Listening to Beethoven #136 – Piano Sonata no.8 in C minor Op.13 ‘Pathétique’

Northern Sea in the Moonlight by Caspar David Friedrich (1823-24)

Piano Sonata no.8 in C major Op.13 ‘Pathétique’ for piano (1798, Beethoven aged 27)

1 Grave – Allegro di molto e con brio
2 Adagio cantabile
3 Rondo: Allegro

Dedication Prince Karl von Lichnowsky
Duration 20′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

With the Pathétique sonata we arrive at the first true Beethoven heavyweight. The origin of the title – seemingly Beethoven’s own – is unclear. ‘What exactly did he mean by Pathétique?’, speculates Angela Hewitt. ‘The word comes from the Greek ‘pathos’, meaning suffering, experience, emotion. But as William Behrend says in his book on the Beethoven sonatas first published in 1923, ‘it should be understood in an aesthetic sense, as the expression of exalted passion’.

In Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, Jan Swafford is left in no doubt about the importance of the work. ‘As a revelation of individual character and emotion, it was a kind of democratic revolution in music. And as such, the kind of expression exemplified in the Pathétique became a founding element of the Romantic voice in music.’

The Pathétique returns to C minor, scene of previous fiery triumphs such as the Piano Trio Op.1/3. Here, Beethoven writes a solemn introduction (marked as Grave), which leads to a stormy Allegro. For Daniel Heartz, ‘With its many melodic sighs and ‘speaking’ rhetoric, the Grave takes on the character of an operatic scena presaging the anguished aria to follow’.

The second movement is one of Beethoven’s most treasured slow movements, ‘simple yet profoundly moving’, and it is followed by, as Hewitt says, a ‘wistful, somewhat haunting’ finale.

Lewis Lockwood writes of how ‘the unleashed power of its first movement amazed contemporaries, even those who were becoming aware of Beethoven’s C-minor mood. The strong rhetoric of the Grave introduction dramatically prepared the way for the intense Allegro first movement, which whipped up a storm of excitement not previously heard in his – or anyone else’s – piano sonatas’.

Jan Swafford goes further. ‘From its glowering opening chords, the Pathétique paints pathos like no work before: naked and personal. Here Beethoven found a kind of music that seems not like a depiction of sorrow but sorrow itself. It is the voice that is new in this sonata, the emotional immediacy. The Pathétique did not initiate so much as confirm that Beethoven was bringing to music a new immediacy and subjectivity’. For him, ‘the Pathétique… would endure as the first fully formed avatar of the tension and dynamism Beethoven found in C minor’.

Thoughts

This work is a true landmark in Beethoven’s writing so far. While we have shared his pain in the C minor works – the Cantata on the Death of Joseph II and the Piano Trio Op.1/3 especially – nothing has approached the depth of emotion found here. The Grave is stripped to the bone, pouring its heart out in the spirit of a tragic introduction to a Baroque opera. The Allegro that follows is a whirlwind, and again the piano sounds skeletal in its execution.

The slow movement offers a calm repose, and it is Beethoven’s deepest to date, profound in the extreme and beautifully shaded. No wonder it appears on so many ‘classical contemplation’ playlists and compilations, for time really does seem to stop here. Spotify figures show just how popular it really is.

Beethoven’s return to C minor for the third movement deepens the frown again, though there is a little more light and shade now. Still, the structure is tight, the mood resolute and often stern, and the tension does not let up even through to the last chord. The Pathétique is a deeply serious work from beginning to end, giving us some of Beethoven’s most intensely beautiful music to date.

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)

While revelling in the drama, Angela Hewitt highlights a problem for pianists that Beethoven ‘never indicated that the repeat of the exposition should return only to the Allegro section…perhaps he meant us to return to the very beginning and play the Grave once more?’ This is what she chooses to do in her own deeply felt recording.

Emil Gilels reaches profound depths in his reading, especially the majestic first movement, which moves from intense soul-searching to ivory-rattling drama. András Schiff is a compelling guide to the Pathétique, the sharper tone of his piano heightening the drama – as it does with the fortepiano of Paul Badura-Skoda.

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 1798 Haydn Die Schöpfung (The Creation)

Next up March for Wind Sextet in B-flat major(‘Grenadiermarsch’)

Listening to Beethoven #135 – Sonata for piano and violin no.3 in E flat major Op.12/3

violin-sonata-op123

River Landscape Along the Tiber near the Acqua Acetosa (1814) by Joseph Anton Koch

Sonata no.3 for piano and violin in E flat major Op.12/3 (1798, Beethoven aged 27)

1. Allegro con spirito
2. Adagio con molta espressione
3. Rondo. Allegro molto

Dedication Antonio Salieri
Duration 18′

Listen

by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

The third of Beethoven’s Op.12 sonatas for piano with violin arrives in the key of E flat major, oft-used in his output up until now.

