The Moonlight Sonata is not only the most famous of the Beethoven Sonatas, but is a candidate for the most famous piece of serious art music ever written,’ claims Charles Rosen in his book on the Piano Sonatas. But it’s the first movement, with its hypnotic triplets, that is so celebrated – many people have never heard the rest.
Beethoven had proven himself a master of the sonata in his previous 13 piano works, and was restless to try something different, so he called his two Op. 27 Sonatas ‘quasi una fantasia’. This, the second, has its slow movement first, then a brief equivocal middle movement, and finally a terrifying presto, of which Rosen writes ‘even today, 200 years later, its ferocity is astonishing’.
Performances are to be judged above all by how astonishing the last movement sounds, not by whether the first sends you into a state of bliss…
The best recording of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata
Out of the 300 or so recordings available, so many are fine that choosing a winner is more than usually foolish. But I find Stephen Kovacevich’s account at least as great as any other I have heard, despite EMI’s slightly constricted sound.
He doesn’t make a meal of the first movement, keeping those murmurous triplets in their place, letting the climaxes, which aren’t large, emerge from and sink into the general level of the movement naturally, as if it were breathing.
Beethoven instructs that the movement be played without muting, ie without bringing the hammers nearer the strings, but also that the sustaining pedal be held down for lengthy stretches. That would have worked better on his pianos than on ours, where too much pedalling results in a more atmospheric haze.
The middle movement, which is a bit of a puzzle, Kovacevich plays without any particular emphasis, leaving an impression – the right one, I believe –of almost trite normality between its two bizarre neighbours.
But then he hurls himself into the last movement, with those furious arpeggios clearly articulated; the two crashing chords at the climax of each are violent but not an assault on the ears, as too many pianists make them.
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Three more great recordings of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata
Radu Lupu (1972)
Decca 478 2340 (10 CDs)
Many performances of the Moonlight Sonata are virtually indistinguishable, which is not necessarily a criticism. But Romanian Radu Lupu is utterly individual – and that is no criticism either, at least in his case.
He opens the Sonata very quietly, very softly – I’d swear he is using the soft pedal – and creates almost a Debussyian halo of sound, certainly a sensuous effect which is magical but surely far from anything the composer imagined. He builds the movement to an unindicated climax, too, but can you resist the persuasiveness of this playing?
The short second movement is, by contrast, neat and well-behaved, and the third is played with waves of excitement, pauses for breath, and then a further volley of sound. Decca provides the warmest acoustic of all these recordings.
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As soon as I listened to the Ukrainian pianist Emil Gilels, wonderfully recorded by Deutsche Grammophon, I wondered how I could possibly find anyone greater. But that is the Gilels effect – the directness and honesty of his playing.
On the other hand, with a work so almost stultifyingly familiar as at any rate the first movement, there may be something to be said for some idiosyncrasy, if only to jerk us out of conventional responses.
I don’t feel that Gilels quite does that, though it is a curious criticism to make of someone that they seem to be giving us the actual work, without any intermediate interpretation.
The only possible criticism one can make of this superb artist is that he never gives the impression of almost losing control – and the last movement of the Moonlight is demented. So for anyone of nervous temperament, this is the recording to choose.
My final choice could so easily be Maurizio Pollini or Wilhelm Kempff, or even Paul Lewis, but invidiously I have chosen the Hungarian virtuoso Géza Anda, because he presents, as he does in almost everything, an account which is fresh and somewhat surprising.
Where others seek out the imponderable mysteries of the first movement, Anda, with a weird acoustic, seems more interested in exploring a foreign sound-world.
He plays the short second movement with almost comic decorum, as if it were a piece by Haydn, and then whirls into the last movement with more swagger than fury, so that rather than being cowed, as we usually are, the effect is one of exhilaration.
And one to avoid…
It pains me to say so, but Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau’s Philips CD, and his live performance on Euroarts DVD, are sadly laboured affairs, ponderous in tempo and communicating not a lot more than the effort indicated by the sweat on his brow.
He was so often a supreme artist, but sometimes he would have done a good deal more justice to a great composer if he hadn’t tried so hard, and these are very evidently two of those occasions.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.