Abend (Sonnenuntergang hinter der Dresdener Hofkirche) (Evening (Sunset behind Dresden’s Hofkirche) by Caspar David Friedrich (1824)
Piano Sonata no.12 in A flat major Op.26 for piano (1801, Beethoven aged 30)
1. Andante con variazioni
2. Scherzo, allegro molto
3. Maestoso andante, marcia funebre sulla morte
Dedication Prince Karl von Lichnowsky
written by Ben Hogwood
Background and Critical Reception
Beethoven was enjoying one of the most productive periods of his life as a composer, yet conversely his health was worsening. He had chronic bouts of diarrhoea and a buzzing in his ears that was gaining in intensity as the years went on – this was the onset of his deafness which sadly was never to leave him.
His response, as Angela Hewitt says in her booklet notes for this piece on Hyperion, was to work hard – and the resultant piano sonatas leave biographer Jan Swafford in no doubt. In The Grand Sonata in A-flat major Op.26, Beethoven fully possessed the voice history would know him by, and at age 30 he was writing music that would place him once and for all in the history of his art. Everything about this sonata seems to be more than anything in the works before: more personal; more innovative in the approach to form (there are no movements in sonata form); more varied in the expressive scope, with fresh kinds of unity. Not least, starting from the gentle beginning, the A-flat major finds heights of individuality and sheer beauty of expression beyond anything he had reached before.’
Hewitt describes Op.26 as ‘a collection of four character pieces put together more under the lines of a divertimento (a title under which many of Haydn’s early sonatas were published)’. Its innovations begin with a theme and variations movement, which Hewitt sees as ‘more than just a show of compositional and technical virtuosity. Without straying far from the theme, Beethoven gives us a satisfying ‘introduction’ to the other movements.’
A ‘lively scherzo’ is next, then a funeral march, Hewitt observing that ‘Chopin loved this Beethoven sonata more than any other and played it frequently. This movement probably inspired him to write his own funeral march, which became the central focus of his Piano Sonata Op.35.’ The march was played at Beethoven’s own funeral in an arrangement.
The last movement is in a rondo form. ‘Instead of going for a brilliant finish’, writes Hewitt, ‘the work simply dissolves into thin air – a remarkable end to a remarkable piece.’
1801 appears to have seen a decisive shift for Beethoven. In pieces like the Serenade in D major he was clearly taking inspiration from the past, enjoying the chance to write in homage to Mozart and to some extent to Haydn. Yet as we move forward one opus number, here is a piece looking only in one direction – forwards.
The twelfth published piano sonata begins a run in this form of four consecutive works, all of them exploring new ways of presenting Beethoven’s ideas. The shock of the new is evident right from the start of this piano sonata,which begins with a theme and variations movement. Not only that, the theme carries a weighty emotional presence, and the subsequent departures from it are tightly but beautifully worked.
A quicker movement follows, with Beethoven in largely ebullient mood. The main melody is catchy, appearing in both higher and lower parts, and is only briefly displaced by a short trio section.
The funeral march, placed third, explores similar emotional depths to the slow movement of the Pathétique sonata, in the same key, but if anything goes for a more sustained darkness and greater tension than that movement. Here is an intensely dramatic passage of play, yet in the middle section Beethoven gives us a darkness to light moment, a glimpse of heaven from the turmoil. The clouds return, but the hope of transformation remains.
After these highs and lows, as Angela Hewitt notes, it is difficult to know what to expect next – so the fourth and final movement feels apt in its ‘straight down the middle’ approach. It is in fact a beautifully worked study of counterpoint that builds up a good deal of momentum
This is by some distance the most emotionally affecting piano piece we have yet heard from Beethoven, a noticeable change in tack from his previous works. The shift is decisive and will, as Jan Swafford says, affect the rest of his output. A willingness to embrace the new and to wear his heart on his sleeve pays many dividends here.
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 (Philips)
Rudolf Serkin (Sony)
Angela Hewitt gives the theme plenty of space to start with, and her reading of the sonata is beautifully weighted, taking its lead from the freedom in which Beethoven is operating. Schiff is superb, going at a daringly slow tempo in the first movement before giving it great guns in the faster music. Of the many other fine versions Rudolf Serkin left a lasting impression with his dramatic account.
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 1801 Field Piano Sonata in E flat major Op.1/1
Next up Piano Sonata no.13 in E flat major Op.27/1 ‘Quasi una fantasia’