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Moonlight Trapped in the Sonata Form?

Sonatas come in many shapes throughout the history of music. The name Sonata is derived from the Italian word “suonare” (to sound) as opposed to “Cantata” (to sing). Although we find many single movement pieces from the Baroque period and mid-18th century named sonatas, it is not until Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven develop a 3 (or 4) movement disposition that we can talk about the term ”sonata form”. They all added extra movements in order to create what Leonard Bernstein later explained: “… perfect three-part balance, and second, the excitement of its contrasting elements. Balance and contrast — in these two words we have the main secrets of the sonata form.”

The popular classical form

For both Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven it is still the first movement in the sonata which stands paramount in the construction. Additionally a slow movement and a fast movement could be added, each having a specific function in the musical argument of the complete piece. Beethoven eventually develops the form and strengthens each movement’s own specific character and even re-disposes the number of movements and alters the fast-slow-fast disposition of the Classial era.

How can we explain this immense popularity of the sonata for over two hundred years? What makes it so satisfying, so complete?
In Beethoven’s hands the piano sonata underwent a drastic development from his early works inspired by Haydn and Mozart until his late experimental and bold works with a much freer concept of form and drama. The term “sonata form” appears in the mid-19th century and Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas were the basis for the analysis.

The Moonlight Sonata is different

There are no specific reasons why Beethoven decided to title both the Op. 27 works as Sonata quasi una fantasia (”sonata in the manner of a fantasy”), but the layout of no. 2 (the Moonlight Sonata) does not follow the traditional fast–slow–fast. Instead, the sonata proposes an end-weighted journey, with the rapid music held off until the third movement. The sonata consists of three movements:
Adagio sostenuto-Allegretto-Presto agitato
The name “Moonlight Sonata” comes from the German music critic and poet Ludwig Rellstab, five years after Beethoven’s death.

Beethoven: Sonata Sonata Op. 27 no. 2, piano sheet music:
Moonlight Sonata piano sheet music

Two distinctly different interpretations

Here we listen to a recent performance of the Moonlight Sonata by pianist Yundi Li from a popular TV-show in Japan. His interpetation is quite traditional with a slow and beautiful rendition of the first movement while his last movement is very clean and polished – indeed not one of the more wild and stormy versions we have heard. But that is perhaps what to expect by Yundi Li, who is a former International Chopin Competition winner (2000).

On the other hand we have Andras Schiff who, in recent years, has proposed a completely different interpretation of the first movement for three resons:
1. The nickname “Monlight Sonata” is nonsense.
2. Since the meter is “Alla breve” we should count two beats (half notes) per bar, calling for a quite light and quick tempo.
3. Beethoven writes in the beginning of the piece “Si deve suonare tutto questo pezzo delicatissimamente e senza sordino” which means “This whole movement must be played with the utmost delicacy and without dampers. (i.e. with right pedal down). If that means that we should keep the right pedal constantly down throughout the piece or to change pedal in a traditional way when harmony changes is the big question for debate.
Listen to Schiff’s lecture below for a more detailed description.

Yundi Li plays Beethoven Sonata Op. 27 no. 2 (from Japanese TV 2014)
1. Adagio sostenuto
2. Allegretto
3. Presto agitato

Andras Schiff:
Lecture about the Moonlight Sonata (Wigmore hall, London)


Reader Poll

Which intepretation of the 1st movement do you prefer?

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1. Feel free to post a comment below about your choice.
2. Share this page with any of your friends that would be interested in reading it and voting.


/patrick

  1. Samara Says:

    I like the traditional way better but Schiff is probably right that his version is coser to Beethovens intentions. Thanks for an interesting article!

  2. Carol Montparker Says:

    I am always grateful for Schiff’s wisdom, insight, and discoveries. A very interesting lecture, and I will re-think the tempo –but i do not agree that the continuous pedal works well enough to justify such long pedals with so much dissonance–I would play it at a livelier tempo, but with very shallow pedals, broken at more frequent intervals than he did. Many thanks for this interesting article.

  3. Larry Wolf Says:

    I admire Schiff’s faithfulness to Beethoven’s intentions. I also preferred Schiff’s touch and tone production as it was much lighter and more singing. In fairness to Mr. Li, the piano that he used was glassy and percussive in tone. The instrument could have used a voicing, especially the C# an octave above middle C. Where I may part with Mr. Schiff’s approach is with the pedaling. I would venture to say that the damper pedal and it’s ability to sustain for an extended period was far shorter on the pianos of Beethoven’s time than our modern pianos. Therefore one might not hear as much of a blur. With that in mind, I would use very shallow pedaling but would carefully change the pedaling more frequently.

  4. Jonathan Rutherford Says:

    I cannot vote for either! Yundi Li is too slow, or rather, he is too ponderous. Andras Schiff’s continuous pedal is simply silly. Why would it suit this piece more than any other piece? Con sordino – what is the authority for saying Sordino means Loud Pedal? Also, Andras Schiff says that the Cut C time signature implies quite a fast tempo. I do not think so. Great souls can count rhythm very slowly indeed without losing the thread. Mahler and Bernstein for instance. His revelation that this movement is inspired by the Commendatore’s death in Don Giovanni is very useful. Mozart also asks for Cut Common time. Beethoven obviously responds to the same musical feeling of representing human bereavement. Let us learn from this rather than blur the harmonies.

