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′

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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

Listening to Beethoven #145 – Piano Sonata no.10 in G major Op.14/2

Woman at a Window by Caspar David Friedrich (1822) The woman in question is the artist’s wife

Piano Sonata no.9 in E major Op.14/1 for piano (1798-99, Beethoven aged 28)

1 Allegro
2 Andante
3 Scherzo: Allegro assai

Dedication Baroness Josephine von Braun
Duration 17′

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written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

‘An exquisite little work’. The verdict of esteemed musicologist Donald Tovey, proving that in the lesser-known piano sonatas of Beethoven, there are gems to be discovered.

Lewis Lockwood writes of this piece as a ‘paired opposite’ to Op.14/1, encountered yesterday, describing it as ‘a foray into the smaller-sonata world; it is almost a sonatina…with a charming first movement…a slow, simple C major variation movement and a curt finale marked Scherzo that is actually a Rondo.

Thoughts

This piece has an innocuous beginning, floating in as though from the outside with a dreamy melody on the right hand. Beethoven settles immediately into an easy flowing style, bringing Bach to mind at the very end as the piece resolves in the manner of one of his keyboard preludes.

The second movement is a lightly playful march, slow but resolute – and with an offbeat emphasis that makes you feel Beethoven is not quite walking in a straight line. The silences keep the listener on the edge, though, as though Beethoven intends to make you jump sooner or later! He does exactly that at the end, having proceeded through just three charming variations.

The third movement is stop-start, phrased like an irregular story. When it flows it is incessant and brimming with enthusiasm, but often Beethoven will stop the flow for a shorter phrase, an aside to the listener, emphasising the human aspect of how the piano phrases work. Any parallels this time would be more with C.P.E. Bach in his free, ‘fantasia’ way of thinking.

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)

The sense of enjoyment coarses through each of the selected readings of this sonata. Some, like András Schiff or Emil Gilels, take their time with the first movement but retain a special intimacy throughout. Paul Badura-Skoda enjoys the surprise element at the end of the second movement, as does Angela Hewitt, while the throwaway nature of the final bars of the piece are relished by the likes of Claudio Arrau.

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 1799 Ferdinando Paer La Camila ossia il Sotteraneo

Next up 8 Variations on ‘Tändeln und Scherzen’ WoO 76

Listening to Beethoven #144 – Piano Sonata no.9 in E major Op.14/1

Tageszeitenzyklus: Der Morgen (The times of day: The morning) by Caspar David Friedrich

Piano Sonata no.9 in E major Op.14/1 for piano (1798-99, Beethoven aged 28)

1 Allegro
2 Allegretto
3 Allegro comodo

Dedication Baroness Josephine von Braun
Duration 14′

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written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven made a rapid return to the piano sonata in 1799, publishing another two works as his Op.14 – moving on quickly from the Pathétique sonata. These pieces are slighter than that particular work, leading Angela Hewitt to speculate that they may originally have been intended for publication together, but were kept apart because of their musical differences.

Hewitt also notes the suitability of Beethoven’s writing for a string quartet – as does Lewis Lockwood, who suggests the piece may have begun life in that way before becoming a piano sonata. That suspicion would be confirmed three years later when Beethoven himself arranged the sonata as a quartet, transposing it up a tone to F major. This, says Lockwood, allowed him ‘to take advantage of the viola’s and cello’s open C strings while adjusting sonorities and dynamics to fit the medium and make the work idiomatic for quartet’.

As Lockwood reports, this was a matter of some importance, confirmed by Beethoven himself in a letter: ‘I firmly maintain that only Mozart himself could translate his works from the keyboard to other instruments, and Haydn could do this too – and without wishing to compare myself to these two great men, I claim the same about my keyboard sonatas.’

Thoughts

There is an attractive rocking motion in play at the start of this work, and an intimacy giving the listener a one-on-one experience. It is set in a relatively unusual key for Beethoven until now, E major – which gives it an open sound. Often the right hand is left alone as a sole melody, with a wandering phrase giving it the profile of a Baroque invention.

The second movement is inward looking, with a gentle lilt to the rhythm as Beethoven switches to the minor key. This is a small but decisive shift, the music attractive but more thoughtful.

By contrast, the third movement throws off these preoccupations with a lovely, flowing triple time theme. Reverting back to the major key, Beethoven uses a figuration he would revisit a whole lot later for his Piano Sonata no.30, also in the same key. Again the suggestion, with the stripped back parts, is that Beethoven has been immersing himself in music of the Baroque period, Bach and Handel in particular.

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)

Once again some fine versions are on offer. Alfred Brendel is perhaps the most eloquent, and Hewitt herself is fluent too. Paul Badura-Skoda, playing a Broadwood piano from around the time this piece was written, appears to be in something of a rush, with quick tempi for the outer movements and no repeats. His version is fun, however.

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 1799 Méhul Adrien, Ariodant

Next up Piano Sonata no.10 in G major Op.14/2

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′

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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 #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