Listening to Beethoven #216 – Piano Sonata no.23 in F minor Op.57 ‘Appassionata’

After the Storm by Caspar David Friedrich (1817)

Piano Sonata no.23 in F minor Op.57 ‘Appassionata’ for piano (1804-5, Beethoven aged 34)

1. Allegro assai
2. Andante con moto
3. Allegro ma non troppo – Presto

Dedication Count Franz von Brunswick

Duration 23″

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

Even within Beethoven’s output, the Appassionata sonata is seen as a landmark. As Angela Hewitt writes in the booklet note for her recording of the work on Hyperion, it is a central part of Beethoven’s ‘heroic’ period, sat in publication order between the Eroica symphony and the Piano Concerto no.4, and at a time where Beethoven was taking risks.

Beethoven’s fellow composer and friend Ferdinand Ries recorded how he watched Beethoven at work in Baden. The two composers went for a walk, where Ries described a striking melody on the shawm – which Beethoven could not hear because of his rapidly advancing deafness. It turned out that he was preoccupied in any case, for on their return he immediately went to the keyboard, and played through the newly composed finale of the new sonata, Ries recounting a performance of ‘irresistible fire and mighty force’.

Writing in The Beethoven Companion, Harold Truscott asserts that ‘technically, apart from one or two passages, the work is not difficult to play…yet can still sound very brilliant. Its real difficulty, however, is control of its varied elements and of the great expressive power which is their sum.’

Angela Hewitt notes Beethoven’s holding back of this power until the finale – an increasingly notable feature of his writing. As Jan Swafford writes, ‘Beethoven had an incomparable skill for raising a movement to what seems an unsurpassable peak of excitement or tension, then to surpass it.’

Thoughts

In the Appassionata the risk taking can be seen everywhere you turn. It can be found in the work’s opening phrase, going down to the low ‘F’ exploiting the bigger range of Beethoven’s new Erard piano. It can be found in the stormy middle section of the first movement and the whirlwind figurations of the last, where the right hand is playing so fast it threatens to go off the end! It can also be found in the structural design, Beethoven writing a slow movement that acts initially as an equivalent to the hymnal slow movement in the Pathetique sonata, but ends up as a bridge to the finale. The consolation it was beginning to provide is wholly lost.

Its opening three notes give an immediate idea of the gravitas of the piece. They may be the notes of the F minor triad but they carry great weight – as Beethoven’s works in this key were wont to do. The first movement is compelling, the main theme littered with interruptions as though a battle is being waged between war and peace. The latter breaks out in the second movement, the hymnal motive both simple and moving, but soon gathering momentum as Beethoven finds he cannot stand still.

All is headed for a last movement of formidable power, unlike anything we have heard on the piano so far. The torrent of notes fly in the face of Truscott’s assertion that the piece is not difficult to play – but the language for the listener is unremitting and straightforward. At the end the Appassionata sets its listener down in a heap, all emotion spent.

Recordings used and Spotify links

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)

There are some towering interpretations of Beethoven’s masterpiece in this playlist, not least those by Emil Gilels, Claudio Arrau and Alfred Brendel. Andras Schiff and Angela Hewitt are also very fine. Paul Badura-Skoda secures authentic drama from his Broadwood piano, dating from a mere decade after the piece was written.

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 1805 Cherubini Faniska

Next up tbc!

Late night Beethoven with Emil Gilels

by Ben Hogwood

Late night Beethoven – the Appassionata Sonata

Whilst preparing for the next in Arcana’s Listening to Beethoven series – the 216th instalment, all told! – I have become more acutely aware of just how effective the Beethoven piano sonatas are for after hours listening.

Without further ado, then, here is the Appassionata Sonata in a commanding recording made by Emil Gilels (above), part of the wonderful collection of Beethoven sonatas he made for Deutsche Grammophon. It is quite an experience:

Listening to Beethoven #215 – Triple Concerto in C major Op.56

View of the Augarten Palace and Park, Vienna by Johann Ziegler

Triple Concerto in C major Op.56 for piano, violin, cello and orchestra (1803-4, Beethoven aged 33)

1 Allegro
2 Largo (attacca)
3 Rondo alla polacca

Dedication Joseph Franz von Lobkowitz
Duration 38′

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

It is fashionable in recent times to look down on Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, but despite its perceived critical failings it was an innovative work for its time. Lewis Lockwood notes how, “We can readily connect the Triple Concerto with the symphonie concertante that had prospered in France and in French-influenced centres such as Bonn and Mannheim in the later eighteenth century, and which stayed alive until about 1810.”

Beethoven had performers in mind when writing the piece, too – the violinist Georg August Seidler, cellist Anton Kraft (the senior figure in the cello-playing family) and almost certainly Beethoven himself, at the piano. Jan Swafford traces the origins of Beethoven’s thinking to the baroque concerto grosso, describing the work as ‘gorgeous but peculiar, expensive and impractical to perform’. Commentators are united in drawing a link to Beethoven’s intentions at the time of composition, where he was looking to move to Paris and impress the musical hierarchy there. The concerto would have been in his arsenal for sure, but while staying put it quickly lost its allure – with no public performance until 1808, at the summer concerts in Augarten (above)

The Triple Concerto has a substantial structure, with a first movement almost 20 minutes in length – then a relatively brief Largo in A flat major which leads directly to a Rondo alla Polacca finale. The key choice is instructive, A flat having been used for the slow movements of the Pathetique sonata and the Piano Concerto no.1. Commentators have noted how prominent the cello in this piece – and in their excellent book Beethoven’s Cello, Marc D. Moskovitz and R. Larry Todd spend time examining its role.

