Listening to Beethoven #213 – Piano Sonata no.21 in C major Op.53 ‘Waldstein’

Landscape With Mountain Lake, Morning by Caspar David Friedrich (1823-35)

Piano Sonata no.21 in C major Op.53 ‘Waldstein’ for piano (1804, Beethoven aged 33)

1 Allegro molto
2 Introduzione – Adagio molto –
3 Rondo: Allegretto moderato

Dedication Count Ferdinand Waldstein
Duration 25′

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s next piano sonata was dedicated to the man who could claim to have had the greatest impact on his success as a composer – Count Ferdinand Waldstein of Bonn. What the Count made of this dedication we do not know, for he was fighting abroad at the time, but Beethoven had dedicated a remarkable new work in his favour.

It was written for a new piano – an Érard of French origin, with four pedals and an extended range. Jan Swafford gives a compelling account of how Beethoven wrote for this new instrument, ‘its action heavier and its sound bigger than the Viennese pianos he was used to.’ There were new colours to explore, and pedal effects with which to experiment, and Beethoven wasted no time, using the piano as ‘the vehicle of a heroic journey that ends in overflowing exaltation’. In this sense, the Waldstein Sonata was similar in thought to the recently premiered Eroica symphony.

The sonata, however, is a very different animal. Charles Rosen talks of ‘a characteristic sound, not only unlike the music of other composers, but unlike any other work of Beethoven, an energetic hardness, dissonant and yet curiously plain, expressive without richness.’ For Lewis Lockwood, ‘this sonata could never have been played by merely competent amateurs in Beethoven’s time. With its arrival the technical level of the piano sonata was elevated to that of the concerto.’ He equates it to Beethoven’s accomplishment for the violin in the Kreutzer sonata.

In an interview with Arcana, Angela Hewitt recognised its difficulties. “I don’t think it’s his greatest sonata but it is a wonderful performance piece when you can bring it off. If you look at every detail in it then it and want to play it well it is very difficult.”

The first movement draws attention for what Swafford terms its ‘surging and singularly pianistic dynamism’. The second movement was initially going to be a substantial Andante, but failed its initial audition with friends, who declared it too long. After a fit of pique, Beethoven reluctantly agreed and removed it, publishing it separately as the standalone Andante favori. Replacing it was a short transitional movement in the same key, a ‘short stretch of reverie and anticipation’.

The anticipation is lets loose by the finale, ‘one of the most ecstatic of all movement for piano’ in Swafford’s eyes, ‘like a gust of wind that shocks the listener into a sense of the joyous effervescence of life’. For him, the Waldstein is ‘a feat of disciplined craftsmanship that would have been practically unimaginable if he had not done it’. Here is a defining demonstration of what musical composition is about.’

Thoughts

I’m going to disagree with Angela Hewitt and declare the Waldstein as the finest sonata in Beethoven’s output thus far, in a crowded field. Even listening to it now, some 218 years after composition, its first movement has the power to make the listener sit up and take notice of its unusual writing.

For few works for piano are as immediately propulsive, and to be writing that now gives an idea of just how forward-looking this piece must have sounded to its first audience in 1804. The first movement bubbles with energy, establishing C major as the home key but with a restless gait and an unstoppable drive. Contrast that with the still second theme, a glimpse of pure light before the quickfire figures return.

The second movement Adagio is indeed a magical transition, but the finale into which it leads is brilliantly judged, ghosting in with a graceful, singing melody, the piano now sounding more orchestral in its wide range of colours and figures. Soon the energy levels of the first movement are met and surpassed, the deceptively simple melody keeping the ship on course while the torrent of water surrounds it from the other hands.

Everything here is done with a firm assurance, the composer fully confident in his processes and results. As a result the Waldstein is Beethoven’s most assured and confident pieces yet – impeccably structured, brilliantly written for the developing piano and full of challenges, not to mention thrills and spills for the audience.

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)

Emil Gilels gives a peerless account for DG, one of his very finest piano recordings. In a crowded field his is arguably the leading version, though the others listed above are hardly slouches!

You can hear clips of Angela 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 1804 Ries Piano Sonata in A minor Op.1/2

Next up Piano Sonata no.22 in F major Op.54

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