Listening to Beethoven #128 – Piano Sonata no.7 in D major Op.10/3

friedrich-coastal-landscape
Coastal Landscape by Caspar David Friedrich (c1798)

Piano Sonata no.7 in D major Op.10/3 for piano (1798, Beethoven aged 27)

1 Presto
2 Largo e mesto
3 Menuetto: Allegro
4 Rondo: Allegro

Dedication Countess Anna Margarete von Browne
Duration 25′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

The third of the sonatas published as Op.10 in September 1798 is, for Lewis Lockwood, ‘the grandest and most powerful of the group’. The word also appears in the praise given to the piece by Beethoven’s contemporary Carl Czerny, who dubbed it ‘a grand and significant piece’.

His label is referred to by Angela Hewitt in her booklet notes for the sonata recordings on Hyperion, though she goes further to call it ‘the first masterpiece in the cycle of sonatas’.

Commentators are united in praise and an awestruck respect for the great slow movement. For Lockwood, it ‘breathes an air of desolation whose only parallel from the time is the great slow movement of the Op.18/1 quartet, a movement we know Beethoven associated with the tomb scene in Romeo and Juliet.’ Hewitt quotes Donald Tovey’s performance advice in full, which states that if you as a pianist ‘simply make sure that you are playing what is written you will go far to realize the tragic power that makes this movement a landmark in musical history.’

The second movement casts a lasting shadow over the third and fourth, though Daniel Heartz enjoys the ‘lyrical and lovely’ third, and the fourth, whose theme ‘never reaches a very firm answer in the way of a thematic-harmonic conclusion until the last moment, when the questions are finally transformed into an answer – a very Haydnesque ploy that is akin to pulling an ace from one’s sleeve to end the game’.

Thoughts

This is indeed the sonata that makes the strongest emotional impression so far – and an awful lot of that is down to the slow movement. Yet the impact of that funereal tribute is even more powerful because it follows on the heels of the first movement’s bravura, with glittering scales as both hands chase each other around the keyboard.

Because of this all energy feels spent when the second movement casts its mood of contemplation and sorrow. Time seems to stop, and though there is a little hope in the central section, where an idea seems to grow from the depths and climb slowly up the piano, a bell-like tolling still runs ominously in the background.

Consolation is sought and almost found in the Menuetto, and its bright and elegant interaction between the hands and cheery trio. The Rondo theme initially feels short changed, but Beethoven pulls out his trick of making a great deal from minimal material. The stop-start nature suggests he may have written it in a single improvisation, moving between tiny melodic cells and big, grand gestures showing off the player’s virtuosity. It is ultimately a hard-fought victory in a piece of highs and lows.

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)

Again there are some special performances to treasure of this sonata. Perhaps inevitably Emil Gilels finds the deep tragedy of the slow movement, time seemingly suspended in his traversal of grief. Alfred Brendel offers the ideal mix of elegance and virtuosity, his third movement emerging with a smile after the thoughtful second. A flurry of notes on Paul Badura-Skoda’s dfgd piano threaten to take the first movement out of his reach, but this is an edge of the seat recording that proves to be very enjoyable. Its second movement is on the quick side but the left hand chords are chilling on the fortepiano. András Schiff feels too quick here in comparison to Claudio Arrau, Igor Levit and Stephen Kovacevich, all of whom find a special and profound atmosphere. Angela Hewitt is slowest of all, but balances the tension beautifully with the eventual release of the Menuetto.

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 Clarinet Trio in B flat major Op.11

Listening to Beethoven #127 – Piano Sonata no.6 in F major Op.10/2

friedrich-wreck-in-the-sea-of-ice
Wreck In The Sea of Ice by Caspar David Friedrich (c1797)

Piano Sonata no.6 in F major Op.10/2 for piano (1798, Beethoven aged 27)

1 Allegro
2 Allegretto
3 Presto

Dedication Countess Anna Margarete von Browne
Duration 19′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

The three piano sonatas Op.10 were published in 1798, dedicated to Countess Anna Margarete von Browne. As Daniel Heartz notes, ‘women continued to garner most of his dedications of works for keyboard, as was the case with Mozart and Haydn’.

In contrast to the first sonata of the set, in C minor, the F major piece is admired as the joker. Lewis Lockwood says, ‘There is a lot to say about the capacity of the Sonata Opus 10 no.2 in F major to make much from little, a very strong Beethovenian feature. Thus the first two notes of the opening figure suffice to generate much of the later thematic content while always relating back to this germ idea.’

