Listening to Beethoven #168 – Piano Sonata no.13 in E flat major Op.27/1 ‘Sonata Quasi una fantasia’

Frau vor untergehender Sonne (Woman before the Rising Sun) by Caspar David Friedrich (1818)

Piano Sonata no.13 in E flat major Op.27/1 ‘Quasi una fantasia’ for piano (1801, Beethoven aged 30)

1. Andante – Allegro – Andante
2. Allegro molto e vivace
3. Adagio con espressione
4. Allegro vivace

Dedication Princess Josephine von Liechtenstein
Duration 16′

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

The year 1801 was all about the piano sonata for Beethoven, who expanded the form with each of the four pieces completed in that year. Having stretched formal and expressive boundaries with Op.26, he moved on to a pair of sonatas published as Op.27. Both bore the inscription ‘Sonata quasi una fantasia’, recognising their experimental approach and formal ambiguity. The form was becoming less conventional and more emotional in his hands, and the first of the Op.27 pieces made several new advances.

Unfortunately for the E flat major piece, its neighbour – the rather well-known Moonlight sonata – has stolen all the thunder. Yet as Jan Swafford writes, it is deserving of much higher exposure and regard. ‘Like all his sonatas it has a singular personality, from stately to haunted to ebullient’, he declares. ‘Its opening Andante is something of a blank sheet, offering little in the way of melody or passion but a great deal of pregnant material’. The four movements last around 17 minutes, and are played without a break.

Sir András Schiff, in the notes accompanying his recording on ECM, holds the piece in high esteem. ‘In its freedom, this sonata points the way forward much more clearly than Op.26’, he writes. ‘In its moods it is a psychological piece, but from the point of view of its formal criteria it shows an astonishing interweaving of sonata and fantasy’. He draws a link between this work and later pieces from the Romantic era such as Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, Schumann’s Fantasie in C and the Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor. For him it shows ‘a master of experimentation at work’. Angela Hewitt describes it simply as ‘wonderful’.

Thoughts

Beethoven is by now the master of starting a piece with what feels like minimal, inconsequential material. So it is with the measured start to this piece, but soon the deeply expressive side is clear. In it we hear an approach similar to that taken up by Schubert in his Impromptus, and Schumann in his character pieces.

The deceptively gentle start has moments of light when the music moves unexpectedly to C major, but the opening movement is largely thoughtful. Soon, however, we are in a grittier second section, before the slow movement returns us to A flat major, a similar, deeply thoughtful mood to the Op.26 funeral march. The final movement is a celebration, taking off at quite a pace, but just when it seems about to slam into the buffers Beethoven brings back the music of the opening, which is a masterstroke. With some really striking dissonances that only just resolve, this slow music feels more profound the second time around, before the piece signs off with a rush to the finish.

This work benefits from several listens to reveal its workings, but it is a model of economy and, ultimately, genius. Emotive and forward-looking, Beethoven is on a roll.

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)

This piece works well on the 1790 instrument used by Paul Badura-Skoda. Some of the faster music can sound quite cluttered but it communicates the rush of discovery, linking Beethoven back to the freeform music of C.P.E. Bach.’ Emil Gilels takes the second part of the first movement at a terrific pace, not so much a stream of consciousness as a raging torrent – which contrasts with the return to the soft melody of before. Schiff and Hewitt contribute two of the best versions here – of which there are many.

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 A major Op.1/2

Next up Piano Sonata no.14 in C sharp minor Op.27/2 ‘Quasi una fantasia’ (‘Moonlight’)

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