Listening to Beethoven – approaching the piano sonatas

A piano of Aaron Walter, similar to the one Beethoven used after his arrival in Vienna in 1792.

Written by Ben Hogwood

If you’re a regular visitor to these pages – first of all, thank you! – you will have noticed Arcana’s Beethoven project has been picking up some momentum of late. So far it has covered 55 pieces from early on in his careers in Bonn, and has now followed him to Vienna and his first official publications, the three Piano Trios Op.1. That means one very significant body of work is coming into view – the Piano Sonatas.

One of the main attractions to this project was to attempt to fully appreciate this cycle of 32 works, long considered one of the finest achievements in Western music. It means that writing about these amazing pieces is potentially quite intimidating, given the body of work that already exists – and yet the appeal of the music is that anyone at any level can fully enjoy the fruit of Beethoven’s labours.

Amateur pianists – such as yours truly! – can enjoy them too. A couple of the works published as Op.49 are what I would call ‘entry level’, and I had the pleasure of playing one at university, post-Grade 5. Some famous passages are within scope, too – the slow movement of the Moonlight sonata (not the fast one!), the Pathétique (again the slow movement!) and isolated passages of some other works.

There are many, many recorded versions of the sonatas. Most complete cycles – curiously – are by male pianists, so it gives me great pleasure to have interviewed Angela Hewitt about these works, a piece I will publish soon on the site. She has nearly crossed their line with her own cycle, and we will enjoy her versions on the Hyperion label. Other guides I have chosen are ‘classic’ sets from Emil Gilels, Claudio ArrauStephen Kovacevich and Alfred Brendel, an older set from Wilhelm Kempff, and one of the newest of all from Igor Levit, released just last year on Sony Classical.

I also felt it important to include a cycle on pianos of Beethoven’s time, so have opted for Paul Badura-Skoda on the Arcana label, ironically, performed on now fewer than seven different fortepianos.

The cycle will start shortly with the three works published as Op.2 and dedicated to Haydn in 1795. It will then set us down in a heap with the final utterance, the C minor sonata Op.111, finished in 1822. By that point we will know an awful lot more about Beethoven, and just how these extraordinary pieces came to be. Hope you can join us for the ride!

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here:

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