Writing in The Beethoven Companion, Harold Truscott enjoys the composer’s humour in the outer movements and the reflective second, describing the piece as ‘a completely individual masterpiece’. Angela Hewitt, meanwhile, agrees with Daniel Heartz that the second movement ‘minuet’ is…’not very dance-like’, and notes the fusion of Haydn’s wit and Bach’s counterpoint in the finale, ‘but with an exuberance typical of the young Beethoven’.

Thoughts

This is a sonata to put a smile on your face. The playful start introduces the ‘peek-a-boo’ characteristics of the first movement, which is also a great example of Beethoven’s use of silence. It feels like there are several characters playing a game in the first movement. The first comes out in the cheeky and slightly timid opening phrase; the second is more assertive, with many more notes. Beethoven develops his material with freedom, taking it on a tour of several keys, before returning home.

The second movement is deeper in thought, a single stream of consciousness in the minor key that proves a very effective reflection, with some spicy chords. The third movement sounds like it is going to be a fugue, or a Bach invention, but it doesn’t end up that way – and Beethoven returns to playing games, if not quite as mischievously as before.

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)

The best accounts of this sonata are (in my opinion) the ones that bring the humour to the front. Angela Hewitt has some lovely characterisation in her first movement, where the timid and detached phrases are countered by rich, flowing episodes. Paul Badura-Skoda’s fortepiano has a crisp attack, particularly in the first movement.

Perhaps the most effective account is that of András Schiff, who successfully combines the humour and Beethoven’s invention from small cells, a reading that keeps the listener hanging.

The playlist below accommodates all the versions described above except that by Angela Hewitt:

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 Missa in Angustiis (Nelson Mass)

Next up Piano Sonata no.7 in D major Op.10/3

Listening to Beethoven #126 – 8 Variations on ‘Une fièvre brûlante’, WoO 72

beethoven-gretryLudwig van Beethoven and André Grétry (right)

8 Variations on ‘Une fièvre brûlante’ from Grétry’s Richard Coeur de Lion, WoO 72 for piano (1795-98, Beethoven aged 27)

Dedication Countess Anna Margarete von Browne
Duration 7′

written by Ben Hogwood

Listen

What’s the theme like?

The theme is a duet from André Grétry’s opera Richard Coeur de Lion, and it is an aria for the soprano playing Marguerite. It is sung in this clip – one of the very few available – by a tenor:

Background and Critical Reception

Jean-Charles Hoffelé, writing about Beethoven’s variations in the booklet note for Cécile Ousset’s rather wonderful recordings of many of the variations for Decca France, saw the beginning of a new stylistic phase in the composer’s variations on Wranitzky’s Das Waldmädchen, finished in the year prior to this work and recently covered by our listening.

These variations, on an aria from Grétry’s Richard Coeur de Lion, he says, ‘confirm this trend. Variations? No, more like an opera for piano with harmonies that Schumann would not have disavowed, with characters and a stage, and with a vast range of mood and a sense of Beethoven enjoying creating contrasts all the way to a finale that has the kind of euphoria found again in the denouement of Fidelio. This is a major collection, but one that pianists are unfamiliar with’.

That much is certainly true, for I was unable to find any other notes about the collection, not even in Deutsche Grammophon’s Complete Beethoven edition.

Thoughts

The first variation has an idly wandering right hand, the second even more so as the chromatic approach starts to bear fruit. Variation 3 takes off at quite a lick, the melody dressed with so many ornaments that it is barely recognisable, before the fourth variation straightens the smile and takes us into the minor key.

The sixth variation is a stern march, with extra dressing from the right hand, but Beethoven saves the real surprises and fireworks for the end. A flurry of notes in C major sound like the accompaniment to a comedy silent film before the music suddenly stops and takes a sideways glance into A flat major. A very pensive mood is set, but only briefly, for Beethoven wrenches us back ‘home’ with a quickfire finish.

Recordings used and Spotify links

John Ogdon (piano) (EMI)
Gianluca Cascioli (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Cécile Ousset (piano) (Eloquence)
Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano) (BIS)

The Spotify playlist below includes all of the versions listed above. The Variations may not have been recorded a great deal on disc, but each of these four versions has considerable merit. Brautigam is upfront and full of character, while John Ogdon’s virtuosity is beyond reproach. Ousset brings a touch of elegance to her account, as does Cascioli, whose slightly reserved account of the theme serves him well when the variations really get going.

