Listening to Beethoven #185 – Piano Sonata no.18 in E flat major Op.31/3

Evening by Caspar David Friedrich (1824)

Piano Sonata no.18 in E flat major Op.31/3 for piano (1802, Beethoven aged 31)

1. Allegro
2. Scherzetto: Allegretto vivace

3. Menuetto: Moderato e grazioso
4. Presto con fuoco

Dedication unknown
Duration 23′

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

The third of Beethoven’s Op.31 trilogy is in four movements – the last of his piano sonatas to be structured in this way. It returns to happier climes after the darkness of The Tempest, but does so in wholly original ways.

Critics are united in their praise for this work, with Jan Swafford taking up the story. ‘Beethoven begins Op.31 no.3 in E flat with a harmony so strange that it would have earned him more cries of bizarre from critics if it did not commence a work of surpassing warmth, wit and winsomeness. The beginning is an invitation, like a hand extended in friendship or love.’ The importance of positive feeling is stressed. ‘Following the scherzo, most unexpectedly, comes a graceful and lyrical minuet – he wanted no slow movement to trouble the warm weather of this sonata. For conclusion, a tarantella marked Presto con fuoco, with the fire appropriate to that old whirling dance in which, once upon a time, you hoped to survive the bite of the tarantula by dancing to exhaustion.’

For Sir András Schiff, ‘the third sonata, in E flat major, is probably the hardest one to paraphrase in words: on the one hand it seems tender, entreating and pleading, with a lyrical basic mood strongly in evidence; and on the other hand, in the scherzo and finale it maintains a high spirited and urgent sense of motion.’

The nature of the finale earned the sonata a nickname of The Hunt in some quarters – and many admirers, including Angela Hewitt, who found that ‘Beethoven is in his element, for sure’.

Thoughts

Op.31/3 starts with a gentle question; a chord that is the musical equivalent of a bird unexpectedly landing on a small branch. It is the most unusual beginning to a sonata yet, and opens up a beautifully paced story, Beethoven’s invention bubbling up and down the keyboard. The chord itself is the sort you could easily play over and over again on the piano, creating an oasis of calm and positivity.

After this fascinating and elusive first movement, Beethoven has fun with the martial rhythms of the second. Back in A flat major, this is far removed from the stillness of the Pathétique slow movement, with the composer intent on making his audience smile and jump with the suddenly loud interjections. As a complement, a softer side in the form of a charming minuet, flowing nicely but with just a touch of shade in the form of some unusual harmonies – Beethoven’s second theme has a slight shiver running through it.

The last movement is a canter – as Angela Hewitt says, a bit fast for a hunt, but with a galloping gait. Beethoven builds up terrific momentum here, and some of the bigger chords would surely have been stretching the pianos of the day. The good feeling is irrepressible, in complete contrast to the end of the Tempest, and the sonata finishes with a winning flourish. Beethoven’s strength of feeling wins the day.

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)

Some wonderful recordings to savour here – with Sir András Schiff, Stephen Kovacevich and Alfred Brendel particularly enjoyable. Yet the most enjoyable guide, and a regular late night companion for this listener, is Emil Gilels, who gets a perfect balance between the delicacy and determined optimism at the heart of this work.

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 1802 Hummel Piano Quintet in E flat major Op.87

Next up 6 Variations in F major Op.34

Listening to Beethoven #184 – Piano Sonata no.17 in D minor Op.31/2 ‘The Tempest’

Walk at Dusk (Man Contemplating a Megalith), possibly a self-portrait by Caspar David Friedrich (1837-40)

Piano Sonata no.17 in D minor Op.31/2 ‘The Tempest’ for piano (1802, Beethoven aged 31)

1. Largo – Allegro
2. Adagio
3. Allegretto

Dedication unknown
Duration 23′

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

As we have previously considered, the Op.31 sonatas were composed in the year of Beethoven’s Heiligenstadt Testament, written on 6 October 1802. In this landmark letter to his brothers, which was left unsent, he revealed the full torment of his encroaching deafness – and while nobody would guess Beethoven’s fate from the first or last in the Op.31 set of his troubles, they could be left in no doubt by the second.

Its nickname of The Tempest could well be spurious, for it was applied after Anton Schindler recounted a conversation asking the composer what the piece was about, whereupon Beethoven supposedly said, ‘Read Shakespeare’s Tempest!’

Angela Hewitt, in the booklet notes accompanying her Hyperion recordings of the sonatas, gives a heartfelt appraisal of the sonata, noting its quote in the first movement of the aria Es ist vollbracht from J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion, and also the similarity of the last few bars to the rumbling of distant thunder, a quality identified by Beethoven’s friend Carl Czerny.

Hewitt takes in ‘one of Beethoven’s most glorious slow movements’, with a dolce melody that proves ‘heartbreaking in its eloquent simplicity’. In the third movement, ‘the tragic feeling continues right to the end, with the music disappearing into the void.’

Thoughts

This sonata is both dramatic and tragic – the opposite of its predecessor in G major. From the beginning it has a heavy heart, and a tendency to lean on dissonances in a way that somehow anticipates the music of Janáček, still some 120 years away.

The first movement paints a dark picture, with a lot of the action lower down in the piano. Ominous rumblings and angular lines are the order of the day, and as the development of these ideas progresses the music almost stops, enfolded in its own mystery. Suddenly a bolt of lightning thunders down, the listener jolted back to an awful reality.

