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Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas: the Jonathan Del Mar edition

Featured publications are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

As publishers prepare for the 250th Anniversary of the birth of Beethoven, several have been revisiting his Piano Sonatas, a steady flow of which have been arriving for review over recent months.

First to deliver their new version of the complete cycle are Bärenreiter, whose edition of all 35 Sonatas (including the three early Sonatas WoO 47) is now complete and available in a variety of formats.

An epic achievement, this new edition has already won the hearts and minds of some of the world’s greatest Beethoven interpreters; those giving glowing endorsements include Marc-André Hamelin, Angela Hewitt, Stephen Hough, Robert Levin, Leslie Howard and Igor Levit (whose recording of the cycle I recently reviewed here).

To quote Paul Badura-Skoda:

“Jonathan Del Mar’s Beethoven edition is unparalleled in terms of its precision. What I value most about it is the use of lesser-known or previously unknown sources, the commentary, which is the most extensive to date, and the discussion of problematic sections. I wholeheartedly recommend this new edition of Beethoven piano sonatas.”

So now let’s take a more in-depth look…

An Incredible Journey

Beethoven and Bärenreiter have been indelibly linked with editor and musicologist Jonathan Del Mar ever since his groundbreaking edition of the Nine Symphonies was published to international acclaim back in 2000.

In this short film, the enthusiasm of Del Mar and the musicians he has worked with is palpable:

Del Mar writes,

“I started my research with the Beethoven symphonies. But after having spent twenty years on those, learning about how Beethoven worked, it made sense to expand my horizons; and so I continued with the concertos, the complete works for cello and piano, the string quartets, and eventually the piano sonatas which are central to a pianist’s repertoire. So the same methodology as for the symphonies has been harnessed for the sonatas: scientific deductions, painstaking and meticulous reading of the sources, and above all, solutions that are sensible and which work.”

Studying the original sources for the sonatas might sound like a straightforward task, but the three year odyssey Del Mar undertook proved an epic one which ultimately included studying close to 100 sources in 13 libraries, necessitating 13 trips overseas.

Del Mar lists the equipment he took on these library forays:

  • “three torches/flashlights (because certainly one, maybe two, will not work at the crucial moment)
  • a powerful magnifying glass
  • fine tweezers for turning pages of a delicate manuscript or source
  • a long ruler for measuring the manuscript
  • a list of questions, along with the ongoing draft of the new urtext edition and critical commentary, manuscript paper, etc.”

If this suggests hints of Indiana Jones, the process was leavened with musical interludes, Del Mar consulting with eminent performers.

Leslie Howard tell us:

“…it will be a long time before anyone materially improves upon this text and its accompanying critical apparatus! Jonathan Del Mar is one of those rare scholars who, before committing to a final reading, has the humble grace and wisdom to consult widely amongst performers and scholars lest any stone remain unturned, and the result speaks for itself.”

That result is now available in a range of permutations, which I will outline next…

The Separate Editions

Appearing at regular intervals over the last few years, the individual Sonatas are available per opus number in 24 separate publications, each including the following:

1. An Introduction written by Misha Donat on the genesis and history of the sonatas as well as a basic analysis of each.

2. Del Mar’s Preface, which deals with the sources and specific editorial problems of each sonata.

3. A section about Performance Practice co-written by Del Mar and Donat, offering insight into the many issues around the instruments of the day and their range, pedalling, tempo, dynamics, articulations, accents, trills, ornamentation and repeats.

4. A detailed Critical Commentary with facsimile pages illustrating editorial problems and with a description of the sources.

5. An Appendix outlining alternative readings which possess some validity; this affords the performer the possibility to make an informed choice, and I am particularly pleased to see this information separated out at the far rear of the book for quick and easy access, rather than buried in footnotes and the Critical Commentary.

The scores themselves appear between items 3 and 4 above, at the heart of the publication. The music engraving is crystal clear, spaciously and beautifully presented on cream paper as per Bärenreiter’s house style, and with well-considered page turns.

This would be a good point to note that the Del Mar edition of the Beethoven Sonatas includes no fingering at all. They present this as an advantage (perhaps because it doesn’t insinuate a one-size-fits-all approach); some may disagree.

The Complete Sonata Editions

Following on from the publication of the separate editions, Bärenreiter have now issued the full set of 35 Sonatas in three larger volumes. This provides a cost-effective solution for having the complete set, and for a short time there is a particularly tempting introductory price.

The distribution of the Sonatas across the set is as follows:

  • Volume 1: WoO 47 – Op.14
  • Volume 2: Op.22 – Op.53
  • Volume 3: Op.54 – Op.111

Each volume here begins with a thematic index of the whole set, and the scores throughout helpfully feature running titles/opus and movement numbers at the top of every page so that each work can be more quickly found.

