Listening to Beethoven #170 – Piano Sonata no.15 in D major Op.28 ‘Pastoral’

Der Sommer (Landschaft mit Liebespaar) The summer (Landscape with lovers) by Caspar David Friedrich (1807)

Piano Sonata no.15 in D major Op.28 ‘Pastoral’ for piano (1801, Beethoven aged 30)

1. Allegro
2. Andante in D minor
3. Scherzo: Allegro vivace
4. Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo

Dedication Count Joseph von Sonnenfels
Duration 25′

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

The fourth piano sonata from Beethoven in the year 1801 is every bit as remarkable as the other three. Having experimented with free forms in the two three-movement works labelled ‘quasi una fantasia’, Beethoven reverts to what initially seems a traditional four-movement format.

In spite of the quiet beginning to the Pastoral, however, commentators are quick to note its poetic qualities and the more radical aspects of its design. Angela Hewitt calls it ‘one of the most beautiful of all beginnings’, observing that the work gained its nickname through a publisher’s reference to the bagpipe-like drones from the start.

‘In the first movement, though it is outwardly so tranquil and friendly, Beethoven is still concerned with construction and conciseness’, writes Hewitt. The contemporary composer Carl Czerny described it as one of Beethoven’s own favourite pieces – and especially the second movement Andante, a solemn march-like movement.

András Schiff is also fulsome in his praise. ‘This is a work that pulsates, it’s full of inner voices, opens up huge spaces of sound, and yet does without any dramatic outbursts throughout’. He draws out several anticipations of Schubert in the third movement, particularly in the way ‘the trio wavers between major and minor’.

On the finale, he writes, ‘To me, the finale has traces of a barcarolle, even though it’s constructed as a genuine sonata-rondo’. Hewitt says how Beethoven ‘preferred a bravura ending…it’s as if he can’t contain his joy’. In conclusion she writes, ‘Beethoven’s love of nature is well documented, and it was his most comforting source of nourishment. In this Pastoral sonata he seems to express his thankfulness for all it gave him’.

Thoughts

If anyone asks you for a definition of serenity in music you could easily play them the first minute of Beethoven’s Pastoral sonata. This is a lovely passage of music, every bit as calm as the close of the Moonlight sonata was turbulent. Yet as the first movement progresses it is clear this is not light music, for as Angela Hewitt observes Beethoven brings in several motifs that contrast with the flowing main subject, helping us appreciate it all the more.

The second movement switches to the minor key and spends more time in the shadows as a result, a slow-ish dance with a steady, march-like tread that gradually reels the listener in. The third movement throws off the shackles and also shows off how Beethoven could make musical motifs out of almost nothing. It is simply a set of repeated F# notes in different octaves of the piano, but is made into a humourous phrase that carries a true scherzo.

The finale brings in reminders of the opening with its flowing discourse, almost like running water, with music of pure exuberance. Again the tune is deceptively simple, but it travels through some impressive and pretty complex development, which can be seen if the listener examines closely – but is not essential to enjoyment.

Small wonder that the Pastoral is one of Beethoven’s most popular piano works. It has an enduring happiness made all the more remarkable given the composer’s health issues at the time, but it shows – as all the sonatas of 1801 do – a renewed mastery of the piano and its power to express.

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)

Pianists clearly love this work, and among the very fine versions it was difficult to deviate from the versions by Gilels, Brendel, Schiff and Daniel Barenboim. Paul Badura-Skoda also radiates pure enjoyment in his version using a Viennese piano of the time.

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 1801 Cramer Piano Sonatas Op.25

Next up String Quintet in C major Op.29

Listening to Beethoven #169 – Piano Sonata no.14 in C sharp minor Op.27/2 ‘Sonata Quasi una fantasia’ (‘Moonlight’)

Seascape by Moonlight) by Caspar David Friedrich (c1835)

Piano Sonata no.14 in C sharp minor Op.27/2 ‘Quasi una fantasia’ (‘Moonlight’) for piano (1801, Beethoven aged 30)

1. Adagio sostenuto
2. Allegretto
3. Presto agitato

Dedication Countess Giulietta Guicciardi
Duration 16′

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

And so we reach one of the most famous pieces in classical music. The second of Beethoven’s Op.27 sonatas, the Moonlight is the second piece to be published with the qualifying title of Sonata quasi una fantasia, reminding us of Beethoven’s intention to move away from the conventional sonata form.

He did not provide the Moonlight nickname, which was suggested by poet and critic Ludwig Rellstab. For him the first movement represented ‘a boat, visiting, by moonlight, the primitive landscapes of Lake Lucerne’. The dedication, to Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, has prompted much speculation – but although Beethoven was in love with her at the time, the dedication, as Angela Hewitt writes, was ‘an afterthought when another piece he had dedicated to her had to be given to somebody else’.