  5. Chuan Chang Says:

    I believe Schiff played the “correct” interpretation simply because he followed LVB’s instructions. Unfortunately, he made a mistake on bar 49 where LVB indicates a P but Schiff continues the cresc. With “Senza Sordini” this P will jar the audience, which was LVB’s intension, I believe, and tells us with no doubts why he indicated “senza Sordini”, making this bar critical. Most players don’t have the courage to follow LVB exactly on this piece, thus producing a pleasant, romantic effect that is easier to play and easier for the audience to listen to. This “simplification” is also used too often, playing the 16th notes of the 3-note theme (eg bar 5) almost as 8th notes. I believe this movement is not only sad, but painfully sad, and the pain is inserted using the horrible ninth dissonances (eg bar 16); most performances, including this one, plays the lower note inaudibly to avoid the “unpleasant” dissonances which effectively erases what LVB intended. I have much more details on my web page (P. 57), and on P. 11 of http://www.pianopractice.org/theory_of_music.pdf .

  6. Mark Seligman Says:

    I felt that Schiff’s comments were spot on. His scholarship coupled with an amazing intellectual and technical grasp of the piano literature is at the very same high level as his ability to articulate this abstract language of music. It can be difficult to listen to something so dramatically different than what one has heard for over half of an century without feeling some sense of discomfort. However, I will be thinking about this lecture every time I hear the “Moonlight” from now on. Bravo.

  7. Mark Seligman Says:

    P.S. Yundi has the technical equipment, clearly. I felt that his recording stage and camera work were at one with the interpretation. Cross-pollinated.

  8. Zachary Says:

    I think all of these lectures by Schiff are amazing and very informative. They’re all worth a listen, and I listened to them awhile ago.

    That said, when I got to this particular piece I felt the same way that I feel now, listening to it again, and that is that I don’t agree. Actually, I’d almost call Schiff’s insisting that you keep the pedal down the whole time to be “pedantic”–but pedantic might be too harsh. Schiff is very creative, imaginative, and intellectual. I get the feeling that when he thinks something is true, it’s just about impossible to convince him otherwise. It’s admirable, but I just don’t think it sounds good when the pedal is held down the whole time, and in music what sounds good is god–to me, anyway, academic arguments don’t matter at all if it doesn’t sound good as another way. All that matters is the sound.

    Like others have mentioned, pianos in Beethoven’s time were different. Schiff knows that, too, but for some reason continues his argument that the pedal should be continuously held down. I’ve read that Chopin held the pedal down throughout some of his works–which would be because the sustaining power of his piano allowed him to do that, as in it didn’t sustain the notes for very long. I think Chopin called this a “dreamy” effect? Something like that.

    Point is, it just sounds bad on modern pianos, to me. You can recreate the effect (kind of) by adjusting how much pedal you use. Sometimes flat changes in it are necessary, in my opinion. I honestly think Beethoven, who was obviously very muscially sensitive, would agree. No one can ask him, of course, but I really doubt he would want for his composition to sound so… muddy. Beethoven writes too brilliantly for his work to sound like that.

    All that said, Beethoven is dead, so whatever he wanted doesn’t really matter anymore. What matters is what we want. I, personally, don’t like it sounding so–well, like note soup where nothing stands out very well. I do like the faster tempo, though. I think Schiff nailed that.

  9. Joann Kuehl Says:

    Loved Schiff’s interpretation. Right or wrong, the sound of the music suited me better than Yundi Li’s. Fuller and more connected.

  10. Larry Wolf Says:

    My apologies for multiple entries stemming from my misunderstanding of the blog’s instructions. Beethoven’s instructions say senza sordino, not con sordino. Schiff is correct by his definition of senza sordino as meaning without dampers. My question is to frequency of pedaling. I also don’t think that Schiff said that the alla breve implies a fast tempo. Actually, he played the triplets in cut time and it was still rather slow. I’m not totally sold on Schiff’s tempo but it is more convincing than Li’s.

  11. Michael BB Says:

    Yes, people seem to be saying the same things here. What is missing is the reason WHY the held pedal does not work.
    As an aside, I was at a piano seminar and performance workshop with some UW grad students, and they were NOT aware that the Beethoven pedal marking was to USE that pedal, not withhold its use, not knowing their Italian well enough to tell the difference. As a jazz musician, I was a bit shocked by that. I informed them of their error, politely, I hope!
    Anyway, the modern piano has WAY more resonance that that Broadwood of Ludwig’s or any Stein of that day. Pianoforte’s might be able to have the harmony die away fast enough to hold it down through long passages of changing chords. Not so with today’s highly developed piano, with hits high tension strings and extended length.
    So, Beethoven’s piano is not the same one as ours. Mr. Schiff has made recordings on Beethoven’s actual piano, and that may certainly have influenced his mindset.
    I did not really wish to vote for either, either. (can you say that?) I prefer Evegeny Kissin’s version over either of these. His bassline is so sonically independent, and yet complementary to the treble accompaniment and melody. Tempo, well, composers who were also improvisers played around with their music a lot on “gigs”, thus, who are we to freeze it into stone in this day and age, so removed from that tradition of the pianist as improvising musician and composer.
    MBB

  12. George McRae Says:

    Beethoven supposedly composed the first movement after watching a friend die. Certainly, for me, the music reflects this. It’s full of questions, brooding and mystery. Neither of these versions move me. They’re well played but lack that sense of mystery and vulnerability. Neither performance matches the transcendence of the music.