Relatively little is written about the piece, which along with the other two Op.12 works appears to have had its first performance in 1799, with Beethoven himself at the piano and Ignaz Schuppanzigh playing violin.

However Nigel Simeone, writing in The Beethoven Companion, finds reason to admire the composer’s work, saying, ‘nothing in these works is more individual than the C major Adagio con molt’ expressione. With its violin melody against a wide variety of figuration low in the piano part, this rapt piece displays some of Beethoven’s most original invention from this period in his career, its piano writing hardly surpassed even in the piano sonatas.’

Thoughts

A relatively simple figure starts the third piece in the Op.12 set of sonatas, based on the E flat major arpeggio and shared between piano and violin. This cuts to bright dialogue and a development section where the piano lets loose with some extravagant flourishes. As with the other two pieces, inspiration comes from the Mozart direction – but the style is pure Beethoven, very open and agile, the two instruments finishing each other’s sentences.

The second movement switches to C major and is introverted, with simple, unaffected thoughts. The second section becomes particularly reserved, moving in its central section to long violin notes and a flowing piano accompaniment that bring to mind Gounod’s Ave maria arrangement of Bach’s famous C major prelude. The tables are then turned, the piano spinning the melody over soft violin figures, fully justifying the praise given by Nigel Simeone above.

The association with Bach is audible in the third movement too. After a perky tune leads us off, and the busy piano part propels the music forwards, there is an exchange of ideas with the fluency and profile of a Bach sonata, especially over the pedal note in the bass of the piano just before the end.

This piece feels like the more forward looking of the Op.12 set, despite going further back in time for its reference points. It completes a very positive triptych of works deserving of much closer inspection than they tend to get.

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Midori Seiler (violin), Jos van Immerseel (fortepiano) (Zig Zag Classics)
Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Wilhelm Kempff (Deutsche Grammophon)
Josef Suk (violin), Jan Panenka (piano) (Supraphon)
Alina Ibragimova (violin), Cédric Tiberghien (Wigmore Hall Live)
Tasmin Little (violin), Martin Roscoe (piano) (Chandos)
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), Martin Helmchen (BIS)
Paul Barritt (violin), James Lisney (piano) (Woodhouse Editions)

Midori Seiler and Jos van Immerseel give this music a ‘freshly minted’, just off the page feeling. Their instinctive approach is easy to enjoy. Yehudi Menuhin’s tone in the slow movement demands the listener’s attention, a beautiful interpretation with Wilhelm Kempff sensitive in his piano playing.

The Spotify playlist below does not contain the Barritt / Lisney version, but does include a highly powered account by Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich, recorded for Deutsche Grammophon:

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 1798 Haydn – Die Schöpfung (The Creation) Hob. XXI:2

Next up Piano Sonata no.8 in C minor Op.13 ‘Pathétique’

Listening to Beethoven #134 – Sonata for piano and violin no.2 in A major Op.12/2

santa_maria_maggiore_in_rom
Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome (c1808) by Joseph Anton Koch

Sonata no.2 for piano and violin in A major Op.12/2 (1798, Beethoven aged 27)

1. Allegro vivace
2. Andante, più tosto allegretto
3. Allegro piacevole

Dedication Antonio Salieri
Duration 18′

Listen

by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

‘Learned, learned, always learned, no naturalness, no melody!’ So wrote a reviewer on hearing Beethoven’s Op.12 sonatas for piano and violin in 1799. Nigel Fortune, writing in The Beethoven Companion, speculates the ‘tumbling succession of fresh material’ in the first movements would have been responsible for this verdict.

William Drabkin, writing liner notes for Chandos and the Tasmin Little / Martin Roscoe recording, notes the extended phrases on the ‘E’ string, and how they add ‘to that work’s brilliant sound-world’, and that ‘arpeggios and scale passages are also well placed’.

Thoughts

There is a cheeky grin on Beethoven’s face from the outset as his main tune appears to have a lot of ‘wrong’ notes in it. He deliberately leans on those notes to create an amusing and fresh dialogue between piano and violin, who stick closely together as they do on the previous work.

After these frivolities the second movement is more thoughtful and reserved, set in the minor key. A solemn introduction from the piano is followed by a plaintive violin melody. This feels the more ‘Mozartean’ of the three movements, A minor being a favoured key of Mozart.

From here Beethoven returns to the light-hearted mood of the first movement, with a triple-time lilt offering the spirit of the dance. It is attractive with the outright cheekiness of the melody we heard before.

This second sonata is an attractive piece, bright as a spring day thanks to the writing for violin. It is easy to imagine Beethoven hamming up the cheeky tune in the first movement, perhaps craving the mildly outraged review he got. There would be many more!

