"It's a pity that Beethoven couldn't record any of his own pieces - if he had, we might have known just how he really wanted them to sound. But we can make informed guesses - and recent scholarship has brought us a lot closer.
Most of his early works eg. the piano sonatas and quartets of the 1790s would have been written for performance in aristocratic homes -elegant, intimate venues and the wealthy, titled audience would probably have numbered about 40 or 50 at most.
Sound in the surroundings
In these surroundings the sound would have carried easily, even though the instruments in those days had a gentler, less intrusive tone than their modern counterparts. The early pianos of Beethoven's time, for instance, produced a quieter, less powerful tone than the ones we often hear today, and the gut strings of the 18th century violin didn't project as incisively as modern metal - nor did the players use so much vibrato to enhance their effect. All this - not to mention 'pitch' which was about a semitone lower than today - suggests what we might regard as rather subdued, genteel performances.
Modern scholar-performers - like Roger Norrington, for example - have discovered a lot about the tempi - or the 'speeds' - at which Beethoven's works would have been played. Beethoven was a contemporary of Johann Maelzel, the inventor of the metronome, and was one of the first composers to insert metronome markings into his scores. They're not terribly reliable - Beethoven used to change his mind about tempi so that his publishers often got confused and printed them wrong! But the general feeling today is that the tempi in Beethoven's time were probably quite a bit faster than we've been used to hearing, and the articulation more 'pointed', to match.
When Beethoven arrived in Vienna as a young man he first made his name as a pianist - and quickly developed a reputation as one of the most muscular of performers. Beethoven was forever nagging his piano-makers to design instruments that could make a brighter, more brilliant sound. And when deafness took hold and he couldn't even hear the music he was composing or trying to perform, he demanded ever more powerful, more assertive instruments in all departments.
In this, as in so much else, Beethoven was a kind of 'bridge figure'. A contemporary of Goethe and of the painter Goya, his life almost exactly overlapped that of Napoleon. The artistic ethos of Beethoven's time was that of pre-Revolutionary classicism - the world of Haydn and Mozart, of relatively small musical ensembles, precise instrumental articulation, and a keyboard instrument - the 'fortepiano - which, as Beethoven himself was later to complain, sounded 'too much like a harp, or harpsichord, for his liking.
By the time he came to write the 'Emperor' Concerto and his Seventh Symphony - and even more so the Ninth in the 1820s - Beethoven was creating a sound-world that demanded the attention of a new, larger audience - music that would pave the way towards the big orchestras and public concert halls of the 19th century which required louder instruments, more deliberate tempi and that indispensable figure, the conductor."