    The fact is, we don’t no how Beethoven wanted this to be played, and we also don’t know how he would have played it on a modern instrument.It’s important to remember too, that Beethoven was an improviser and improvisers are more likely to work in the moment, honor their mood, respond to energy of the audience an the sound of the hall. It’s also worth considering as well that the tuning in Beethoven’s time was considerably flatter than it is today and that this piece probably sounded closed to the key of Cm (which is a much darker key.

  13. Spike Maiden Mueller Says:

    I’m with Mr. Wolf. I felt that Li’s performance was too slow and far too ponderous, and that the piano used had much too bright a voicing to really complement the piece. Schiff’s tempo is fast to the point of silliness; the best tempo is probably in between, somewhat closer to Li’s than to Schiff’s. I also agree that the pianos of Beethoven’s day would have sustained for far less time than those of today. Had Beethoven written for a modern instrument I imagine he would agree that a shallow pedaling changed carefully but not too frequently, especially in the sections where the harmonic progression is proceeding slowly, would be the ideal solution. Schiff’s more connected and less ponderous way of fingering is certainly preferable to me. And I agree with Mr. Rutherford that Schiff seems to have misinterpreted the significance of the alla breve link to Don Giovanni. I cannot really vote for either interpretation; both fall far short of my ideal.

  14. Lisa Micali Says:

    Great erudite comments, and I basically agree with most who find a tempo in-between painfully slow and overly hasty to be the best. As for the held pedal, it must be related to the difference of a modern piano, as it clearly does not really work. I most agree with Michael BB in that good musicians can improvise a bit and interpret emotionally, to an extent. How interesting that Mr. Schiff has played Beethoven’s own piano!! Thanks for posting a very interesting feature.

  15. Helmuth Schultz Says:

    No doub´t , Schiff´s playing style, sonority and technique is by far better
    I think. The third movement, faster buy very nitid was superb!

  16. Dragan V Says:

    Alfred Brendel, who set the standard on playing the Sonata would disagree. Maybe he (Shiff) is right, but I don’t have to like it…:)

  17. Elizabeth Walley Says:

    I agree with Mr. Schiff about the tempo but not the pedal. The piece doesn’t sound good the way he’s pedaling it and Beethoven would not have done it that way. The pedal needs to be changed when harmonies change, it seems obvious. But the traditional tempo really drags whereas Mr. Schiff’s brings it to life. I’d love to hear the movement played with Mr. Schiff’s tempo and Mr. Li’s pedaling.

  18. Minyung Kimm Says:

    I like both! To me, what is correct and incorrect in music is not so crucial as whether and how it touches me. This great piece to me is like Life instead of Moonlight.

  19. Shauna Jones Says:

    I enjoyed hearing the contrasts and varied interpretations of both performers. As with most things, it is difficult to change our perspective when having heard a piece of music played a certain way for many years. I found that in listening to Mr. Schiff, his ideas began to grow on me as I became accustomed to them. It was a refreshing new concept for me.

  20. Nancy Allen Says:

    I have played Beethoven’s “Moonlight” at a slightly faster speed than Mr, Schiff suggests but with Mr. Li’s pedaling and enjoyed doing so, but have not known that others might do so as well. It gives the piece an entirely different feel of satisfaction especially when I can feel a longer overall “speak” from the piece. However, I have not tried to play with pedal down continuously, but have been taught the importance of being able to play “half” pedal, so am looking forward to trying it. I enjoyed both performances, especially Mr. Schiff’s interesting ideas.

  21. Jerry Smith Says:

    I enjoyed Yundi Li’s version by far. Trying to explain in words how music affects me is impossible. I consider this piece (especially the first movement) to be the most popular piece of piano music ever written. It acquired this popularity due to it being played slowly and with emotion. That being said I thought Schiff’s version sounded like mud and totally unenjoyable.

  22. Michael Cogman Says:

    About half a century ago, I was persuaded that I was playing this piece far too fast as, especially the first movement, should be played with much more “emotion” than I was giving it. I am now trying to return to the piano and I hope that eventually I will be able to play this in the Schiff fashion, with “I told you so” not far from my lips!

  23. camstrings Says:

    An alternative to the Schiff might be Glenn Gould’s version. I find it a convincing tempo in relation to the melodic flow.

  24. Elsje Says:

    Traditionil, more smooth and calm

  25. Monika Wudich Says:

    Sorry but I understand “senza sordino” = withòut the pedal…
    don’t quite understand then that ‘dampers’ should be held throughout the whole piece… which I agree gives e “muddled sound”.
    For the rest I like the first part a little bit quicker than how Mr. Yundi Li (ànd many others) plays it.