On the first page of each Sonata, the main sources are listed as a footnote, but these three volumes omit the Critical Commentary and Appedices, which must be purchased in a separate book (see below).

Also missing here, Misha Donat’s Introductions and the Performance Practice sections; these are only available in the separate editions for each opus, and are replaced here with a condensed introduction covering these topics more generally at the start of Volume 1.

The Complete Critical Commentary

This brings us neatly to a consideration of the complete Critical Commentary volume, a weighty tome of 316 pages which also includes the crucial Appendix sections from the separate editions.

An advantage of publishing this information in its own volume rather than within the three combined sonata volumes is that they become more manageable as performance editions than had they each contained an additional 100 pages of commentary.

Placing the Critical Commentary in a fourth volume also means that those inclined to use this information can invest at their discretion. It’s worth noting here that the Critical Commentary volume presently costs more than the three combined Sonata editions combined. But holding this extraordinary tome, it would be impossible not to marvel at the quality and scope of Del Mar’s work.

Bärenreiter again:

“The Critical Commentary is more than a mere list of findings: it is a fascinating read offering valuable glimpses into Beethoven’s compositional process. This scholarly contribution is unparalleled in its precision and indispensable for in-depth studies of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas.

I completely agree!

Which format for me?

Any serious classical piano player will want to have a complete edition of the Beethoven Sonatas on their music shelf, and the three-volume Bärenreiter set is now an obvious and affordable choice.

The Complete Critical Commentary, though pricy, will be an invaluable add-on for those who choose this route, but is aimed at the more serious scholar and student of these works.

While I’m pleased to have the complete set for my own studio, I would want to purchase the separate editions of particular Sonatas I intend to play; here, the added insights afforded by Misha Donat’s Introduction and the Performance Practice sections certainly add to the value.

The most cost-effective compromise is perhaps to have the three volume set of the scores for reference, while purchasing separate editions for particular Sonatas as they are studied.

A Tale of Two Hammerklaviers

Regardless of the claims made by Del Mar and Bärenreiter, some will still be keen to consider whether this is actually the best edition for them. To answer this question effectively necessitates some comparison.

Bärenreiter are not of course the only publishing house revisiting these works; Henle Verlag and Wiener Urtext Edition are both in the process of issuing new versions, although neither are yet able to send me the full set.

A particular attraction of the revised Henle urtext editions is that they include the fingerings of concert pianist Murray Perahia.

Meanwhile, Wiener Urtext are putting the finishing touches to their new edition, which is in three very large volumes. Their critical commentary is included within each of these, rather than separately as in Bärenreiter’s case, a point which may actually influence your decision in either direction!

Wiener Urtext have already issued their separate edition of the Hammerklavier Sonata, Beethoven’s opus 106 in B flat, making for a useful comparison with the Del Mar Bärenreiter version.

Wiener Urtext include a detailed Preface in German/English/French, including useful background and source information with a particularly in-depth consideration of Beethoven’s controversial metronome marks. The Del Mar/Donat introductions however offer a broader menu of useful analytical advice and performance practice insight for the modern player.

The Sonata itself takes up 49 well-spaced pages in the Bärenreiter, while Wiener afford it an even more generous 55 pages, their music font being just slightly larger than Bärenreiter’s. On a personal note, my ageing eyes favour the Wiener engraving. Some will warmly welcome Alexander Jenner’s included fingering suggestions, too.

Wiener’s Critical Commentary is extensive and takes up 11 pages. Bärenreiter’s equivalent enjoys 22; here, it’s Del Mar’s more detailed Critical Commentary with separate Appendices outlining alternative readings that gives the Bärenreiter version the edge.

Both these editions are plainly superb, each combining lush presentation, a practical layout for performance, and deep scholarship. The choice will ultimately be a personal one.

And finally…

In conclusion, Misha Donat explains the importance of these incredible works:

“Nowhere is Beethoven’s continual search for new discoveries more apparent than in his piano sonatas, which have aptly been described as the New Testament of keyboard music… Certainly, Beethoven’s sonatas form the richest body of such pieces ever created by a single composer. They are remarkable not only for the originality and beauty of their invention, but also for the variety of their form and character: it is as though Beethoven were determined to show how many different facets of his creative persona he could display within the same genre.”

Beethoven himself wrote (on 12th February 1816) to his student Czerny with the words:

“…you have to forgive an author who would have rather heard his music played exactly as he wrote it!”

With the appearance of Jonathan Del Mar’s new benchmark edition for Bärenreiter, we have less of an excuse than ever when it comes to understanding and interpreting the master’s intentions.

This magnificent resource is not only a new landmark in Beethoven scholarship: for pianists its issue is the publishing event of the decade.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.