Self-portrait by Caspar David Friedrich (1810)
Piano Sonata no.19 in G minor Op.49/1 for piano (1795-7, Beethoven aged 26)
2 Rondo: Allegro
Background and Critical Reception
The two short sonatas by Beethoven published as Op.49 in 1805 have become very popular with pianists of a more moderate ability (such as yours truly!). For this we have to thank the composer’s brother Kaspar, who assembled the two works in 1802 and gave them to publishers, though they date from several years earlier.
We have already encountered the second piece from this set, written in G major, and its counterpart shares the same pitch but operates in the minor key. Angela Hewitt, writing for her Hyperion recording, tells how the sonatas ‘were billed by their publisher as Sonate facile, a good marketing ploy, and one that reminds us of Mozart’s C major sonata K545, written in 1788. It is interesting to learn that the same publishing house, less than a month after bringing out Beethoven’s pieces, brought out Mozart’s work for the first time, with the same title’.
Hewitt, who clearly loves this piece, declares it a ‘two-movement work that is perfection in miniature’. ‘It has become almost commonplace to say that early Beethoven sounds like Mozart, but to me this sonata is pure Beethoven from start to finish’.
It is easy to share Hewitt’s enthusiasm for this short but expressive piece. The first movement certainly has a Mozartian simplicity but it is also very serious, a straight-faced counterpart to the exuberance of the Sonata published alongside it. Beethoven speaks with the profound nature of a Baroque overture, as though he were introducing a bigger Suite rather than a short piece.
The second movement casts off the shadows of the first, moving to the major key for a brighter approach – yet it still reverts to the minor key for a brief episode. In the end the outlook is positive, with a gently rocking coda to end the piece in a serene mood.
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)
The approaches to this piece are fascinating. Two of the most contrasted viewpoints – both valid – are held by Paul Badura-Skoda, playing the fortepiano, and Emil Gilels. Badura-Skoda is quite fast in the first movement but feels slower in the second, while Gilels’ approach is expansive to say the least in the opening pages, but he makes it work with deep expression. His second movement has a spring in its step, enjoying its relative freedom.
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 Pleyel Flute Concerto in B flat major B106 .
Next up Piano Sonata in C major WoO51