Critics and musicologists note the power of Beethoven’s writing, from the restraint of the first movement to the turbulent storm of the finale. In between these two lies a balletic central movement set in the major key, described by Liszt as ‘a flower between two abysses’. When it comes to the famous opening movement, Hewitt writes about the importance of refreshing the sustain pedal with each bass note on a modern piano, to avoid clouding the harmonies. On an older instrument this would not be necessary, but ‘the most important thing’, she says, ‘is to capture a magical mood’. But then, ‘all hell breaks loose in the final Presto agitato’.

It was not long before Beethoven was tiring of the airtime his most famous piece was getting. ‘People are always talking about the C sharp minor Sonata’, he said. ‘Really, I have written better things!’

Thoughts

What is there left to say about the Moonlight sonata that hasn’t been said already? It is surely one of the most written-about pieces in musical history, and certainly one of the most famous piano pieces there is – made all the more accessible because the relative beginner can play its most famous theme.

Yet the Moonlight sonata is a vital cog in the 32-strong output of Beethoven’s published piano sonatas. It is another step away from the classical tradition towards a free and much more emotive approach, and it could even be said to contain the first notes of the so-called ‘Romantic’ period in classical music.

It is Beethoven’s first published piece in C sharp minor, a key Mozart did not use for a single published work, and Haydn very little. That is perhaps part of why the music sounds so striking from the start, when the bare arpeggios set the nocturnal scene. No matter how slowly this passage is played it is laden with feeling, and the enchanted atmosphere only deepens as the music progresses.

The second movement is a beautiful contrast, a poised and relatively carefree dance with an attractive lilt. It is the light to the first movement’s shade and points towards something more positive…until we arrive at the gates of the last movement. What an incredible passage of music this is, especially in concert, where you get to witness the pianists’ arms whirring up and down the keyboard as the whirlwind arpeggios take effect. With the suddenly loud interjections from the first movement it must have had an alarming impact on its first audience, by far the most dramatic sonata they had seen. The enchantment of the first movement had been swapped for something altogether more terrifying.

How remarkable that Beethoven could write such music as part of a piano sonata, scaling emotions and technical feats that were out of bounds. Yet it all works within those confines, with music of great tension and drama that is somehow wrapped up in 15 minutes. The composer has scaled new heights.

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)
Rudolf Serkin (Sony)

Paul Badura-Skoda is very subdued in the first movement but gets the level of sustain just right, helped by his 1790 Viennese instrument. The second movement is a bit laboured, but the third tears along. Sir András Schiff, playing a dfgd, is a full 100 seconds quicker than Emil Gilels in the first movement, a little rushed for some tastes – while Gilels creates an atmosphere where the listener hangs on every note.

Angela Hewitt finds a really nice turn of phrase in the second movement, with a balletic poise, while interpretations of the third movement range from a race to the finish to a stark evocation of terror. Both Hewitt and Schiff are terrific with the dynamic contrasts.

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 1801 Field Piano Sonata in C minor Op.1/3

Next up Piano Sonata no.15 in D major Op.28 ‘Pastoral’

Listening to Beethoven #168 – Piano Sonata no.13 in E flat major Op.27/1 ‘Sonata Quasi una fantasia’

Frau vor untergehender Sonne (Woman before the Rising Sun) by Caspar David Friedrich (1818)

Piano Sonata no.13 in E flat major Op.27/1 ‘Quasi una fantasia’ for piano (1801, Beethoven aged 30)

1. Andante – Allegro – Andante
2. Allegro molto e vivace
3. Adagio con espressione
4. Allegro vivace

Dedication Princess Josephine von Liechtenstein
Duration 16′

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

The year 1801 was all about the piano sonata for Beethoven, who expanded the form with each of the four pieces completed in that year. Having stretched formal and expressive boundaries with Op.26, he moved on to a pair of sonatas published as Op.27. Both bore the inscription ‘Sonata quasi una fantasia’, recognising their experimental approach and formal ambiguity. The form was becoming less conventional and more emotional in his hands, and the first of the Op.27 pieces made several new advances.

Unfortunately for the E flat major piece, its neighbour – the rather well-known Moonlight sonata – has stolen all the thunder. Yet as Jan Swafford writes, it is deserving of much higher exposure and regard. ‘Like all his sonatas it has a singular personality, from stately to haunted to ebullient’, he declares. ‘Its opening Andante is something of a blank sheet, offering little in the way of melody or passion but a great deal of pregnant material’. The four movements last around 17 minutes, and are played without a break.

Sir András Schiff, in the notes accompanying his recording on ECM, holds the piece in high esteem. ‘In its freedom, this sonata points the way forward much more clearly than Op.26’, he writes. ‘In its moods it is a psychological piece, but from the point of view of its formal criteria it shows an astonishing interweaving of sonata and fantasy’. He draws a link between this work and later pieces from the Romantic era such as Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, Schumann’s Fantasie in C and the Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor. For him it shows ‘a master of experimentation at work’. Angela Hewitt describes it simply as ‘wonderful’.

