing is as glib and superficial as the interview sound bites split-screened in the promo. Contrasting comments posted by two viewers show how polarized opinions can be about these much recorded, iconic works:

Lim is incomparable. Her artistic scale is cosmic. I mean all Beethoven sonatas at 24 years old. Only a genius is able to achieve that; it's not only special but also something unprecedented. We have here a very unique case in [the] history of classical music… Barenboim started to record them in his twenties but finished the complete cycle much later; the great Serkin, Arrau, or Kempff recorded the sonatas when they were white-haired....

Or this pronouncement by a contrarian:

Her skills are impressive but really, who could be interested in a recording of the complete Beethoven sonatas played by a 24-year old Korean girl?

Or by any other 'skilled' pianist for that matter. Beethoven is moral philosophy. Beethoven is the Schopenhauer of music. You need to become a philosopher to play Beethoven... to become a better person to play Beethoven... friendly and wise.... mad skills are cool for the bumblebee. For Beethoven they are worthless.

While true that this second comment is sexist, ageist, even racist—it does bring up a valid point to consider, which is the subject of the rest of this essay: in any art form that involves creative expression, where is the intersection between virtuosic skill and a meaningful interpretation derived from life experience? Youthful skill can be as providential in the arts as in athletics. Nimble fingers encompassing an octave plus reach is a major asset for a pianist. But maturity is an asset as well, the mind guiding less responsive fingers, but ones filled with the reflections of a lived life. Such a dialogue between technique and life experience is rooted in all the arts.


The famed conductor/ political activist/ humanist Daniel Barenboim was a youthful piano virtuoso who achieved the ephemeral status of pop culture icon when he married the beautiful cellist Jacqueline du Pré in June 1967. They were for a few years the Camelot Kennedys of the classical music world; then she was struck down by multiple sclerosis at age 28. While continuing his ever-rising status as a world-class pianist, Barenboim had begun conducing in 1966 at age 24 with the English Chamber Orchestra. Eventually, he achieved more renown as a conductor than as pianist even as he continued giving piano recitals; the Beethoven sonatas were a special focus for him and he has recorded the complete set twice. He became deeply committed to young musicians as well, co-founding with Edward Said the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, based in Spain, recruiting young musicians from Israel and Arab nations in an attempt for music to forge cultural ties across contentious borders.

Both an Israeli and Palestinian citizen, Barenboim broke a long-standing boycott  in Israel of conducting Richard Wagner’s music.

Daniel Barenboim

A BBC documentary filmed in Chicago’s Symphony Hall shows Barenboim conducting a master class on the Beethoven sonatas. The three-featured pianists are not merely advanced students but solo artists with established professional performing careers: Lang Lang, David Kadouch and Jonathan Biss. In an introduction, Barenboim explains how he sees the class as an exploration of the minds of a newer generation of artists, a de facto learning experience for him as well.

The first of these artists is the stellar virtuoso Lang Lang, already an internationally lauded performer. He launches into the first movement of the “Appassionata” sonata with supreme skill and élan. As Barenboim rises from his own piano to act as Lang Lang’s page-turner, you wonder what Barenboim can possibly impart to this artist. At the end of the movement Lang Lang turns to Barenboim with a pleased but open gaze.

In Part Two Barenboim slowly, politely but inexorably digs into an aspect of Lang Lang’s most often criticized technique, his tendency to sacrifice subtlety for showmanship, what some critics call his “Chopin-ization” of everyone. The orchestral conductor in Barenboim takes stage as he shows the younger artist how the piano can reveal “new instruments in the orchestra,” even how he must believe you can achieve a crescendo on one note.

Now, in Part Three, Barenboim becomes fully engaged and dispenses with the niceties of pianistic equals and leads the younger performer into the chambers of his own decades long insights about “pulse” and syncopation, as well as dynamics. Hovering over Lang Lang, with the camera’s long lens seeming to press the two artists together, and with both of them playing at the same time, it is as if for a moment the elder pianist’s mind inhabits the fingers of the younger’s, a kind of artistic “The Hands of Orlac” episode that redefines the concept of student/mentor.

In Part Four, the two men reach a kind of symbiosis. Barenboim spends most of the time standing over Lang Lang, tapping his piano, even touching his hand as he plays, Barenboim’s arms always moving as if he is the maestro on the podium conducting his soloist. There is real incandescence here as the older musician is swept into the music of Lang Lang’s virtuosity even as he continues to guide him. They end with the conductor telling us that Lang Lang is going to be performing in a few hours. The younger artist has been a good sport about the encounter, modestly working with his senior, perhaps even gaining insights to carry away.

Part Five is an interlude. Both pianists answer questions posed by the audience. This sparks a soliloquy from Barenboim about his meeting with the legendary and somewhat reclusive Vladimir Horowitz. His anecdote becomes a lesson for all of us about how to engage the challenge and mystery of life itself.

Part Six is a truncated session with David Kadouch playing from the Sonata 16, op. 31/1. Midway, there is a question about a simple notation in the score of “forte.” It Illustrates Barenboim’s exhaustive attention to detail as well as his prodigious memory, which is so apparent in his session with Lang Lang, as the younger pianist reads from score while Barenboim seems to inhabit every note. During a Q and A with Kadouch, Barenboim talks about how the piano is a “primitive,” meaning a neutral instrument. He strikes the keyboard with his elbow, comparing its simple action to the complex coordination required to play even a single note on the violin. But the wonder of it is just how complex and full of orchestral color the piano can be. This is the orchestra conductor speaking. Examples of this rich orchestral potential are the amazing transcriptions of the nine Beethoven symphonies for piano by the Romantic era piano virtuoso Franz Liszt.

