The Summer by Caspar David Friedrich (1807)
Piano Sonata no.2 in A major Op.2/2 for piano (1795, Beethoven aged 24)
Dedication Franz Joseph Haydn
Background and Critical Reception
Beethoven wrote his second piano sonata in 1795, while he was studying counterpoint with Albrechtsberger, though like the other two pieces in the Op.2 set it is dedicated to another teacher, Haydn.
As with the three Op.1 piano trios, Beethoven’s three Op.2 piano sonatas inhabit very different personalities. The F minor piece described yesterday has plenty of brio, but this A major work is relatively light on its feet in comparison.
That does not make it insubstantial, however. Harry Halbreich, writing in his extensive booklet notes for Paul Badura-Skoda’s recording on Arcana, notes how Beethoven ‘seems to take possession of the piano, from which he draws entirely new contrasts of range, of dynamics and of rhythm.
Daniel Heartz writes of how the sonata ‘offers very different fare. It counters no.1’s somber mien with lighter textures overall and a sunnier disposition; it also makes more demands on the performer’. He enjoys the third movement scherzo, which ‘recaptures the bright, filigree character of the opening movement’, and the finale, an ‘easily flowing gavotte, with a captivating melody’.
The second instalment of Beethoven’s first group of piano sonatas is much less performed than the first. Angela Hewitt cites the quiet and gentle ending as one possible reason for this – but as she says, there is no reason to treat it as inferior to the first work in F minor.
If anything, the appeal of the second sonata is more immediate than the first. Beethoven’s mood is playful right from the start, with a glint in the eye as the clipped phrases of the first tune are announced. This is one of many instances where the silence around the tune is every bit as important as the notes themselves – and we are drawn into the charm and impish nature of the writing. Beethoven’s development of his ideas is bold, but the wit still shines through.
The second movement is a soft reverie, graceful and hymn like, but with a walking bass that could easily have come from a Haydn symphony, showing how Beethoven is now treating the piano like an orchestra. This lovely, calm water is interrupted briefly by a minor-key middle section, but becomes the prevailing mood by the end.
The third movement is classed as a Scherzo and exhibits the qualities you would expect with that label, returning to the playful mood of the first movement. For the trio section in the middle Beethoven moves from the key of A major to A minor and a more strident passage of music – but then switches on the charm again before the end.
As with Op.2/1 the last movement is substantial, bringing together the different moods of the previous three. It flows rather nicely, with a bright disposition but with the odd moment of shade. The calm finish is rather touching, as though Beethoven has said all he needs to say and is setting down his pen with a sigh of satisfaction.
Recordings used and Spotify links
Emil Gilels (Deutsche Grammophon)
Alfred Brendel (Philips)
András Schiff (ECM)
Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)
Paul Badura-Skoda (Arcana)
Stephen Kovacevich (EMI)
Igor Levit (Sony Classical)
There are some excellent recordings of this piece, which as Paul Badura-Skoda illustrates sounds really good on the fortepiano. Angela Hewitt is characteristically detailed, and almost a little shy in the first and third movements, which really suits Beethoven’s writing. András Schiff is very relaxed in his choice of tempi for the first and third movements especially, but justifies this with pure melodic phrasing.
Claudio Arrau gets the balance perfectly aligned. Emil Gilels spends almost as much time in the slow movement, where he gets lost (in a wholly good way) in the music until a stern middle section. Igor Levit, the most recently released version, throws off the third movement with some style, and signs off with a flowing finale.
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 Haydn Piano Trio in E-flat minor Hob.XV:31 .
Next up Piano Sonata no.3 in C major Op.2/3