Listening to Beethoven #185 – Piano Sonata no.18 in E flat major Op.31/3

Evening by Caspar David Friedrich (1824)

Piano Sonata no.18 in E flat major Op.31/3 for piano (1802, Beethoven aged 31)

1. Allegro
2. Scherzetto: Allegretto vivace

3. Menuetto: Moderato e grazioso
4. Presto con fuoco

Dedication unknown
Duration 23′

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

The third of Beethoven’s Op.31 trilogy is in four movements – the last of his piano sonatas to be structured in this way. It returns to happier climes after the darkness of The Tempest, but does so in wholly original ways.

Critics are united in their praise for this work, with Jan Swafford taking up the story. ‘Beethoven begins Op.31 no.3 in E flat with a harmony so strange that it would have earned him more cries of bizarre from critics if it did not commence a work of surpassing warmth, wit and winsomeness. The beginning is an invitation, like a hand extended in friendship or love.’ The importance of positive feeling is stressed. ‘Following the scherzo, most unexpectedly, comes a graceful and lyrical minuet – he wanted no slow movement to trouble the warm weather of this sonata. For conclusion, a tarantella marked Presto con fuoco, with the fire appropriate to that old whirling dance in which, once upon a time, you hoped to survive the bite of the tarantula by dancing to exhaustion.’

For Sir András Schiff, ‘the third sonata, in E flat major, is probably the hardest one to paraphrase in words: on the one hand it seems tender, entreating and pleading, with a lyrical basic mood strongly in evidence; and on the other hand, in the scherzo and finale it maintains a high spirited and urgent sense of motion.’

The nature of the finale earned the sonata a nickname of The Hunt in some quarters – and many admirers, including Angela Hewitt, who found that ‘Beethoven is in his element, for sure’.

Thoughts

Op.31/3 starts with a gentle question; a chord that is the musical equivalent of a bird unexpectedly landing on a small branch. It is the most unusual beginning to a sonata yet, and opens up a beautifully paced story, Beethoven’s invention bubbling up and down the keyboard. The chord itself is the sort you could easily play over and over again on the piano, creating an oasis of calm and positivity.

After this fascinating and elusive first movement, Beethoven has fun with the martial rhythms of the second. Back in A flat major, this is far removed from the stillness of the Pathétique slow movement, with the composer intent on making his audience smile and jump with the suddenly loud interjections. As a complement, a softer side in the form of a charming minuet, flowing nicely but with just a touch of shade in the form of some unusual harmonies – Beethoven’s second theme has a slight shiver running through it.

The last movement is a canter – as Angela Hewitt says, a bit fast for a hunt, but with a galloping gait. Beethoven builds up terrific momentum here, and some of the bigger chords would surely have been stretching the pianos of the day. The good feeling is irrepressible, in complete contrast to the end of the Tempest, and the sonata finishes with a winning flourish. Beethoven’s strength of feeling wins the day.

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)

Some wonderful recordings to savour here – with Sir András Schiff, Stephen Kovacevich and Alfred Brendel particularly enjoyable. Yet the most enjoyable guide, and a regular late night companion for this listener, is Emil Gilels, who gets a perfect balance between the delicacy and determined optimism at the heart of this work.

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 Hummel Piano Quintet in E flat major Op.87

Next up 6 Variations in F major Op.34

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