Self-portrait as a young man by Caspar David Friedrich (1800)
Piano Sonata no.20 in G major Op.49/2 for piano (1795-6, Beethoven aged 25)
1 Allegro ma non troppo
2 Tempo di Minuetto
Background and Critical Reception
One of Beethoven’s shortest piano sonatas, this miniature jewel in G major is an early work in spite of its Op.49 publication. It was published alongside an equally compact work in G minor but is thought to have been written during Beethoven’s visit to Prague in 1796, one of the few times he ventured away from Vienna.
Angela Hewitt, writing in the booklet notes for her Hyperion recording, describes that ‘after a straightforward, no-fuss Allegro, ma no troppo (a study for playing triplets), Beethoven gives us a beautiful movement in the tempo of a minuet, an example of a dance that figured prominently in his music. He must have liked this theme because he used it again in the third movement of his Septet in E flat major Op.20 (1799)’.
The first movement of G major sonata is almost certainly the first complete sonata movement a piano student will encounter – such was the way for me. And yet despite its supposed technical ease it has a poise to rival the most charming works of Mozart and Haydn.
Beethoven writes with a relatively light touch, a few crunchy chords aside, and the tunes are attractively delivered and then developed. A call to arms from the first chord is answered by more delicate thoughts, and this to and fro forms the basis of the first movement. The second movement has its roots more obviously in the dance, and begins with a true earworm that deserved its place at the heart of the wonderful Septet – still to come in our listening. This slightly cheeky tune returns at regular intervals, as though checking we haven’t forgotten about it, before signing off with a thoughtful full stop.
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)
Ronald Brautigam (BIS)
There are many thoroughly enjoyable versions of this piece. In picking out a few, I would commend Ronald Brautigam for the freshness of his fortepiano phrasing, even though the recorded sound is a little roomy at times. As András Schiff points out in his notes for ECM, there are no dynamic markings for the sonata, so the performer has to interpret them. His own recording is also quite reverberant, with a clipped delivery turning the second movement theme into a real dance movement. Angela Hewitt takes a smoother approach to Op.49/2, beautifully pointed and phrased, with lovely balance between the hands. Emil Gilels has a more regal approach but is completely captivating in his account.
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 1796 Clementi 3 Piano Sonatas Op.35 .
Next up Opferlied, Hess 145