Thoughts

Beethoven is by now the master of starting a piece with what feels like minimal, inconsequential material. So it is with the measured start to this piece, but soon the deeply expressive side is clear. In it we hear an approach similar to that taken up by Schubert in his Impromptus, and Schumann in his character pieces.

The deceptively gentle start has moments of light when the music moves unexpectedly to C major, but the opening movement is largely thoughtful. Soon, however, we are in a grittier second section, before the slow movement returns us to A flat major, a similar, deeply thoughtful mood to the Op.26 funeral march. The final movement is a celebration, taking off at quite a pace, but just when it seems about to slam into the buffers Beethoven brings back the music of the opening, which is a masterstroke. With some really striking dissonances that only just resolve, this slow music feels more profound the second time around, before the piece signs off with a rush to the finish.

This work benefits from several listens to reveal its workings, but it is a model of economy and, ultimately, genius. Emotive and forward-looking, Beethoven is on a roll.

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)
Rudolf Serkin (Sony)

This piece works well on the 1790 instrument used by Paul Badura-Skoda. Some of the faster music can sound quite cluttered but it communicates the rush of discovery, linking Beethoven back to the freeform music of C.P.E. Bach.’ Emil Gilels takes the second part of the first movement at a terrific pace, not so much a stream of consciousness as a raging torrent – which contrasts with the return to the soft melody of before. Schiff and Hewitt contribute two of the best versions here – of which there are many.

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 1801 Field Piano Sonata in A major Op.1/2

Next up Piano Sonata no.14 in C sharp minor Op.27/2 ‘Quasi una fantasia’ (‘Moonlight’)

Listening to Beethoven #167 – Piano Sonata no.12 in A flat major Op.26

Abend (Sonnenuntergang hinter der Dresdener Hofkirche) (Evening (Sunset behind Dresden’s Hofkirche) by Caspar David Friedrich (1824)

Piano Sonata no.12 in A flat major Op.26 for piano (1801, Beethoven aged 30)

1. Andante con variazioni
2. Scherzo, allegro molto
3. Maestoso andante, marcia funebre sulla morte
4. Rondo

Dedication Prince Karl von Lichnowsky
Duration 27′

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven was enjoying one of the most productive periods of his life as a composer, yet conversely his health was worsening. He had chronic bouts of diarrhoea and a buzzing in his ears that was gaining in intensity as the years went on – this was the onset of his deafness which sadly was never to leave him.

His response, as Angela Hewitt says in her booklet notes for this piece on Hyperion, was to work hard – and the resultant piano sonatas leave biographer Jan Swafford in no doubt. In The Grand Sonata in A-flat major Op.26, Beethoven fully possessed the voice history would know him by, and at age 30 he was writing music that would place him once and for all in the history of his art. Everything about this sonata seems to be more than anything in the works before: more personal; more innovative in the approach to form (there are no movements in sonata form); more varied in the expressive scope, with fresh kinds of unity. Not least, starting from the gentle beginning, the A-flat major finds heights of individuality and sheer beauty of expression beyond anything he had reached before.’

Hewitt describes Op.26 as ‘a collection of four character pieces put together more under the lines of a divertimento (a title under which many of Haydn’s early sonatas were published)’. Its innovations begin with a theme and variations movement, which Hewitt sees as ‘more than just a show of compositional and technical virtuosity. Without straying far from the theme, Beethoven gives us a satisfying ‘introduction’ to the other movements.’

A ‘lively scherzo’ is next, then a funeral march, Hewitt observing that ‘Chopin loved this Beethoven sonata more than any other and played it frequently. This movement probably inspired him to write his own funeral march, which became the central focus of his Piano Sonata Op.35.’ The march was played at Beethoven’s own funeral in an arrangement.

The last movement is in a rondo form. ‘Instead of going for a brilliant finish’, writes Hewitt, ‘the work simply dissolves into thin air – a remarkable end to a remarkable piece.’

Thoughts

1801 appears to have seen a decisive shift for Beethoven. In pieces like the Serenade in D major he was clearly taking inspiration from the past, enjoying the chance to write in homage to Mozart and to some extent to Haydn. Yet as we move forward one opus number, here is a piece looking only in one direction – forwards.

The twelfth published piano sonata begins a run in this form of four consecutive works, all of them exploring new ways of presenting Beethoven’s ideas. The shock of the new is evident right from the start of this piano sonata,which begins with a theme and variations movement. Not only that, the theme carries a weighty emotional presence, and the subsequent departures from it are tightly but beautifully worked.

