Use of the damper pedal when playing Beethoven

Beethoven was known to be a particularly fussy composer, marking up his music sometimes in great detail. Yet, when I listen to recordings of his sonatas by the likes of Kempff, Barenboim, Brendel, Schiff, and Kovacevich I am struck by how the use of the damper pedal often results in the non-observance of staccato marks, and non-observance of phrasing indicated by slurs. Sometimes I also hear the damper pedal being held across rests! As an example, listen to how any of the above-mentioned pianists play the first movement of the Op. 26 sonata.

But it bothers me. If the pianist has taken so much liberty with the score, then is he or she also missing too much of the composer’s intent?

I’ve read that Beethoven didn’t usually indicate pedal markings unless he absolutely wanted the dampers lifted. It seems that the practice of the time was for the pianist to use the damper pedal judiciously, and at his or her discretion, to help with tone production and technique.

To check this I pulled out the three editions of the sonatas that I have – Schenker, Tovey and Schirmer. All have different pedal markings and varying degrees of other markings as well, with Schenker having the least markings. Since Schenker is an ‘urtext’ edition (some people say the best researched) I assumed to be editorial anything else that appeared in Tovey and Schirmer that wasn’t also in Schenker.

Tovey has the most pedal markings, and they largely observe staccato markings and slur boundaries. Among the exceptions include an indication to pedal through the repeated staccato in bar 9 of Op. 26 1st mvmt theme.

So even if the pianists I mentioned played from Tovey (which I seriously doubt, but who knows!) they shouldn’t be pedaling the way that I hear them doing in the recordings.

Last week I got my hands on Claudio Arrau’s Beethoven sonata cycle from the 1960’s. His much ‘drier’ pedal technique is a revelation. The difference really hit me when he played Var. III of Op. 26 1st mvmt. Just about everybody I’ve heard pedals the left-hand staccato. Arrau does not, and the result is quite arresting. It opens up the texture of the music tremendously.

The next question is whether or not many pianists use the damper pedal to simplify the technical demands of playing Beethoven’s piano music. Take for example bar 26 of the 1st mvmt theme. Everybody except Arrau holds the dampers off on each semiquaver too long so that the right-hand portato on the repeated Eb is completely lost. But dang it, only the Eb is played portato, which means I must play the bottom two notes of the RH chords and all of the LH chords legato without pedal, or else do some fancy half-pedaling. It’s not easy for me but I would have thought that concert pianists of the calibre I referred to earlier would have no problems.

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