Listening to Beethoven #123 – Piano Sonata no.4 in E flat major Op.7


Emilias Kilde by Caspar David Friedrich (c1797)

Piano Sonata no.4 in E flat major Op.7 for piano (1797, Beethoven aged 26)

1 Allegro molto e con brio
2 Largo con gran espressione
3 Allegro
4 Rondo. Poco allegretto e grazioso

Dedication Countess Babette von Keglevics
Duration 28′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

‘If any proof was needed to show that early Beethoven is not just imitation Haydn or Mozart’, writes Angela Hewitt, ‘then surely the Piano Sonata in E flat major Op.7 would be the best example.’

This is a work of formidable size, lasting nearly half an hour and second only to the Hammerklavier Sonata in Beethoven’s 32 published piano sonatas. Yet it has a common thread running through it, as Daniel Heartz observes. ‘The whole cycle is remarkable for its unified tone, which is both stylistic and motivic. No sonata of the Op.2 trilogy quite succeeded in achieving this feat.’

Hewitt has a special affection for the piece. ‘The colour change to C major for the Largo…startles us but immediately calls our attention to expect something different and exceptional’, she says of the second movement, finding the third ‘full of humour and charm’. The finale, however, works as ‘one of the last examples of his early style’, and ‘the movement ends in the most unassuming way. Perhaps if it ended loudly, she muses, this piece would be performed more often.’

The sonata is dedicated to Countess Babette von Keglevics, one of Beethoven’s most gifted piano pupils of the time.

Thoughts

Op.7 certainly is a substantial piece, but – as agreed above – a unified one. The flowing interaction between right and left hand of its opening pages set the tone. The piano writing is dense for its time, with lots going on, and in the middle (development) section of the first movement Beethoven travels far harmonically before suddenly deciding to go back to the first theme.

This proves to be a feature of the other movements. The slow movement, beautifully simple in its hymn-like theme, enjoys the sound of C major but suddenly takes a darker turn, where it really feels like Beethoven is using the piano as an orchestra. The left hand (lower strings) has an ominous figure which turns the music colder. Then we return to the safety of C major and all is forgotten.

The third movement is initially graceful, with a little stop-start motion in triple time, but its central section is a complete contrast, a turbulent episode in the minor key. The finale looks to resolve this, beginning in serenity, before it too succumbs to a stormy central section. Finally peace is completely restored, and Beethoven ends in quiet peace.

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)

Claudio Arrau captures the full drama and exploration of the first movement development section. It takes a little while for the ear to adjust to Paul Badura-Skoda’s instrument but the sonorous tones suit chords that are close together. His is an intimate account if slightly jumpy on occasion, and he achieves considerable turbulence in the stormy trio of the third movement. It’s lovely to hear the piano itself creaking as he plays it. Emil Gilels is superb in the slow movement but perhaps a bit too grand in the outer two, and so it is Alfred Brendel who finds arguably the best combination of expanse and gracefulness.

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 James Hewitt Piano Sonata in D major ‘The Battle of Trenton’

Next up Piano Sonata no.19 in G minor Op.49/1

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