Listening to Beethoven #112 – Piano Sonata no.5 in C minor Op.10/1


Landscape with Pavilion by Caspar David Friedrich (c1797)

Piano Sonata no.5 in C minor Op.10/1 for piano (1797, Beethoven aged 26)

1 Allegro molto e con brio
2 Adagio molto
3 Finale (Prestissimo)

Dedication Countess Anna Margarete von Browne
Duration 19′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven turns once more to the piano sonata, with the first of a triptych eventually published in September 1798. This work, completed almost a year earlier, sees a swift return to C minor. For the pianist András Schiff, the three works published as Op.10 ‘are more concentrated…they turn outwards, towards connoisseurs and amateurs. Perhaps for that reason they are slightly easier to play.’ From experience, the C minor is still a tough nut to crack if you haven’t reached Grade 8!

Schiff and Daniel Heartz note the pointers towards a sonata yet to be composed. ‘The Adagio molto in 2/4 time that follows is in A flat’, notes Heartz, ‘a key that, when joined with the song-like character and coming right after fretful C minor, will make an unforgettable impression in the Pathétique.

This comes after a first movement where Schiff speaks of ‘drama and turmoil. Its opening theme is a so-called ‘Mannheim rocket’, as in Op.2/1, but it is sharpened by the dotted rhythm’. Other qualities are the thick scoring, an extreme contrast between very quiet (pianissimo) and very loud (fortissimo), and increased gaps between high and low registers.

Although the ending is in C major, ‘we hear it as minor’, says Schiff, the whole movement ‘secretive and urgent’. There is a ghostly conclusion where ‘the work disappears mysteriously and rapidly’.

Thoughts

On one hand, the first movement of this sonata could feel like a ‘regulation’ piece of Beethoven – especially if you are familiar with his other works in C minor (the Fifth Symphony, Pathétique Sonata, or the First Piano Trio to pick just three examples). On the other, with closer inspection, there is still plenty going on. The beefy C minor chords show how much Beethoven’s piano writing is filling out, while the use of silence allows the composer to pop in a few witty asides for his audience, as Haydn or Clementi might have done.

Time slows to a near standstill for the second movement, the anticipation of what Beethoven would do with his Pathétique sonata. Expressive licence is given to the free right hand, which is allowed to wander in the way a C.P.E. Bach Fantasia might have done, but by the end the mood is calm and meditative. Not so the third movement, a flurry of notes with more crunchy chords in the lower end of the piano. Beethoven is off the leash again, contrasting the bold first theme with the slight lilt of the second, reflecting perhaps his work on German Dances around the time of composition. This theme moves to C major for its second statement, after which the piece hurries to the finish line – but, as Schiff notes, ends in a puff of smoke.

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)

Paul Badura-Skoda gives an engaging performance on a Johann Schantz piano, dating from Vienna in 1790. The mottled tones of the left hand work nicely in the Adagio, though textures are more ragged in the faster music. Emil Gilels takes a broad view of the slow movement, complementing a commanding account of the outer two. Schiff is typically engaging, as is Hewitt, who shapes the melodic phrases beautifully.

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 1797 Viotti Violin Concerto no.22 in A minor

Next up Duo for viola and cello in E flat major WoO 32, ‘Eyeglasses Duo’

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