  26. Cecil Byrnes Says:

    It is a long time since I have played the Sonata, however I always want to feel triplets when I hear or play them. The prolonged damper pedal which Schiff does says must be carefully held halfway down does remind me of a very accomplished abstract artwork which is not just marks but layers and layers of colour and form, something which if one lives to a 100 will always surprise us with e new discovery. The entire work (or pieces) sounds like someone who has lived life, never was inquisitive, but rather tried everything on offer!

  27. Josh Hillmann Says:

    While I appreciate Mr. Schiff’s attention to detail, the modern piano is louder and sustains notes longer sans dampers than the pianos 200 years ago did. Had he factored that, his interpretation might be closer to one in which the harmonies aren’t quite running together as much…

  28. Donna Dasher Says:

    The Schiff version is too muddy and does not project the romantic nature of the Moonlight Sonata.

  29. Alejandro Sabre Says:

    And “SORDINO” , does not translate to dampers. It means soft pedal. So Beethoven’s indication is to create the soft, delicate sound with your hands, and not your feet (!)

  30. Mickey Cashen Says:

    In the Adult Program of the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University, I’ve heard great virtuosos to intermediate students play the first movement and never heard anyone play it as slow as Li unless they were a little overwhelmed by the fact they’re playing a bass part, rhythm part, and melody part and they needed to play slow to insure the melody is louder than the other notes at their level of competence.

    I was trained at Peabody by the excellent virtuosa and former Chinese child-prodigy, Russian-trained Frances Cheng-Koors to play it roughly as fast as Schiff, though I think there’s more feeling to it at a slightly slower tempo. Frances disagrees, but says I play it fast enough that I “don’t embarrass her.”

  31. Scott Watkins Says:

    “Alla breve” has nothing to do with tempo but has more to do with the weight of various harmonies. There is more evidence to show that Beethoven, who had known Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” was in some way inspired by the scene in “Giovanni” in which the Commendatore is murdered by Don Giovanni. The music is quite similar, with pizzicato triplets in the strings, and pungent harmonies. While I admire both pianists very much, I prefer Yundi Li’s interpretation. And there is something to be said for a so-called traditional approach. One must ask the question: from where, and when, does this “tradition” come? I have found that in music, as in many artistic endeavors, tradition often has strong roots.

  32. John Oberman Says:

    I concur w Mssrs Wolf & Mueller. I like Li’s tempo as it begins, however he never accelerates which is where I begin to concur w Schiff. I also concur w Schiff that the music should be blurred together w generous use of the sostenuto althought not entirely continuous. The sonata feels funereal and should be played so with sadness, anger and relief from death.

  33. Barbara Snyder Says:

    I much preferred Schiff’s tempo. Holding the pedal down, however, just seems too blurred to me. I do wonder how this would sound on a forte piano. Perhaps on Beethoven’s own piano (or one of that era) the pedaling would be perfect.

  34. Gustavo Lonngi Says:

    Toda una lección de apreciación musical. Gracias.

  35. Andros Loizou Says:

    I feel very strongly that the first movement should be slow. For that reason, the first interpretation seems closer to the truth. Why, in this day, must we feel we need to speed everything up? I wonder what Schnabel would say about this?

  36. Marie Barnhurst Says:

    I have always felt this piece should be played at the quicker tempo. I have always played it that way. I do not like the pedal held down the entire piece, however, unless it is half pedal, but still should be cleared at key changes.

  37. Maria Says:

    I have no reading skills or technical qualification and therefore absolutely do not qualified to enter debate on technicalities among all you wonderful musicians. However, I do want to say .. after listening to both I can only conclude that what Mr. Schriff says makes perfectly good sense and I would have to vote for him. Closing my eyes, I can clearly visualize this being a funeral march rather than moon-light… based. It’s so wonderful to learn something new everyday! Thank you Piano Street for bringing this article to your subcribers. I will never look at this piece of music in the same light again. I wonder how much of this has happened with other pieces composed?

  38. Sarah Alloisio Says:

    My preference is for Yundi Li’s traditional rendition, although Andrea Schiff’s is probably closer to Beethoven’s interpretation. I would opt for the faster pace of Schiff’s but with no damper pedal down throughout, which blurs the sound too much.

  39. Hugh Anton-Stephens Says:

    I instinctively fall in the Andras Schiff camp over tempo, and always have done. There is an interplay between the steady alla breve impulse, the sustained notes in the RH, and the melodic lines suggested by the variations between one triplet and the next. The slower the alla breve tempo the harder it is to maintain any meaningful relationship between them all. As to the senza sordini instruction, it could hardly be clearer in the way that it is expressed but the intended effect is much harder to divine. If the dampers are taken off throughout then the resulting overlap of the notes suggests that the wish was to produce the same effect as if the piece were being played in a large, rather echoing hall, but that just begs the question: why? I have no answer to that one.

  40. Peter Krausche Says:

    Although I voted for Schiff’s interpretation because it closer follows the tempo I would have chosen, I don’t agree with every aspect of his views on the subject. For instance, I don’t believe the right pedal should be held down during the entire piece, but should be cleared more often, especially on key changes.

