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Mike Cheng-Yu Lee Plays Beethoven's Sonata in F minor, Op. 57 ("Appassionata"), on 1799 Broadwood

1799 Broadwood (gift of Nancy Garrett)

In the minds of performers and audiences, the “Appassionata” remains a pinnacle of Beethoven’s heroic style. Though we know Beethoven was proud of the work, it is not beyond reproach. The work could be said to suffer from excessive block-like construction underpinned by uncomfortably static harmonic rhythms. And unlike the earlier “Tempest” sonata – with its outward changes of tempo that help to articulate shifts in musical discourse – the uniformity of tempo and meter found in Op. 57 render this aspect of the composition still more intransigent.

One might therefore approach different interpretations of this iconic sonata in terms of how each performance positions itself along the work’s two competing dimensions: the openly melodramatic ambitions of the work (especially the first movement) manifested as episodes of highly variegated vertical textures on the one hand, and a sense of shared pulse and large-scale continuity on the other. Performances such as those by Claude Frank and the English pianist Solomon (both of which I greatly admire) draw on the modern piano’s superior ability to minimize registral and textural differences. These performances achieve a taut narrative arch characterized by consistency of sonic and metrical continuity while perhaps doing so at the expense of dramatic moment-to-moment juxtapositions of tension and register. 

Instruments, therefore, help situate interpretations along the competing demands of the music. And in light of Op. 57’s overt experimentations in the textural domain, these demands might be be said to originate from Beethoven’s exploitations of instrumental limits. To date, there has been no significant exploration of the “Appassionata” through the English piano from the turn of the century, a type of instrument that we know intrigued Beethoven and which prompted his order of a comparable and contemporaneous Erard Frères piano in 1803. This program therefore aims to complement Tom Beghin’s exploration of the “Waldstein” sonata on the Erard and bring to the surface the many productive confrontations and tensions that may otherwise difficult to discern through contemporary Viennese and modern pianos.

—Mike Cheng-Yu Lee