(Not) Butchering Beethoven

Arthur Schoonderwoerd is an accomplished pianist and conductor of the French classical ensemble Christofori. As with many of my favorite musicians, he and his colleagues play on period instruments, and otherwise strive to recapture the way the music they play would have sounded at the time it was composed.

Perusing Schoonderwoerd’s recordings of Mozart and Beethoven concertos, one will encounter numerous reviewers assuring us that his interpretations of the great composers are the worst conceivable. For departing from techniques that have become customary over the generations, he is accused of making a mockery of the repertoire.

Faced with such expressions of supreme censorial self-assurance, I am compelled to wonder whom I ought to believe: these eminent critics, or my lying ears!

I discovered Schoonderwoerd a few years back, when searching for an edition of Beethoven’s piano concertos. Naturally, they are oft recorded, and with streaming technology, I was able to sample many versions before making a choice.

I must have heard the first 2-3 minutes of Beethoven’s first in a dozen variations. All were beautiful, and I would heap condemnation on not a one.

Nevertheless, as I stumbled upon Cristofori’s rendition, I was blown away by something unique and of priceless beauty.

In the other versions, the soloist plays on a modern instrument, far more powerful than the tinkly 19th century model Schoonderwoerd has mastered. As well, the modern orchestra is full of instruments louder in themselves, and magnified by the practice of employing larger groups of musicians for each instrumental part.

On the whole, this gives more force to what I would describe as the chief melodies of a work, and when it is well conducted, the effect is highly meritorious.

Cristofori, by contrast, play with comparatively few instruments, each of which is quieter than what we are accustomed to today. The effect is certainly different, and I can sympathize with those who are expecting more volume, or another set of timbres, and walk away befuddled.

What I discovered by comparing versions, however, was simple but amazing: when his works are played on instruments, and with arrangements, similar to those for which Beethoven was composing, one is actually able to hear all the notes that Beethoven wrote!

In other performances, various walls of sound are built up, all but drowning out certain subtleties that travelled from the composer’s mind, to his pen, but not, in this case, to the listener’s ear.

With Schoonderwoerd’s approach, these magnificent details are set free, and able to delight the audience as intended.

I recommend sampling this technique for yourself, by listening to Cristofori’s recent performance of Mozart’s 20th piano concerto:

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