  41. henry mollicone Says:

    I voted for Yundi Li’s interpretation. I found that Schiff’s playing took out all the mystery and beauty from this unique masterpiece. Also, the muddiness resulting from the pedal sustained FOREVER AND EVER was annoying to my ear, and made the piece sound like “new age music”! (Imagine playing the accompaniment to Sondheim’s “Send in the clowns” like that! I find an amazing similarity here). A bigger question: if we could prove that Beethoven wanted it played like Schiff’s version, but Li’s touches us more deeply, which one should we choose? My vote remains the same! Music is a living, breathing art form, and can’t be put in a strait jacket. I say this- and I myself am a composer (not anywhere near the same league, of course, as any of “the masters”).

  42. nicola Says:

    …quite funny…even if i didn’t know about andrash shiff explanation i always palyed first movement with long pedal thought measures….simply because i liked much more. byt he way ilike very much intepretation by HJ Lim…but my first was last tempo by W.Kempf :)

  43. David Boyce Says:

    How sure can we really be that Beethoven’s instruction “e senza sordino” means “and without dampers”?

    What if it meant “and without the damper pedal”? i.e., “don’t use the sustaining pedal”.

    Mr Schiff says that he plays with the damper (sustaining) pedal depressed one third of the way. That produces a subtle effect that is rather different from “without dampers”.

    With the pedal a third of the way down, the felt of the dampers is presumably ONLY JUST lifted off the surface of the strings at rest. When the unstruck strings are set in motion by sympathetic resonance , there is therfore an interaction – some minimal contact – between the moving strings and the felts of the dampers. And for the struck strings also, a difference in their interaction with the damper felts as they keys come up.

    If “senza sordino” does mean “without dampers”, is that really what Mr Schiff is doing in only depressing the pedal a third of the way?

    Is he arguing that it’s necessary to do it that way to simulate a piano of Beethoven’s day?

  44. Jim Massa Says:

    I have always felt that many people have played the first movement too slow. It tended to come across as heavy, ponderous and like a funeral dirge. Even as a young person playing this piece (or learning to), I played it more “up tempo”. I always felt that the adagio was more applied to what the right hand is basically doing and not the supporting arpeggios which is where I think most people err. I particularly like the light touch that Mr. Schiff brings to his interpretation particularly in the fantastic 3rd movement which was always my favorite of the 3. He is right. What a phenomenal composition!

  45. Patricia Motta Says:

    The two performance are great, but I find Schiff`s explanation comparing DON GIOVANNI Mozart´s Opera is also very interesting…
    Maybe Beethoven compose this piece thinking in something misteriously
    …more than a funeral march…
    Also I think that is too much pedal….sometimes in modern pianos the sound mix it up in a very reverbing way….
    Anyway I thank PIANO STREET for sharing this article.
    Very interesting as well…
    From Argentina….good piano performance for everybody!

  46. Waltraud Legros Says:

    I voted for Schiff’s analysis and interpretation. Comparing the two interpretations of the (whole) sonata, I do not find that Yundi Li thinks about the harmony of the three mouvements : they seem to be seperate pieces. (I never noticed that, being unable to play the third !) Schiff gives me / us / the possibility to discover this sonata on the whole, and so, his adagio sostenuto has to be faster as we usually hear or play it. In that perspective, the presto agitato is allowed not to be just a moment of virtuosity, it can sing, make us feel the “agitato” and not only the “presto”.
    Thank you for that great lesson — and forgive my bad english !

  47. Antonio Tadeu Camacho Says:

    In the Classical period,the instrumentist always had the worrying of play the instrumental piece, just as it had been written, but since Beethoven, the pianists and all other instrument players has got more freedom in the musical interpretation and every instrumentist, play the music piece as he, or she feels the music has to sound louder or softer, even if it be different of the composer’s instruction in the music piece.
    Antomio Tadeu Camacho/Pianist

  48. Jon Rhodes-Smith Says:

    Very much enjoyed Schiffs alternative interpretation. However an interpretation is all it is – as is all of music. If every piece was always played just the way composer intended it wouldn’t classical music be a very dull indeed? So ultimately I preferred Li’s interpretation of the 1st movement because the subtleties and passion are lost at higher tempo. I also think both played the 3rd movement too fast.

  49. Elizabeth Sheppard Says:

    I loved Andras Shiff’s interpretation. This sonata was one of my first exposures to classical music, as my Grandfather often played it for me as I was going to sleep for my nap, at the age of 3 or 4. Later as a pianist, and teacher, I am often annoyed at hearing students and performers alike playing it painfully slowly and sentimentally, or getting the dotted rhythm wrong. I heard Paderewski play it when I was still vey young. I wish I could recall his performance after all these years. I would love to hear it again and compare it with these two versions.

  50. Catherine Says:

    It is much fun listening to Mr. Schiff–I agree with the intent of his senza sordino mysterious effect and the cut time tempo indicated being faster than a funeral march yet would need to alter the exact technique to suit the instrument being played. as said by Cecil earlier: “The prolonged damper pedal which Schiff does says must be carefully held halfway down does remind me of a very accomplished abstract artwork which is not just marks but layers and layers of colour and form, something which if one lives to a 100 will always surprise us with e new discovery. ” Let’s keep discovering!

