The word on the street is that Beethoven's pianos didn't last long: snapped strings, broken keys, even a cracked frame now and then... This kind of keyboard mayhem, we are told, was unavoidable because what Beethoven meant by fff called for much greater volume of sound than could be extracted from those Broadwood pianos of his day. I’m sure this much is true. I wonder, however, if this is the whole story. Much of what is known about the man suggests that his idea of fff might have included some amount of ugliness and brutality in addition to loudness. After all, Hummel could play forte on exactly the same pianos without snapping strings or breaking keys. And even the young Liszt – in his bombastic period – was not known for inflicting serious damage on his pianos.
Alas, Beethoven never marked his fortes brutalmente (as far as I know), so the question of how his fortes should sound on a modern metal frame concert grand intrigues me a good deal. In Beethoven’s day, of course, one could know for sure if the forte was played the way the master wanted it: produce the right kind of damage to the piano, and you provide irrefutable evidence of your dynamical authenticity. With a modern Steinway, however, it would take a sledgehammer to inflict Beethoven's kind of damage, which – given the cost of the instrument versus the box office for a typical piano recital – is out of the question.
What remains is the option of “coloring” Beethoven’s fortes with the kind of crude, metallic banging that would carry an unmistakable reference to “ugliness” and “brutality”. And some quite famous pianists seem to have done just that in their Beethoven playing. Richter used to come close to“losing it” in his Appassionata performances from the 1960s (although three decades later he played the same piece with stately grace and restraint). In the 1950s Gilels nearly destroyed his piano while playing the same sonata in Prague. (I always sort of expected to see smudges of blood from Gilels’ fingers on my Multisonic CD containing this performance.) And it wasn’t just the Russians who were into Beethoven-with-a-Bang. Yves Nat, when he played Beethoven, easily forgot about the French virtues of balance and grace: the outer movements in his live Appassionata from a 1953 Paris recital literally scream in agony; there is not one bar without ugliness and brutality.
Even if the bangers indeed represent Beethoven’s own idea of fff (and they probably do), I never could appreciate this sort of hyper-cathartic playing of Beethoven’s music. As far as I am concerned, whatever Beethoven might have meant by fff over and above “very loud” carries no more validity today than his ideas about personal hygiene. To be a great Beethoven player today one need not appear before the public unshaven and disheveled, in a rumpled shirt, with dirty fingernails, and with body odor reaching beyond the fifth row. Ditto for turning Beethoven's fortes into a piano transcription of Mossolov’s The Foundry.
Fortunately, there are recordings of world-class pianists (e.g., Casadesus) whose Beethoven is played with exquisite restraint (without aloofness), impeccable finger work (without didacticism), and beautifully contoured (but not schmaltzy) tone across the entire dynamic range. This kind of Beethoven playing may be inauthentic, but I find it more musically satisfying on repeated hearings than the outbursts from the roaring “keyboard lions”.