A quicker movement follows, with Beethoven in largely ebullient mood. The main melody is catchy, appearing in both higher and lower parts, and is only briefly displaced by a short trio section.

The funeral march, placed third, explores similar emotional depths to the slow movement of the Pathétique sonata, in the same key, but if anything goes for a more sustained darkness and greater tension than that movement. Here is an intensely dramatic passage of play, yet in the middle section Beethoven gives us a darkness to light moment, a glimpse of heaven from the turmoil. The clouds return, but the hope of transformation remains.

After these highs and lows, as Angela Hewitt notes, it is difficult to know what to expect next – so the fourth and final movement feels apt in its ‘straight down the middle’ approach. It is in fact a beautifully worked study of counterpoint that builds up a good deal of momentum

This is by some distance the most emotionally affecting piano piece we have yet heard from Beethoven, a noticeable change in tack from his previous works. The shift is decisive and will, as Jan Swafford says, affect the rest of his output. A willingness to embrace the new and to wear his heart on his sleeve pays many dividends here.

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)
Rudolf Serkin (Sony)

Angela Hewitt gives the theme plenty of space to start with, and her reading of the sonata is beautifully weighted, taking its lead from the freedom in which Beethoven is operating. Schiff is superb, going at a daringly slow tempo in the first movement before giving it great guns in the faster music. Of the many other fine versions Rudolf Serkin left a lasting impression with his dramatic account.

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 1801 Field Piano Sonata in E flat major Op.1/1

Next up Piano Sonata no.13 in E flat major Op.27/1 ‘Quasi una fantasia’

Listening to Beethoven #162 – Piano Sonata no.11 in B flat major Op.22

Abend am Fluss (Evening on the River) by Caspar David Friedrich (c1820-5)

Piano Sonata no.10 in B flat major Op.22 for piano (1800-01, Beethoven aged 30)

1 Allegro con brio
2 Adagio con molta espressione
3 Minuetto

4 Rondo: Allegretto

Dedication Baroness Josephine von Braun
Duration 27′

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

This is the last piano sonata thought to belong to Beethoven’s so-called ‘early period’ – and it is one of the least known. Its neglect is mysterious, as the composer himself thought highly enough of the work to declare it ‘really something’ when writing to his publisher Hoffmeister. Donald Tovey agreed, the respected musicologist viewing it as ‘exemplifying early Beethoven at its best’.

His enthusiasm is not universally shared by fellow scholars. Daniel Heartz concludes the work is ‘hardly the winner Beethoven claimed. Of its four movements, only the last is undeniably superior in quality’. The first movement is ‘meant to impress by its feats of pianism’…but ‘on closer acquaintance, the movement seems somewhat lacking in content’.

Angela Hewitt fights her corner against the sceptics, waxing lyrical on the first movement as ‘a brilliant Allegro con brio‘, and on the operatic style of the second, which her favourite of the four. The last movement Rondo, she concedes, needs ‘a good technique combined with an equally good imagination’ to hold it together.

William Drabkin, writing for Deutsche Grammophon’s Complete Beethoven Edition, arrives at a striking conclusion. ‘With Op.22 the classical piano sonata has not only ‘washed itself’, it has also exhausted itself. It was now time for Beethoven to try out new external designs as well as exploring new internal means of expression.’

Thoughts

Perhaps inevitably my thoughts are somewhere in between the opinions of Heartz and Tovey, yet the feeling persists that this is a work that could grow in stature with repeated listening and insight. Having heard it several times I can say the themes do stick in the head, and that Beethoven’s way in developing them makes for a very fluent piece of work.

The innocuous, slightly playful theme of the opening is deceptive, but its mood prevails and a hint of humour can be felt throughout. The slow movement is subdued but elegant, with a freely expressive line in the right hand giving it the operatic air observed by Angela Hewitt.

Like the first movement, the third initially seems innocuous, but its theme is attractive until countered by the nagging second idea. Again the themes of the finale seem slight, but have staying power after a few listens. Things take a darker turn as the movement develops, as B flat major becomes B flat minor, but the clouds clear with the reappearance of the main themes. In this movement Beethoven finds close links with Bach, an early premonition of the great fugue he will use in the Hammerklavier sonata, ironically in the same key. Here the writing is less substantial and has less of an impact, but it does nonetheless get Beethoven to the right place for his next stylistic developments to begin.

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)

Angela Hewitt’s enthusiasm transfers to her recording, which is thoroughly enjoyable and brings out a stage-like element of Beethoven’s writing. It helps that she is flexible with her choices of tempo, letting the music breathe for a little longer when it needs to. There are notable versions from Gilels, who gives the slow movement a lot of room without dropping the tension, and Brendel who is characteristically fluid.

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 1801 John Marsh Symphony no.30 in E minor

Next up The Creatures of Prometheus Op.43