  51. Chris Says:

    It’s a slightly unfair comparison, as Schiff’s performance has the benefit of an erudite and insightful lecture to back it up. I’d wager that if Yundi’s performance were also accompanied by an explanation, especially a charming and witty one such as Schiff’s, he’d be far ahead in this poll. (Given that it’s not, it’s a miracle the vote is as close as it is.) Such a lecture might highlight the benefits of the slow, mesmerising tempo (which may or may not have been what Beethoven intended – my guess is that if he heard it played like that, on a modern piano, he’d have absolutely loved it). To my ear, the fast tempo makes it sound like a waltz (less so when Schiff does it, as his interpretation is so fine and so steeped in reverence for the music, but certainly when others play it at that speed). Playing it that fast can almost reduce it to farce, and can certainly make it sound like the pianist is in a hurry to get it over with. Yundi, on the other hand, is totally immersed in the sound world he has created, and that was also my response as a listener. To me that immersion is what music at its best is all about.

  52. Marguerite Hargrove Says:

    I voted for Yundi Li for as soon as I heard it I thought of Beethoven saying that to “play without passion is unforgivable” and his version moved me
    with the deep emotion he showed in playing.

  53. Ric Says:

    What exactly is meant by senza sordini? Did Beethoven actually mean that third pedal to the left which many pianos don’t have nowadays. Press this down and you will get a much softer and quieter sound as the strings are semi damped. Was Beethoven asking pianists not to use this pedal to get a true ppp effect?

    I personally prefer neither version. IMO Solomon got it right where his stronger emphasis on the left hand created an entirely different effect.

  54. Tom Rose Says:

    Both performances are awful in their different ways. I could not vote for either. Yundi Li is ponderous and makes a horrible hesitation on the third beat of each bar. He seems incapable of playing steady triplets against dotted quaver/semiquaver in strict time. Schiff sounds hurried and the excess pedal just creates an ugly sound. Both of them overemphasise the first note of each group of triplets. These are world class pianists but they clearly have no understanding of this piece. They should stick to playing music that they do understand.

  55. Gary Burnett Says:

    Schiff’s scholarly analysis is enlightening and significant; however, my spirit resonates more with the sound of the traditional interpretation.

  56. Yvonne Says:

    I voted for Schiff and would use his approach on both fortepiano and modern piano. Some thoughts:

    1. How do we know that senza sordini means “without dampers” and not “without damper pedal”? Because for many pianos of the period there was no “pedal” – the dampers for these instruments were operated with knee levers; other pianos did have pedals. Composers therefore tended not to refer to the mechanism but to the effect operated by the mechanism, i.e. with or without mutes (sordini), that is with or without dampers. Primary sources from the period make this quite clear.

    2. It’s not that helpful to refer to historic Viennese pianos and the English Broadwoods in the same breath. The Viennese instruments with their leather-covered hammers tended to be more articulate and less sustaining in sound. But the Broadwoods tended to create a more boomy, blooming sound and could be *very* resonant. Composers like Haydn wrote very differently when they anticipated performance in England. Beethoven was known to prefer Broadwood pianos, presumably for these qualities. Both types of instruments were capable of damping the strings with equal efficiency. So what’s more relevant is the quality of the sound undamped, and the Broadwood would certainly have offered a more blurred sound when played with the dampers raised.

    2. “Great delicacy” plus “without dampers”. That’s the crucial combination. I would add that a senza sordini performance requires great flexibility. One of the effects of leaving the dampers up is that the musician then needs to really listen and make subtle adjustments to touch and pacing (rubato if you like) as the harmonies change, depending on the nature of the harmonic change. In other words the style of performance is precisely like that of a fantasia as described by someone like CPE Bach at the end of the 18th century.

    3. This raised dampers effect was by no means an unknown before this sonata. Haydn uses it in his late C major sonata (Hob.XVI:50, admittedly not for a whole movement, just a line) and there are descriptions of the technique, which was much admired in fantasia-like pieces such as this Beethoven sonata.

    3. Nanette Streicher, one of Vienna’s leading piano builders of the day, loved this exotic effect (1801): “Now in pianissimo, through [the raising of the dampers] he creates the most tender tone of the glass harmonica. How pure, how like a flute, the treble notes sound while the left hand plays consonant chords against them! How full the sound of the bass which is played with elastic lightness!” She also adds: “the true musician introduces such beauty sparingly, so that too frequent use does not spoil its effect.” Clearly Beethoven is pushing the envelope here by recommending it for a whole movement, but this should hardly be a surprise – he was always pushing the envelope.

    To me the final result of a senza sordini performance is unusual, striking and very, very beautiful. As Schiff says, the initial reaction if you’ve never heard or tried it that way before is shock. “Not how your grandmother played it!” But this is definitely a scenario where going back to the composer’s instructions and being bold enough to try to follow them yields a wonderfully satisfying (and revealing) result.

  57. Scott Says:

    I much prefer Schiff’s interpretation. His lecture is very interesting but more importantly I found his interpretation more engaging than Li’s which was too polished for my tastes.

  58. GrouchyPianist Says:

    Schiff is not the only pianist to play the Adagio in Cut Time and at a less slow tempo. Murray Perahia plays it in a similar way. Perahia also noted that most people play the first movement “too slow”.