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Midori Seiler (violin), Jos van Immerseel (fortepiano) (Zig Zag Classics)
Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Wilhelm Kempff (Deutsche Grammophon)
Josef Suk (violin), Jan Panenka (piano) (Supraphon)
Alina Ibragimova (violin), Cédric Tiberghien (Wigmore Hall Live)
Tasmin Little (violin), Martin Roscoe (piano) (Chandos)
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), Martin Helmchen (BIS)
Paul Barritt (violin), James Lisney (piano) (Woodhouse Editions)

Zimmermann and Helmchen deliver a sparkling performance of this work, enjoying the humour of the first movement. Seiler and van Immerseel, too, give a winsome account, with effective lack of vibrato from the violinist in the second movement. Josef Suk and Jan Panenka enjoy the bright sound Beethoven assigns to his instrumentalists.

The Spotify playlist below does not contain the Barritt / Lisney version, but does include a highly powered account by Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich, recorded for Deutsche Grammophon:

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 1798 Haydn – Solo e pensoso, Hob.XXIVb:20

Next up Sonata for piano and violin no.2 in A major Op.12/2

Listening to Beethoven #133 – Sonata for piano and violin no.1 in D major Op.12/1

joseph-anton-koch-wasserfall-im-berner-oberland-1796
Waterfall in the Bern Highlands (1796) by Joseph Anton Koch

Sonata no.1 for piano and violin in D major Op.12/1 (1798, Beethoven aged 27)

1. Allegro con brio
2. Tema con variazioni. Andante con moto
3. Rondo. Allegro

Dedication Antonio Salieri
Duration 20′

Listen

by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s first venture into the world of the violin sonata needs a few qualifiers. Firstly, the three works collected together as Op.12 were published in 1798 as Three Sonatas for keyboard with a violin, dedicated to his teacher Salieri. They were following Mozart’s convention where the keyboard is still given primary billing – but as the music shows, the tables were definitely beginning to turn in favour of the stringed instrument, just as they were in the two sonatas for keyboard and cello published as Op.5.

The verdict among musicologists is generally that Beethoven is sticking closely to Mozart’s style of writing in these pieces – and indeed that they might be playing it too safe. Daniel Heartz certainly thinks so, and given the detail he invests in Beethoven’s works it is surprising to see them dismissed with a relatively curt verdict. For him the Op.12 sonatas are ‘comparatively tame’. They are said to be indebted to Mozart’s works in the genre. Nevertheless they lack gripping ideas’.

Elsewhere praise is more forthcoming. Richard Bratby, writing for the recording on Signum Classics from Tasmin Waley-Cohen and Huw Watkins, declares that ‘far from being constrained by Mozart’s model, Beethoven had given it Romantic wings’. He enjoys the ‘winsome theme’ given to the second movement, on which the composer writes four variations, and the ‘jig-like finale’ with its ‘subversive rhythmic games worthy (though Beethoven would never have conceded it) of Haydn himself.

Thoughts

A new form for Beethoven – and one that he approaches with characteristic vigour. The first of what would be twelve published sonatas for the combination of piano and violin is enjoyably upbeat and full of melodies – and concise, too, as the composer keeps his musical arguments to the point.

That said, the first movement is quite a sizable structure, beginning with a flourish from both instruments that sets a sunny mood and the close musical relationship between the two instruments. Beethoven, who played the piano with violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh (quartet leader for Prince Lichnowsky) in the early performances, is immediately at home

The theme and variations of the second movement are a familiar tactic but freshly employed, especially when the third of the four variations moves into an explosive section in the minor key. Beethoven, an acknowledged master of the variation form, is still finding new ways of pushing himself.

The third movement has the best tune, and it’s a surprisingly angular one, with big melodic leaps – but it stays in the head, helped by the repetitions demanded by the Rondo form. Beethoven is off and running in the violin sonata form, and though Mozart is undoubtedly an influence, the overall voice is unique.

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Midori Seiler (violin), Jos van Immerseel (fortepiano) (Zig Zag Classics)
Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Wilhelm Kempff (Deutsche Grammophon)
Josef Suk (violin), Jan Panenka (piano) (Supraphon)
Alina Ibragimova (violin), Cédric Tiberghien (Wigmore Hall Live)
Tasmin Little (violin), Martin Roscoe (piano) (Chandos)
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), Martin Helmchen (BIS)
Paul Barritt (violin), James Lisney (piano) (Woodhouse Editions)

The above is only a snapshot of a remarkably high-level discography for these sonatas, with a wide variety of approaches. Yehudi Menuhin and Wilhelm Kempff have a wonderfully close rapport and obvious enjoyment of the music. Josef Suk and Jan Panenka are brightly lit on an older Supraphon recording, which is brilliantly played if a little too ‘full-on’ at times.

