Listening to Beethoven #61 – Piano Sonata no.3 in C major Op.2/3


Landscape in the Riesengebirge by Caspar David Friedrich (1798)

Piano Sonata no.3 in C major Op.2/3 for piano (1793-95, Beethoven aged 24)

1 Allegro con brio
2 Adagio
3 Scherzo: Allegro
4 Allegro assai

Dedication Franz Joseph Haydn
Duration 23′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

The third of Beethoven’s Op.2 sonatas is also the most ambitious. Thinking far beyond the recital room, he wrote what is effectively a concerto for solo piano, a vehicle to show off his prowess not just as a conductor but as a performer.

The scale of the piece is impressive, with four big-boned movements that take small melodic cells and amplify them to far greater designs. In this respect he was following Haydn’s talent for expanding on small musical nuggets, while writing clearly for the instrument at hand, a bigger piano with greater volume and depth.

Jan Swafford, in the Virtuoso chapter of his superb biography Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, waxes lyrical on this sonata. ‘In this brilliant and thematically tight-knit piece’, he writes, ‘he alternates quiet, inward music with explosions of virtuosity, the whole seeming to be a two-handed version of a piano concerto, complete with cadenzas at the end of the first and last movements’.

András Schiff agrees. ‘I see it very much as a performance piece, aimed at an audience. You could call it a ‘sonata-concertante’. The E major slow movement is also very wide-ranging’. He goes on to note anticipations of Brahms in the finale, where he describes how ‘the figures in thirds…display a new and extremely difficult kind of keyboard technique’.

For Angela Hewitt, the sonata is an early peak in the cycle of 32. She clearly loves the last movement, which is ‘not for the faint-hearted or weak-fingered’. Beethoven’s ‘perfect combination of heart, mind and humour makes this sonata, in my opinion, one of his most fulfilling pieces to perform’.

Thoughts

Beethoven’s music is definitely getting louder! This piece is one for the extravert, for a pianist capable of playing a flashy solo part – but then it is also for the introvert, capable of realising the poetic writing in the timeless writing in the slow movement.

The first movement, as András Schiff suggests, has two voices – an ‘orchestra’ (the opening theme) and the piano soloist. Soon the roles intertwine, and the pianist has a technical challenge on their hands! Some of the chords used in this movement have an awesome power we have not yet witnessed in Beethoven, packed out with notes that require the use of all ten fingers.

The slow movement, marked Adagio, is a notably early example of Beethoven’s ability to make time stand still in his slow music. That happens most noticeably when the main theme comes back, just over halfway through the movement, in a series of slow chords. It is followed by a suddenly loud statement, jerking the listener back into a harsh reality, the sudden mood change creating a strong dramatic impact.

The third movement scherzo is more, while the finale is an extension of a scherzo with its trotting theme. Gradually the music becomes more technically demanding and congested, the performer having to show athleticism and guile in equal measure. Then just before the end Beethoven suddenly disappears into a far-removed key and the music opens out into a mysterious question. The answer is emphatic – it was a false move, Beethoven toying with the performer (and listener) before bringing them ‘home’.

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)

Schiff is terrific here, enjoying the contrasts of Beethoven’s writing. Some of the big fortissimo chords have alarming power, played in a way of which the composer would surely have approved! Gilels goes for power, too, in a magisterial but slightly overpowering first movement. Angela Hewitt finds a lovely balance between bravado and delicacy, as does Igor Levit.

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

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