Formally, Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57, by Ludwig van Beethoven. The name “Appassionata” was attached not by Ludwig but by a music publisher ten years after his death. But it’s stuck because well, the music is really passionate; soft and intimate then loud and fast. It’s usually the highlight of any concert where it’s performed. I heard someone say on the radio once, about Beethoven: “Maybe not the best melodist or orchestrator to have ever composed, but unique in creating the feeling that each successive note is absolutely the only one that could possibly have been chosen.” This is like that.
It’s also famous for, perhaps apocryphally, having been loved by Lenin.
Regular readers will know that I’m a deranged audiophile with lots of expensive boxes down at one end of the living room. This kind of solo piano music is one of the ultimate tests of high-end audio, and it’s a test the equipment reliably fails. A lot of people, at this point in history, have never been in a room with a full-size concert grand being played hard by someone who’s good at it. You can’t imagine what it sounds like, the piano can roar and growl and soar, you can feel the sound flowing around you. I’ve listened to some of the world’s best audio systems, in aggregate priced in the hundreds of thousands, and they don’t come close to the real thing. Having said that, a good recording of a good Beethoven sonata by a good performer on a good stereo setup can be terrifying. In a good way, I mean.
Every famous pianist you never heard of has recorded the Appassionata, and the one I’ve listened to most is an ancient vinyl LP by Lazar Berman; wow, you can actually buy it on Amazon. If you’re the kind of person who would do such a thing we should sit down together some evening with adult beverages and vintage vinyl.
I also have digital versions by Ashkenazy, Brendel, and Robert Silverman, all great, maybe Brendel a little less so, and I’m completely at a loss as to what to recommend. I foolishly typed ”best Appassionata recording” into Google and stumbled into a maze of twisty little piano-fanatic passages, and now I think I’m going to have to buy a recording of one of Sviatoslav Richter’s 1960 live performances, either Moscow or Carnegie hall.
But for now I’m going to stick with Claudio Arrau, because I’ve never heard a recording by him of anything that I didn’t think was great. This album includes the Moonlight and the Pathétique along with Appassionata, which is really a lot of excellent music.