What makes the greatest pianists so great?
The obvious answer: a lot of things. They combine the elements of piano-playing into an art. Besides the mastery of all things technical and expressive, they know what rules to break and when. They have musical style.
Yet that phrase “musical style” is so far off and distant, isn’t it? What is musical style?
Today I’m going to dissect Daniel Barenboim’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique, 3rd Movement. In this piece, we can better see what boundaries Barenboim stretches or passes to make his interpretation his and his alone.
Here’s the video of Barenboim performing the Pathetique so you can refer to it as we go along.
I provide examples for most things I point out, but here’s the sheet music so you can study the musical context. (Scroll to page 13 for the 3rd movement.)
First of all, listen to Barenboim’s beginning and notice how perfectly smooth the right hand is. The left hand is barely even there. The grace notes are delicate and don’t interrupt the melodic line. Note how Barenboim emphasizes the melody from 0:12 to 0:16 – this is a very subtle and sensible thing to do, since it’s a repetition of the phrase before it. The second time, it has more meaning and importance.
This next part is genius – listen to the big chord, which leads into right hand arpeggios in F minor. That chord is marked fp. This next big chord is moved down a step and also marked fp. But listen to it. It sounds softer than the first chord. Barenboim did this very consciously because the first chord’s colors are so much bolder than the second chord’s. In your mind, replay just the first chord and then the second. The first chord leans into the second; loud, soft. It’s almost a two-note slur between them.
Now when you get to 0:44-0:47, stop and replay it. Maybe you feel that subtle holding back. It’s barely noticeable. That’s what makes it so incredibly hard to do. Barenboim does it again at 0:50-0:51. This poignant slowing is certainly not in the music. It’s so tastefully done that it’s hard to catch at all, but these minute details are what makes an artist an artist. Barenboim holds back many times throughout the piece, which makes it sound more natural, almost as though the piece is breathing.
One outright bit of rule-breaking Barenboim does is at 0:58-1:01. In the music, those chords have a closed triangular wedge above them, known as staccatissimo. (Staccatissimo is between legato and staccato, a sort of “lazy staccato”, or slight detachment.) In some editions, this staccatissimo is actually staccato. Barenboim does not detach these chords at all. Perhaps he thought the detachment would be too peremptory and harsh for so gentle a passage.
At 1:43, Barenboim brings out the right hand melody, and then at 1:49 replies with the left hand. At 1:54, he starts bringing out the right hand and at 2:00 he again returns with a reply from the left hand. Instead of a nondescript pile of phrases, this section is transformed into meaningful melodies and exchanges between the right hand and left hand.After that development, Barenboim returns with the theme, but this time it’s interrupted by the left hand, mimicking the theme. Now, this left hand interjection could be interpreted in many different ways, such as making it much louder than the right hand or even being an echo of the right hand. Barenboim prefers to keep it at about the same dynamic level for the first few measures, but then when the left hand diverges from the melody that the right hand already presented, it grows louder and more insistent. This draws Barenboim neatly into a crescendo so that he arrives to a sf a couple measures away and from there can diminuendo straight into the beautiful p melody at 3:00. This is pure artistry; in Barenboim’s interpretation, every phrase leads to the next one beautifully and sensibly.
Moving on to 3:26-3:29, again we hear the absence of the staccatissimo.
Let’s proceed to the end, from 4:10-4:16. What Barenboim does here is grab the melody among all those notes. By holding down the first note of every group—whether by finger or pedal—the melody can pop out more clearly. Now, considering that those notes in the right hand are all triplets, he should technically just accent the melody and not hold it down for almost half a measure—but he does. And I think the piece profits from that.
Now let’s move on to 4:16-4:22. A point I find interesting here is that Barenboim really
stretches out the length of that quarter note, leaving very little time for the sixteenth notes to scurry through. While I wouldn’t play it that way myself, I like that he does this because it makes a better connection between the quarter notes that form the melody. The sixteenth notes try to disguise the melody, but Barenboim gets at it by holding on as long as he can to those quarter notes.
One last thing I’d like to note is the very slight ritardando Barenboim has from 4:38-4:42, which is not written in the music. This ritardando is quite intuitive, but he doesn’t overdo it. That’s musical taste for you.
I think the most interesting thing about analyzing an artist’s work is how strangely common it seems. Barenboim did nothing miraculously outside-the-box with this movement. But the one thing that distinguishes a great artist from a pianist is the quality of his playing and the manner in which he adds various tiny musical tweaks that make his interpretation great.
Thanks for reading!
~ Maggie J.