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Revisiting Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, movement 1, “quasi una fantasia,” and comparing You Tube performances

I continuously revisit compositions for a new perspective and in this endeavor, I usually check out You Tube performances of celebrated pianists.

The “Moonlight Sonata,” first movement is a piece that many students set their sights to play. On the surface the composition appears to be within musical and technical reach, but it’s a significant challenge to sustain the rolling triplets while fleshing out the melody above. The balance between three voices including the bass, is a notable undertaking.

Incidentally, the tag,”Moonlight” has no factual association with the music. Beethoven wrote in his autograph that it was like a fantasy, “quasi una fantasia,” but a music critic at the time decided the piece had a moonlit effect. Regardless, to play this movement artfully requires mindful practicing and layered learning of voices.

Here are some performance snatches from the Internet:

Wilhelm Kempff:

I liked the classically spun melody with few liberties taken. Beethoven wrote the composition in alla breve so one should feel two underlying beats to the measure. Kempff gets that across from start to finish without letting the piece fall into a metronomic read.

Daniel Barenboim:

On the more Romantic side of the spectrum, Daniel Barenboim’s tempo is considerably slower, with more sustain pedal used and cadences nursed very expressively.

Vladimir Horowitz:

Back to same tempo as Kempff.

Horowitz had some interesting changes of tonal color, but he fleshed out parts of the melody with conspicuous accents so he could draw down neighbor notes as contrast. I noticed that he fell down hard on some cadences.

Valentina Lisista:

A very satisfying, well paced reading. Lisista brought out the bass line at times, and drew attention to a few inner voices.

Evgeny Kissin:

A slower playing at 6:21. Kissin tended to punctuate the melody which gave it more of vertical dimension.

Arthur Rubenstein:

Playing a tad faster than Kissin, Rubenstein offered a lyrical approach with no incongruous melodic accents. Simplicity seemed to work here.

And finally, Victor Borge giving it a try: It’s worth a few chuckles!

How to practice the “Moonlight” Sonata, first movement:

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