One of my years-old ideas about Beethoven’s piano playing is that it developed from, roughly said, “impetuous-youthful-but-rough” via “virtuosic-professional” to “stepwise declining”. First signs of that “decline” can be seen in documents from around 1800. Clear indications date from 1805 and onward.
This view is not so much based on my innate perseverance in the making of claims, but rather on the circumstance that I spent my time returning to the canonic documents about Beethoven’s playing, re-reading, re-organizing and re-interpreting their meaning (at that moment and over time). Unbelievable that a perfectly accessible passage in a very well known body of source material (the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung from Leipzig) has escaped my (and – it seems – most Beethoven scholars’) attention. It beautifully summarizes what I have tried to establish:
AMZ Zehnter Jahrgang, No. 19, 3 February 1808 p. 303. In a review of the trio Op. 2 by Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven’s former student, we find the following passage:
“Mr. R. is the last, and in fact perhaps the only pupil mr. v. Beethoven consented to take on, and whom he kept here in Vienna for some time also for the following reason; that he played his (Beethoven’s) piano concertos and other important works in public, which the composer himself no longer liked to do, [who has] in fact really neglected himself regarding his playing for several years.”
Original: “Hr. R. ist der letzte, und eigentlich wol auch der einzige Schüler, den Hr. v. Beethoven hat haben mögen, und den er eine Zeit lang auch darum hier in Wien behielt, dass er seine (B.s) Klavierkonzerte und andere Werke von Bedeutung öffentlich spielte, weil der Komponist das nicht mehr selbst mochte, auch sich wirklich im Spiel seit mehreren Jahren etwas vernachlässigt hat.”
This was, incidentally, three quarters of a year before Beethoven played his Choral Fantasy and his Fourth Piano Concerto in a public concert. We know from another source that he played on a new Streicher piano that was strung and voiced for a loud tone. Streicher later changed the instrument back to “softer” and “more poetic”, after Clementi and Beethoven during a joint visit to the workshop had urged him to do so. Although the concert was riddled with all sorts of problems, Beethoven’s playing at that occasion was “astonishingly good” according to one observer, Reichardt. My idea is that Beethoven brought himself in shape again for this occasion, which was important for his career.