Along with Lewis Lockwood, they see the Triple Concerto as a forebear to techniques used by Beethoven soon after in his third Cello Sonata, Op.69, with Lockwood going further to bring in the two piano trios Op.70.

Thoughts

Listening to the Triple Concerto is a pleasant if undemanding experience – and if the listener is in the right mood an enjoyable concert experience is in store. It certainly is a long first movement, its 20 minutes an extraordinary length of time for a concerto even when there are three soloists involved. Although it can seem very drawn out at times there is a very appealing warmth, especially when the cello is to the fore. Its themes are invested with a great deal of warmth, complemented by the violin and then trumped by the piano.

The second movement feels like a flash in the pan, for it is only 5 minutes in length (roughly 15% of the work) but it has an appealing tenderness and lyricism. The Rondo alla Polacca is a ‘safe’ C major, though there is some dancing as the soloists have fun together.

The musical language of the Triple Concerto feels relatively basic – back in C major as we were in the Piano Concerto no.1 – but the interplay between the soloists is where the chief interest lies. The language feels quite basic – we are in C major as we were for the first piano Concerto – and the length of the piece is considerable. Yet, in the right combination of soloists and orchestra, the Triple Concerto can still be an appealing proposition.

Recordings used and Spotify links

David Oistrakh (violin), Mstislav Rostropovich (cello), Sviatoslav Richter (piano), Berliner Philharmoniker / Herbert von Karajan (EMI)
Christian Tetzlaff, Tanja Tetzlaff, Royal Northern Sinfonia / Lars Vogt (Ondine)
Wolfgang Schneiderhan, Pierre Fournier, Géza Anda, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin / Ferenc Fricsay (Deutsche Grammophon)
Beaux Arts Trio, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Bernard Haitink (Philips)
Urban Svensson, Mats Rondin, Boris Berezovsky, Swedish Chamber Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard (Simax)

The Triple Concerto discography is dripping with illustrious soloists, sometimes starry individuals in search of a winning trio showcase, or artists who have formed a genuine musical chemistry together. Of the versions listed above, there are some high voltage collisions that prove an intoxicating experience – none more so than the irresistible combination of Oistrakh, Rostropovich, Richter and Karajan.

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 Spohr Violin Concerto no.2 in D minor Op.2

Next up Piano Sonata no.23 in F minor Op.57 ‘Appassionata’

Listening to Beethoven #214 – Piano Sonata no.22 in F major Op.54

Sea beach with fisherman (The fisherman) by Caspar David Friedrich (1807)

Piano Sonata no.22 in F major Op.54 for piano (1804, Beethoven aged 33)

1 In tempo d’un menuetto
2 Allegretto – Più allegro

Dedication Count Ferdinand Waldstein
Duration 12′

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven biographer Lewis Lockwood has an important observation, that ‘in other middle-period pairings, a long, powerful and brilliant work (in this case the Waldstein sonata) is succeeded by a short and quiet one, with Beethoven creating a double image and a deliberate contrast, a reminder of the balance between great and small, between seemingly opposed and adjacent modes of being that can compliment one another, as a rare flower grows by a large tree’.

Little needs to be said after that rather neat summing up – though it is as always worth hearing the thoughts of pianist Angela Hewitt. Writing booklet notes for her Hyperion recording, she notes the elegance of the opening before ‘all hell breaks loose’. For the second movement, she stresses the importance of observing the composer’s ‘dolce’ marking to avoid it sounding like a study.

Thoughts

As Angela Hewitt notes, it is a graceful and genial start to this piece, Beethoven enjoying a few sleights of hand with some chromatic inflections to the melody, before the cavalry rights roughshod over the tranquil mood. There is a perceptible glint in the composer’s eye while this happens, and you can sense the frowns the first audience may well have had! This means when the mood returns to tranquil the listener is no longer as trusting as to what might happen – and they are right to be wary, for Beethoven enjoys a few more outbursts and melodic quirks.

The second movement is fast and flowing, though there is a more romantic element to the twinkling right hand, and a good deal of expressive weight when the left hand goes towards the bottom end of the piano. Once again Beethoven enjoys journeying to far-flung keys, and the momentum never lets up right to the emphatic finish.

This is a curious piece, one that is indicative of Beethoven’s quest for the new, challenging existing notions of how a sonata should behave. It has elements of the Waldstein’s virtuosity and energy in the final movement, and has all the characteristics of a ‘prelude and fugue’ from the Baroque period. There is much to enjoy here!

Recordings used and Spotify links

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)

Once again a crowded field of some very fine versions, though those from András Schiff, Alfred Brendel and Stephen Kovacevich prove particularly enjoyable.

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 Hummel Rondo in E flat major Op.11

Next up Triple Concerto in C major Op.56

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