Listening to Beethoven #183 – Piano Sonata no.16 in G major Op.31/1

The Marketplace in Greifswald by Caspar David Friedrich (1818)

Piano Sonata no.16 in G major Op.31/1 for piano (1802, Beethoven aged 31)

1. Allegro vivace
2. Adagio grazioso
3. Allegretto

Dedication unknown
Duration 25′

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

The three Op.31 piano sonatas stand right at a junction in Beethoven’s output, at the end of his more ‘classical’ approach and at the start of a period of even greater originality. Sir András Schiff notes this is the last ‘set’ of sonatas Beethoven published, and like Op.2 or Op.10, ‘we really do hear and notice an enormous diversity’. The trio is much-loved by pianists, but perhaps inevitably star billing goes to the minor key work in the middle, the ‘Tempest’.

That is to the detriment of the other two works in the group – beginning with this work in G major, something of a conundrum for Angela Hewitt. Writing booklet notes for Hyperion, the pianist confesses to a puzzled reaction on her first encounter with the piece. ‘What on earth is this?’, she thought. ‘It seemed to comprise a first movement in which the two hands can’t play together and, when they do, run around in octave unisons, and with a banal-sounding second theme that didn’t help matters; a second movement which had so many notes on the page and looked either drastically simple or too flowery, and how were you supposed to play that left hand anyway; and a last movement that had a nice theme but looked overly long and, to make matters worse, ended softly. So I didn’t go near it.’

A conversation with conductor Sir Roger Norrington gave her deep insight into the humour in Beethoven’s music, and her view was transformed. It was ‘then possible to see this very unique sonata, and indeed most of the cycle, in a totally different light. It was, and remains, very liberating.’

She points out all the instances of humour in Beethoven’s writing, especially the overly long build up to the return of the first theme, which leans on a spicy clash between E flat and D, before tripping into ‘one of those country themes that Beethoven so excelled at’, and which his pupil Czerny said should be played ‘facetiously’. The slow movement ‘is a very unusual movement. We immediately enter the world of Italian opera, and it is hard not to imagine a great bel canto singer accompanied by a mandolin. The most delicate touch is needed for this movement as well as great poise. I see it more as Beethoven setting out to prove that he could write better Italian music than the Italians!’ Finally the last movement, which ‘is perhaps less inspired, but should not be rushed. Much of this music could pass as Schubert, but the coda couldn’t be by anybody but Beethoven.’

Thoughts

A delightful piece, and an unpredictable one. This is a work where the sense of Beethoven flexing his muscles as a composer is undeniable, and the freedom of expression he has here is perhaps greater than at any point in his output so far. The first movement is allowed to run free, as though improvised at the piano, but it keeps within the boundaries of sonata form and never rambles. Instead it is witty, thoughtful, expansive, intimate and consoling by turn, always on the move and always keeping the listener guessing.

Second movement really expansive flourishes in the right hand, going further and further from the tonic in what feels like an increasingly restless desire to escape the conventional tonality. This is a really substantial, ‘staged’ movement that tells a powerful story.

Third movement feels just right after the emotional drama of the second, it is reassuring and comforting. There are some questions to this however when Beethoven starts developing the theme, and suddenly things feel less certain. The end is pure theatre, too, slowed down and drawing out the inevitable return to the home key – but even this is far from certain

That Beethoven could write a piece of such surety and humour in one of his darkest hours says much for the composer’s temperament, and it gives us an indication of how he would respond to his impending deafness with ever greater and more original music.

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)
Daniel Barenboim (Deutsche Grammophon)

Artists really enjoy themselves in a work such as this, and providing their approach is sensitive to Beethoven’s original thoughts there is much fun to be had. I particularly enjoyed the versions from Gilels, Badura-Skoda, Hewitt, Schiff and Brendel, though in the hands of Schiff Beethoven’s inspiration felt more on the edge and likely to go over at any moment.

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 1802 Weber Peter Schmoll und seine Nachbarn

Next up Piano Sonata no.17 in D minor Op.31/2 ‘The Tempest’

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