Also written in 1798 Wranitzky Grande Sinfonie caracteristique in C minor Op.31

Next up Piano Sonata no.6 in F major Op.10/2

Listening to Beethoven #125 – Piano Sonata in C major WoO 51


An Orphica by Joseph Dohnal (Kunsthistorisches Museum)

Piano Sonata in C major WoO 51 (1791-98, Beethoven aged 26)

Dedication Eleonore von Breuning
Duration 7′

1. Allegro
2. Adagio

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

There are conflicting reports on the origins of this short piano sonata. Some scholars suggest the work was begun in 1791, with Beethoven still in Bonn – while others interpret correspondence to mean the composer was writing for the orphica, a small keyboard instrument like the clavichord that was in use at the time.

This would date the work to 1794 at the earliest, with more correspondence mentioning Eleonore von Breuning that suggested it was intended for her. There are two completed movements, making the sonata similar in design to the two works of Op.49. The second was finished by Beethoven’s friend Ferdinand Ries, and published posthumously in 1830.

Thoughts

The dimensions of this piece may be similar to the Op.49, but so is the musical style. The fact the composition spans several years suggests Beethoven was sufficiently attached to the music to want to see it through to the end, and listening to the work confirms his instincts were strong.

The first movement begins with an attractive flourish, and the right hand is allowed to run free. The open textures and movement between the hands face back towards the Baroque rather than forwards, but Beethoven’s use of unusual keys in the development of the main theme are a sign he was still subtly innovating.

The second movement, in F major, is a tender Adagio that has no need to hurry, and subsides to a gentle conclusion, a nicely poised aria in all but name.

Recordings used

Jenő Jandó (Naxos)
Ronald Brautigam (BIS)

Spotify links

Jenő Jandó

Ronald Brautigam

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 Koželuch Sinfonia Concertante in E flat major

Next up 8 Variations on ‘Une fièvre brûlante’ WoO 72

Listening to Beethoven #124 – Piano Sonata no.19 in G minor Op.49/1


Self-portrait by Caspar David Friedrich (1810)

Piano Sonata no.19 in G minor Op.49/1 for piano (1795-7, Beethoven aged 26)

1 Andante
2 Rondo: Allegro

Dedication unknown
Duration 8′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

The two short sonatas by Beethoven published as Op.49 in 1805 have become very popular with pianists of a more moderate ability (such as yours truly!). For this we have to thank the composer’s brother Kaspar, who assembled the two works in 1802 and gave them to publishers, though they date from several years earlier.

We have already encountered the second piece from this set, written in G major, and its counterpart shares the same pitch but operates in the minor key. Angela Hewitt, writing for her Hyperion recording, tells how the sonatas ‘were billed by their publisher as Sonate facile, a good marketing ploy, and one that reminds us of Mozart’s C major sonata K545, written in 1788. It is interesting to learn that the same publishing house, less than a month after bringing out Beethoven’s pieces, brought out Mozart’s work for the first time, with the same title’.

Hewitt, who clearly loves this piece, declares it a ‘two-movement work that is perfection in miniature’. ‘It has become almost commonplace to say that early Beethoven sounds like Mozart, but to me this sonata is pure Beethoven from start to finish’.

Thoughts

It is easy to share Hewitt’s enthusiasm for this short but expressive piece. The first movement certainly has a Mozartian simplicity but it is also very serious, a straight-faced counterpart to the exuberance of the Sonata published alongside it. Beethoven speaks with the profound nature of a Baroque overture, as though he were introducing a bigger Suite rather than a short piece.

The second movement casts off the shadows of the first, moving to the major key for a brighter approach – yet it still reverts to the minor key for a brief episode. In the end the outlook is positive, with a gently rocking coda to end the piece in a serene mood.

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)
Ronald Brautigam (BIS)

The approaches to this piece are fascinating. Two of the most contrasted viewpoints – both valid – are held by Paul Badura-Skoda, playing the fortepiano, and Emil Gilels. Badura-Skoda is quite fast in the first movement but feels slower in the second, while Gilels’ approach is expansive to say the least in the opening pages, but he makes it work with deep expression. His second movement has a spring in its step, enjoying its relative freedom.

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 1797 Pleyel Flute Concerto in B flat major B106 .

Next up Piano Sonata in C major WoO51