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
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.’
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!