Listening to Beethoven #59 – Piano Sonata no.1 in F minor Op.2/1


Ship in the Arctic Ocean by Caspar David Friedrich (1798)

Piano Sonata no.1 in F minor Op.2/1 for piano (1793-95, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication Franz Joseph Haydn
Duration 21’00

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Opus 1 for Beethoven was the piano trio; Opus 2 the piano sonata. Both publications contain three works, and both serve notice of a composer planning innovations in his chosen form. Compared to the piano trio the piano sonata was very well established, with Haydn and Mozart writing works in the form for many years previously. Signs of change were afoot however, the instruments themselves shifting away from the harpsichord to the fortepiano. Beethoven was also looking towards the symphony for inspiration, writing each of these sonatas in four movements (most had been in three) and within those movements constructing more expansive designs.

Opus 2 is dedicated to Haydn, Beethoven’s teacher at the time – around the time of his second trip to London. Commentators look to link the two composers musically, too, while acknowledging the influence of the Mannheim school in the main theme of the first movement, which is described as a ‘Mannheim rocket’ because of its quickly ascending melody. There are also parallels with C.P.E. Bach.

Pianist Angela Hewitt, in the booklet of her own recording on Hyperion, describes how Beethoven ‘is very precise with his markings for dynamics and articulation’. She makes the point that while this sonata was being written Haydn was just completing his last piano sonata. About Beethoven’s final movement, she says ‘the modern pianist would do well to try out this movement on a fortepiano to hear how terrifying it can sound’.

Thoughts

The first of Beethoven’s 32 published piano sonatas, the beginning of what Hans von Bülow called ‘The New Testament of Music’, makes a keen impression right from the off. The bold melody we hear in the right hand stays rooted in the mind, especially as Beethoven comes back to it time and again, putting a new spin on its profile. The links made to Haydn are understandable – there is a bit of the ‘Sturm und Drang’ about it (see the Mannheim link above), but already Beethoven has made it clear he is looking forward.

That much is clear in the slow movement, placed second. Here the music, while relaxed, often arrives at a suspended chord that Beethoven takes a while to resolve – and this creates a fair bit of tension, even within a passage of music that is softer on the ear than the first movement.

These tensions remain in the third movement, which is quite stern for a minuet – again in the vein of one of Haydn’s minor-key sonatas. The clouds part for the trio section, however, with some lovely bell-like figuration for the pianist’s right hand, until we turn inwards again when the minuet returns.

The last movement is stern, and fleet of foot, with more challenging writing for both hands as the music surges forward. The writing for octaves in the right hand shows how Beethoven is expanding the sound of the piano, and the music ends resolutely in the minor key – a technique of which Haydn would surely have approved.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Alfred Brendel (Philips)
András Schiff (ECM)
Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)
Paul Badura-Skoda (Arcana)
Stephen Kovacevich (EMI)
Igor Levit (Sony Classical)

András Schiff gives a very fine account of the piece that brings out its connections to Haydn, and especially the Symphony no.49 which is one of his only works in the same key. The slow movement is expertly judged, while the finale is even better, dramatic and never letting up, even as he slows to the finish. Claudio Arrau draws the listener in, especially in the slow movement. Paul Badura-Skoda, playing an instrument from Vienna in 1790, gives a crisp performance and the fortepiano has an appealing timbre.

Stephen Kovacevich is extremely brisk and does not use repeats – so his version is dispatched in a mere 15 minutes. Igor Levit, the most recent addition to this discography, also gives a quickfire performance and chooses not to use the repeat markings, but he still has time for the Minuet to dance gracefully and for the slow movement to have poetic pause for thought.

The playlist below accommodates all the versions described above except that by Angela Hewitt:

You can hear clips of Hewitt’s recording at the Hyperion website

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

Also written in 1795 Clementi 2 Piano Sonatas and 2 Capriccios Op.34 .

Next up Piano Sonata no.2 in A major Op.2/2

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