  59. Silvia Gil Díez Says:

    Hello everybody:

    I think the election is clear. First of all Schiff is far much better piano player than the Li´s . Secondly, his interpretation is much more interesting and coherent. The explanation helps, but It is a matter of great superiority as a pianist and musician. You can have your own ideas about the sonata but you have to be a great musician to convince the listeners. And I like the way he plays the first movement, it has a lot of mistery.
    Greetings

  60. MichaelInCali Says:

    I have always played it not quite as fast as Schiff, but much closer to the speed he takes. I do also shape phrases with very slight rubato to bring out the drama of the beautiful melodic phrases– and I believe Beethoven did this as well. They were already playing with slight rubato in certain pieces –perhaps we should actually call it “rubatino” :-) before the term “rubato” was used and done in a more pronounced way in Chopin’s era 20 years later.

  61. Jörg Says:

    I think Beethoven would played it like Andras plays it.

  62. Justin Says:

    Well both are quite nice, but I still prefer the more traditional sound. I prefer the slower tempo. Many people say that people play this piece too slow, but what does too slow mean. Music is all about what you want to put in it. Slow is you preference or ability then go for it. I would not be too worried what others say about your music. It is important to take constructive criticism though. I did like the dynamic contrast in both interpretations.

  63. Rofe Says:

    I think Adrias is correct (and humorous, too!) . I used to play in both tempos and I like Beethoven’s Opus 27 played the way he wants(wrote) it played. Adrias’ interpretation is next to thinking the way Beethoven thinks. With the pedal down, I think that it would give more emphasis on the harmony while sustaining the melody. Playing it too slow (and using the damper) will only “sprinkle dust” to a very beautiful piece of music.

  64. N. Burr Furlong Says:

    I usually don’t vote when there are complex issues asked, since other choices should be given but hardly ever are: namely, “both” or “neither”.
    In this case I would have voted “both” for the richness of genius is that there can often be numerous ways to interpret a masterwork (as many lf the comments imply) and I find it fascinating and educational to be able to consider serious attempts at guessing original intents.

  65. Pham Nhu Man Says:

    I am not a professional pianist but I love it and play piano very often.
    Yundi played very nice way, but I am much impressed when the piece to be played by Schiff’sinterpretation, it is similar my own interpretation and be the way I love.

  66. Sara Says:

    I really didn’t want to vote for either because they are of course both very valid interpretations. However, I voted for the Schiff one because I felt Yundi Li’s was just a little too slow and his affect was just a little too much for me. I do believe the “alla breve” marking is bourne out in Schiff’s interpretation very well; however, I will have to reserve judgment on the continuous pedal until I can hear a clearer recording or try it myself, which will be very interesting.

  67. Emilie Bova Says:

    I enjoy the quicker tempo Schiff uses. We know this piece so well that the Yundi tempo seems draggy .The chord structure is slow enough to be understood faster. My attention wanders when played too slowly.
    This may be a fault of modern audiences impatient with sitting through the obligatory hour and half recitals.

  68. mathman Says:

    1. MS played slow so kids can play it. It looks very easy. I remember doing this at age 8 or 9.
    2. What would the sonorities be like on a Beethoven-era piano?
    I have some Chopin done on a Pleyel and it sounds very different. The different registers are distinct on 19th C instruments.

  69. rodolfo Says:

    Yundi plays well as always, but his it is not an unforgettable interpretation (like Paderewski, Schnabel, Nat, Backhaus are)
    Andras is more original, even if questionable as pianos of Beethoven age had less persistence of the souds, and Beethoven was already a bit deaf, nonetheless such pedalling is requested in other pieces by Beethoven, like in 3rd mov. of Waldstein, and rarely we hear them (Schnabel did), even if results in the hands of a great pianist are often astonishing

  70. J Fowler Says:

    No offence to Mr. Li, who obviously knows his way around a keyboard.
    But–why not speed it up a bit? Mr. Schiff’s interpretation is an interesting alternative.

  71. Mario Drumond Says:

    Thanks for the interesting article. I liked both performances but voted by Andras and his in-depth research of the work in question.

  72. hrvernon88 Says:

    I like the slower version of playing this song, but that’s because that’s my style. I tend to slow things down a little and add emotion to what I’m playing. I also think it keeps a little mystery, as the original name suggests. Schiff has a good point when he breaks down the comments that Beethoven made. I think it can be played in the same style as Hindi, but possibly a little faster

  73. Aida G Says:

    It doesn’t seem fairly to me to vote for one of them, to “point” at one and push aside the other, maybe this is beautiful in art, that different visions can stand at the same time :) New interpretations are always welcome when they are made in the service of the truth… The first performer’s condition has to be sincerity, so if he is traditional or “weird” it’s a question of structure, culture, taste… The votes will not indicate that one is better than other, it will only show which kind of people is preponderant here and now… As a humble teacher I can say that I really enjoy Mr. Schiff’s lectures, he reveals the personality of Beethoven so well, adequately explained, also using a charming humor, all he says becomes disarmingly in a way… Regarding the controversial topic “senza sordini”, I don’t see perforce one single pedal during the whole movement, I see instead, the whole movement permanently pedalized, which doesn’t contradict the indication “without dampers”. So, in my vision, it is left to performer’s skill and fantasy to “speculate” and “juggle” with the harmonies…

  74. Jon Bromfield Says:

    I am always amazed that this sonata in invariably included in “Easy Listening” collections, usually played at a glacial tempo. To me, it is so loaded with tension and emotional depth that it scared me when I was a child. It is one of the many joys of the piano that I can play this great work exactly the way I want, which is closer to Mr. Schiff’s interpretation.