Jonathan Biss’ reading of the third movement of sonata 30, opus 109, occupies Part Seven. The aria like main theme is followed by six variations before returning to the theme at the close; but the theme is now transformed by the tumultuous experience of the variations. The contrasting abruptness and gentleness “does not shie away from the extremes.” The playing is interrupted only by Biss’ and Barenboim’s observations. We understand why Beethoven, it seems to me, more involves our hearts than any composer in the canon. His personal struggle as a human being is revealed to us in all its nakedness: the keyboard is the arena of this struggle. Watching Biss’ fingers range across the full keyboard, we experience in pure sound the internal conversation of a soul: Beethoven “unplugged.”

In Part Eight, Barenboim engages Biss with his conviction that the essence of the variations is a rendering of great “effort,” of a Promethean struggle within the parts of the movement that lead to a resolution—finding peace in the restatement of the gentle main theme. Beethoven is often cited as the most Promethean of composers; in this movement the struggle is underlined.

“Don’t rush when there is clash. It’s not a marital dispute,” admonishes Barenboim in Part Nine. A natural tendency when confronted by the intense drama in Beethoven is to escalate the tempo. This gets to the heart of the dilemma in playing Beethoven—or even in theater or film dialogue, where the eruptive flow of words can confound comprehension. Any actor aspiring to understand dramatic pace and intensity would be well advised to study these sonatas, phrase by phrase, as though it were Shakespeare—because it is. This leads Barenboim to look at the recapitulation of the main theme that concludes the sonata. He explains the difference between “remembrance” and “recollection” and how it colors both statements of this hymn-like theme.

The final episode, Part Ten, is an examination of the transition between the final variation and the restatement of the main theme. Sounds simple enough? But Barenboim uses this idea to explore with Biss how subtle yet tricky this can be. It is “anything but a mechanical repeat” and the two artists work over and over every nuance of this all-important moment. It is, again, not unlike how an actor—or any artist for that matter, digs into the most intimate details of expression. It is also clear that Barenboim shares a more personal connection with Biss than with Lang Lang or Kadouch—like minds, similarly attuned. Their mutual empathy is a fit resolution to the master class; the audience understands as well.

One of Beethoven's pianos: A Broadwood, 1818.


In the summer of 1998 I was filming in New York City’s Central Park on night scenes for the re-make of The Out of Towners, starring Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn. We had placed several Musco Lights along Central Park West near 79th St., lighting an area just south of the lake. During a break, several crewmembers asked me if I’d like to meet the great English cinematographer David Watkin. He had seen the lights and had stopped by to see several old friends. Watkin had won the Academy Award for his cinematography on Out of Africa. He had also photographed a visually arresting and under-rated film, Tony Richardson’s Mademoiselle, a black-and-white, anamorphic movie done with no camera movement—no dollies, no pans, no zooms: every shot locked off. I wanted to talk to him about it. But Watkin had other thoughts.

Cinematographer David Watkin, with his Golden Frog from CamerImage.

He was near the end of a brilliant career and I could sense he was a bit conflicted about it. I asked him what he planned to do next. He began, “I’m 73 now, and I’ve always wanted to play the piano, but I never had the time. I began a few years ago.” I told him I understood, envied him, in fact, as it’s something I’ve wanted as well. I didn’t see David Watkin again (he died 10 years later) but I’ve always wondered if he ever had a chance to play Beethoven sonatas. My friend, director Ken Kwapis, began piano lessons twenty years ago and is now exploring them one by one.

Like most cinematographers today, I spend far too much time on location in hotel and motel rooms—without the amenities that make up our at home comfort zone. For me, one of these necessities while on location is classical music. Wherever I go, I seek out local orchestral, chamber music, and solo concerts. Some performers are professional though uninspired, some mediocre, and some positively transcendent, like the Easter Day Vespers by candlelight of Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” in Vancouver’s Christ Church Cathedral, when I was filming “Antitrust.”

Music is neither an indulgence nor a diversion for me; it is sustenance. Years ago, I began the habit of taking certain CDs with me on location, along with a Bose player and headphones. The Beethoven piano sonatas are always included, most recently in the Richard Goode recordings on Nonesuch. A Teaching Company course by Robert Greenberg is a worthy introduction to the cycle; he uses the Claude Frank cycle from 1970, Beethoven’s bicentennial year. Frank was a pupil of Artur Schnabel, and the first American to record the entire 32 sonatas.–Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas link

The Great link

There is something ineffably pure about listening to great music written for a solo instrument. I find it easier to dig inside the structure, to become one with the composer’s mind and heart. There is a release and an empathic connection in something that is as human and personal as Beethoven’s revelations in these sonatas, music written for the instrument that most easily embodies his life journey.

At the end of a shooting day, we are often physically and aesthetically drained. When I settle in for the night, reviewing the day’s filming, fitting what was shot that day into the greater mosaic of the whole movie, I often find it difficult to clear my mind. Nothing does that as fully as listening to one of the Beethoven sonatas, opening up beyond my own narrow perspective, to enter into the mind of one of the greatest of all artists. The experience is partly restorative as is any great music—but these sonatas so fully engage the mind and the heart that they inspire as well as relax you.

This final video is Barenboim in a concert performance of the last several variations and the return of the main theme from the sonata no. 30, opus 109.

I realize it may seem a difficult request to make, especially if you aren’t much of a classical music person—but watch these videos with an open mind. Whatever your chosen work is in the world—Beethoven’s challenging and heroic journey will find a way to connect to you, that two centuries on, the life issues expressed in Beethoven’s music and articulated by Barenboim will resonate in your being—and will inhabit your very soul.

Ludwig Van Beethoven




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