After the fire and brimstone of the first movement, the second is calmer but not necessarily consoling. The intensity is still present in Beethoven’s thoughts, now presented in a measured way. Again the composer’s use of silence is telling, as is the time given to the lower end of the piano once again.

The finale shifts up towards the higher register but stays resolutely in D minor. It retains the powerful expression of the first two movements, but stays in semiquavers the whole way through, meaning the tension never lets up. Just on the approach to the recap of the main theme the music adopts a rocking motion, before subsiding to a quiet, thoughtful end. There is no major key happiness to be had here.

This must surely be the lowest piano sonata to have been written by 1802, and would have had an enormous impact on early audiences. In the knowledge of Beethoven’s realisation of his deafness it is convenient to link the Tempest sonata to the anguish he must have felt, but it really does feel like a pure expression of pain and loss. The piano sonata as Beethoven would have known it was breaking new grounds.

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)

Emil Gilels is the ideal guide for this tragic piece, and his interpretation has a great deal of gravitas. The crunch of the lower register chords comes through on Paul Badura-Skoda’s fortepiano account, while Sir András Schiff conveys plenty of drama too. Angela Hewitt’s heartfelt account is also warmly recommended.

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 1802 Haydn Harmoniemesse

Next up Piano Sonata no.18 in E flat major Op.31/3

Listening to Beethoven #183 – Piano Sonata no.16 in G major Op.31/1

The Marketplace in Greifswald by Caspar David Friedrich (1818)

Piano Sonata no.16 in G major Op.31/1 for piano (1802, Beethoven aged 31)

1. Allegro vivace
2. Adagio grazioso
3. Allegretto

Dedication unknown
Duration 25′

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

The three Op.31 piano sonatas stand right at a junction in Beethoven’s output, at the end of his more ‘classical’ approach and at the start of a period of even greater originality. Sir András Schiff notes this is the last ‘set’ of sonatas Beethoven published, and like Op.2 or Op.10, ‘we really do hear and notice an enormous diversity’. The trio is much-loved by pianists, but perhaps inevitably star billing goes to the minor key work in the middle, the ‘Tempest’.

That is to the detriment of the other two works in the group – beginning with this work in G major, something of a conundrum for Angela Hewitt. Writing booklet notes for Hyperion, the pianist confesses to a puzzled reaction on her first encounter with the piece. ‘What on earth is this?’, she thought. ‘It seemed to comprise a first movement in which the two hands can’t play together and, when they do, run around in octave unisons, and with a banal-sounding second theme that didn’t help matters; a second movement which had so many notes on the page and looked either drastically simple or too flowery, and how were you supposed to play that left hand anyway; and a last movement that had a nice theme but looked overly long and, to make matters worse, ended softly. So I didn’t go near it.’

A conversation with conductor Sir Roger Norrington gave her deep insight into the humour in Beethoven’s music, and her view was transformed. It was ‘then possible to see this very unique sonata, and indeed most of the cycle, in a totally different light. It was, and remains, very liberating.’

She points out all the instances of humour in Beethoven’s writing, especially the overly long build up to the return of the first theme, which leans on a spicy clash between E flat and D, before tripping into ‘one of those country themes that Beethoven so excelled at’, and which his pupil Czerny said should be played ‘facetiously’. The slow movement ‘is a very unusual movement. We immediately enter the world of Italian opera, and it is hard not to imagine a great bel canto singer accompanied by a mandolin. The most delicate touch is needed for this movement as well as great poise. I see it more as Beethoven setting out to prove that he could write better Italian music than the Italians!’ Finally the last movement, which ‘is perhaps less inspired, but should not be rushed. Much of this music could pass as Schubert, but the coda couldn’t be by anybody but Beethoven.’

Thoughts

A delightful piece, and an unpredictable one. This is a work where the sense of Beethoven flexing his muscles as a composer is undeniable, and the freedom of expression he has here is perhaps greater than at any point in his output so far. The first movement is allowed to run free, as though improvised at the piano, but it keeps within the boundaries of sonata form and never rambles. Instead it is witty, thoughtful, expansive, intimate and consoling by turn, always on the move and always keeping the listener guessing.

Second movement really expansive flourishes in the right hand, going further and further from the tonic in what feels like an increasingly restless desire to escape the conventional tonality. This is a really substantial, ‘staged’ movement that tells a powerful story.

Third movement feels just right after the emotional drama of the second, it is reassuring and comforting. There are some questions to this however when Beethoven starts developing the theme, and suddenly things feel less certain. The end is pure theatre, too, slowed down and drawing out the inevitable return to the home key – but even this is far from certain

That Beethoven could write a piece of such surety and humour in one of his darkest hours says much for the composer’s temperament, and it gives us an indication of how he would respond to his impending deafness with ever greater and more original music.

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)

Artists really enjoy themselves in a work such as this, and providing their approach is sensitive to Beethoven’s original thoughts there is much fun to be had. I particularly enjoyed the versions from Gilels, Badura-Skoda, Hewitt, Schiff and Brendel, though in the hands of Schiff Beethoven’s inspiration felt more on the edge and likely to go over at any moment.

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 1802 Weber Peter Schmoll und seine Nachbarn

Next up Piano Sonata no.17 in D minor Op.31/2 ‘The Tempest’

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’