The newest recording, from Frank Peter Zimmermann and Martin Helmchen, has a youthful vigour while the only period instrument example here, from Midori Seiler and Jos van Immerseel, has an exciting cut and thrust.

The Spotify playlist below does not contain the Barritt / Lisney version, but does include a highly powered account by Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich, recorded for Deutsche Grammophon:

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 1798 Haydn – Solo e pensoso, Hob.XXIVb:20

Next up Sonata for piano and violin no.2 in A major Op.12/2

Listening to Beethoven #132 – String Trio in C minor Op.9/3

string-trio-op93

Man reading at lamplight, by Georg Friedrich Kersting (1814)

String Trio in C minor Op.9/3 (1798, Beethoven aged 27)

Dedication Count Johann Georg von Browne
Duration 24′

1. Allegro con spirito
2. Adagio con espressione
3. Scherzo: Allegro molto e vivace
4. Finale: Presto

Listen

All of Beethoven’s mature writing for string trio can be seen in this wonderful set of live performances from the Wigmore Hall, given by Daniel Sepec (violin), Tabea Zimmermann (viola) and Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello).

Background and Critical Reception

Whenever publishing a trio of works, Beethoven looks to include one in a minor key. The Op.1 piano trios, the Op.2 piano sonatas, the Op.10 piano sonatas and now the Op.9 string trios – each includes a work in the minor, in this case another outing in C minor. It is, as you might expect, a very different piece to the other two, but reception is decidedly mixed.

Stephen Daw, writing for the Leopold String Trio recordings on Hyperion, is surprisingly dismissive, declaring ‘there is little of the drama of either Haydn’s Sturm und Drang symphonies, or even the opening of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte about this music, and much of its character seems to spring from its short-phrased gruffiness – a characteristic far more essential to this work, and later almost unique to Beethoven’s music’.

Daniel Heartz notes that the music can still sound positive when in the minor, and shows how the density of Beethoven’s writing for strings could easily fool the ear into thinking four instruments are playing. ‘Like the end of the Piano Trio in C minor Op.1/3’, he writes, ‘the final moments are in hushed C major, a pianissimo with the violin climbing up to the heavens (Jacob’s Ladder?)’. This would be Beethoven’s last contribution to the string trio – his aim was squarely at the string quartet.

Thoughts

Whereas the first two works in this trilogy are sunny, optimistic works, the third has a different air from the outset. There is a pensive anxiety to the tune and the way it is developed, and as Daniel Heartz notes the lack of a rest for either instrument means the sound is congested. The edginess runs throughout the first movement, its arguments tense and unrelenting.

The second movement relents, introducing some light to the shade by moving to the major key. There is still an element of tension in the pauses between the phrases, but its reflections are generally more positive. The development challenges this – the ‘gruff’ exterior spoken of above – before the relative serenity returns.

The third movement is equal parts minuet and scherzo. It would be pretty quick to dance to but its springy rhythms generate a good deal of momentum. Again the mood is nervy, and there is no let up in the trio sections, despite a move towards sunnier climbs. The fourth movement continues in this air, with the violin’s unnerving twists and turns an ever-present doubt. Beethoven has searching questions here, but just when it seems they will not be answered he finds peace in a rather beautiful resolution, the major key arriving just in time – as it does at the end of the Piano Trio no.1, in the same key.

There is a restless air about this piece, suggesting Beethoven is on a quest and has not found answers to the darker thoughts currently circulating. Perhaps we will get more clues to his thinking when the string trios of Op.9 become the string quartets of Op.18.

Recordings used and Spotify links

L’Archibudelli (Vera Beths (violin), Juergen Kussmaul (viola), Anner Bylsma (cello)
The Grumiaux Trio (Arthur Grumiaux (violin), Georges Janzer (viola), Eva Czako (cello) (Philips)
Anne-Sophie Mutter, Bruno Giuranna and Mstislav Rostropovich (Deutsche Grammophon)
Leopold String Trio Isabelle Van Keulen (violin), Lawrence Power (viola), Kate Gould (cello) (Hyperion)
Trio Zimmermann (Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Antoine Tamestit (viola), Christian Poltéra (cello) (BIS)

Anybody looking for a version of the Op.9 trios has a wealth of treasures from which to choose. The C minor trio brings out the dramatists in the superpower trio of Mutter, Giuranna and Rostropovich, while Arthur Grumiaux’s tone in the second movement is magical, the trio interwoven beautifully throughout the piece. The Leopold, Zimmermann and L’Archibudelli versions are all excellent, the latter benefiting from the leaner sound of instruments of the period.

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 1798 Haydn The Creation

Next up Sonata for piano and violin in D major Op.12/1