    Many thanks for this discussion.

  75. Mario Pech Says:

    in my opinion is very important the bass and the armony as well as in the jazz music.

  76. Karina Says:

    Certainly Shiff’s version! It sounds so much better and it is genuine. Thank you for the great article!

  77. Julio Says:

    It lacks a third party, the excelent one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6txOvK-mAk

  78. Frank Lioni Says:

    Pianos in Beethoven’s time were (of course!) much different from ours, so we have to listen to a rendering on such a piano,if there still is one with the ORIGINAl STRINGS (read Rosamond Harding’s:The Piano-Forte).Also look at Beethoven’s music to understand what he in fact means with Adagio tempo.Is it different in some opusnrs.?.For instance the second part of the Sonata Pathetique,is almost always played much to fast.

  79. Julie Moffitt Says:

    I didn’t really like either version alone. I believe it should be faster, as keeping in line with Beethoven’s intentions, but agree with many of the other comments about the pianos in use at that time. Modern day pianos playing even pedaling at every chord change create a much muddier sound than using that same technique on the pianos of Beethoven’s time. I agree with the comment that there should be pedaling, but with a light touch.

  80. Kenneth Heck Says:

    I believe the faster tempo is in closer agreement with the third movement of the sonata, a fantasy in concept. Today’s pianos can’t bear a continual pedal without giving a muddy sound. Also, Beethoven’s tempo indications were sometimes given to offset the tendency of pianists of his time to play too fast. We even see the same tendency rearing itself today.

  81. Lynne Compton Says:

    With regard to this piece,I like the original translation of Adagio as”at ease” which if played as Andras Schiff does, gives the music a sense of movement forward.

  82. Roger Jones, P.Eng. Says:

    I voted “tradiional”. Mr. Schiff’s interpretation was excellent but the predominance of undamped notes made it sound a bit “muddy” to me. I subscibe to the notion that the modern piano’s long sustain not working well with Beethoven’s original instructions.

  83. Linda Hyland Says:

    I have always felt the slow tempo felt “held back” as if meant to move along a bit more. I voted for Schiff’s version because I tend to want to play it faster than the traditional. I really feel, however, that somewhere in-between these two tempos would be a better choice. Even a funeral march isn’t speedy! Both are beautiful and I enjoy the different interpretations and discussion about why. Great article. Thanks

  84. Franco Porzio Says:

    It’s has been very interesting to compare the two version ! So I have to say that none of the two really convinced me 100 %: Yund li sounds “pop” music or Hollywood and it that sense sounds more “modern”; the other two movements played by Yumd Li showed that he does not understand what he’s playing and this is particularly true when you lissen to Andras playing these movements in the lesson.
    I dont’ really think you can compare this two artist; Andras is coming from the old classical tradition and Yund Li is just playin the notes excactly and keeping always the same time. Regarding the first movement played by Shiff (I voted this one) I think there are one or two moments where it’s a bit too much dissonant. To finish my favourite is Kempff version !

  85. Phil Schoonmaker Says:

    In any discussion of musical interpretation and recreation of any composition we should ever be aware of the nature of Music—that it is necessarily and gloriously subjective, will never permit pigeonholing, and will aways amaze and intrigue with its infinite and often surprising ability to become something we never dreamed of. We have loads of evidence that the Great Composers themselves deviated from their scores or embellished them in startling ways depending upon mood, impulse, inspiration, and intention. As has been well said, “The music is behind the notes.” There is no “correct” Moonlight Sonata. It can be played with genius whether fast or slow, whether in 4/4 time or 2/4 time, with or without pedal, with or without accents and tempi changes. In fact there are an infinite number of Moonlight Sonatas and none of them can ever be played the same way twice. The music is greater than the instruments that render it, greater than the minds that interpret it, perhaps greater even than the minds that offered it. Personally, I find Andre Schiff’s comments certainly authoritative, interesting, and provocative, but not the Word of God. Even if his source theory is correct (from Mozart, not moonlight) I find his interpretation somewhat too perfunctory for a funereal piece, not enough agogic, not enough rubato, not enough agony, and too fast and driving for the devastation of death. I would have liked to have heard Scriabin play it.

  86. Edward M. Funke Says:

    Although Yundi Li gives a beautiful performance of the traditional version, I agree with Andras Schiff’s faster tempo. I believe the faster tempo prevents the melody line from becoming “separated.” (There actually is a melody in there). I don’t agree with the continuous pedal, however. My understanding is that the pianos of Beethoven’s day couldn’t sustain a note for an extended length of time, so he wrote the instruction “senza sordino” to compensate. However, the modern piano doesn’t need that “help.”

  87. Warwick Hoare Says:

    Is it really dichotomous? I see it as more dimensional and to my taste both of these interpretations are to close to the poles. But what a joy to here the argument put with such authority. Thank you.

  88. Jieli Xu Says:

    Somehow i feel Yundi’s version is much better. The way he performanced shows the aesthetics from Asia people.

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