Listening to Beethoven #61 – Piano Sonata no.3 in C major Op.2/3


Landscape in the Riesengebirge by Caspar David Friedrich (1798)

Piano Sonata no.3 in C major Op.2/3 for piano (1793-95, Beethoven aged 24)

1 Allegro con brio
2 Adagio
3 Scherzo: Allegro
4 Allegro assai

Dedication Franz Joseph Haydn
Duration 23′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

The third of Beethoven’s Op.2 sonatas is also the most ambitious. Thinking far beyond the recital room, he wrote what is effectively a concerto for solo piano, a vehicle to show off his prowess not just as a conductor but as a performer.

The scale of the piece is impressive, with four big-boned movements that take small melodic cells and amplify them to far greater designs. In this respect he was following Haydn’s talent for expanding on small musical nuggets, while writing clearly for the instrument at hand, a bigger piano with greater volume and depth.

Jan Swafford, in the Virtuoso chapter of his superb biography Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, waxes lyrical on this sonata. ‘In this brilliant and thematically tight-knit piece’, he writes, ‘he alternates quiet, inward music with explosions of virtuosity, the whole seeming to be a two-handed version of a piano concerto, complete with cadenzas at the end of the first and last movements’.

András Schiff agrees. ‘I see it very much as a performance piece, aimed at an audience. You could call it a ‘sonata-concertante’. The E major slow movement is also very wide-ranging’. He goes on to note anticipations of Brahms in the finale, where he describes how ‘the figures in thirds…display a new and extremely difficult kind of keyboard technique’.

For Angela Hewitt, the sonata is an early peak in the cycle of 32. She clearly loves the last movement, which is ‘not for the faint-hearted or weak-fingered’. Beethoven’s ‘perfect combination of heart, mind and humour makes this sonata, in my opinion, one of his most fulfilling pieces to perform’.

Thoughts

Beethoven’s music is definitely getting louder! This piece is one for the extravert, for a pianist capable of playing a flashy solo part – but then it is also for the introvert, capable of realising the poetic writing in the timeless writing in the slow movement.

The first movement, as András Schiff suggests, has two voices – an ‘orchestra’ (the opening theme) and the piano soloist. Soon the roles intertwine, and the pianist has a technical challenge on their hands! Some of the chords used in this movement have an awesome power we have not yet witnessed in Beethoven, packed out with notes that require the use of all ten fingers.

The slow movement, marked Adagio, is a notably early example of Beethoven’s ability to make time stand still in his slow music. That happens most noticeably when the main theme comes back, just over halfway through the movement, in a series of slow chords. It is followed by a suddenly loud statement, jerking the listener back into a harsh reality, the sudden mood change creating a strong dramatic impact.

The third movement scherzo is more, while the finale is an extension of a scherzo with its trotting theme. Gradually the music becomes more technically demanding and congested, the performer having to show athleticism and guile in equal measure. Then just before the end Beethoven suddenly disappears into a far-removed key and the music opens out into a mysterious question. The answer is emphatic – it was a false move, Beethoven toying with the performer (and listener) before bringing them ‘home’.

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)

Schiff is terrific here, enjoying the contrasts of Beethoven’s writing. Some of the big fortissimo chords have alarming power, played in a way of which the composer would surely have approved! Gilels goes for power, too, in a magisterial but slightly overpowering first movement. Angela Hewitt finds a lovely balance between bravado and delicacy, as does Igor Levit.

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 1795 Haydn Piano Trio in E-flat minor Hob.XV:31 .

Next up Piano Sonata no.3 in C major Op.2/3

Listening to Beethoven #60 – Piano Sonata no.2 in A major Op.2/2


The Summer by Caspar David Friedrich (1807)

Piano Sonata no.2 in A major Op.2/2 for piano (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication Franz Joseph Haydn
Duration 23′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven wrote his second piano sonata in 1795, while he was studying counterpoint with Albrechtsberger, though like the other two pieces in the Op.2 set it is dedicated to another teacher, Haydn.

As with the three Op.1 piano trios, Beethoven’s three Op.2 piano sonatas inhabit very different personalities. The F minor piece described yesterday has plenty of brio, but this A major work is relatively light on its feet in comparison.

That does not make it insubstantial, however. Harry Halbreich, writing in his extensive booklet notes for Paul Badura-Skoda’s recording on Arcana, notes how Beethoven ‘seems to take possession of the piano, from which he draws entirely new contrasts of range, of dynamics and of rhythm.

Daniel Heartz writes of how the sonata ‘offers very different fare. It counters no.1’s somber mien with lighter textures overall and a sunnier disposition; it also makes more demands on the performer’. He enjoys the third movement scherzo, which ‘recaptures the bright, filigree character of the opening movement’, and the finale, an ‘easily flowing gavotte, with a captivating melody’.

Thoughts

The second instalment of Beethoven’s first group of piano sonatas is much less performed than the first. Angela Hewitt cites the quiet and gentle ending as one possible reason for this – but as she says, there is no reason to treat it as inferior to the first work in F minor.

If anything, the appeal of the second sonata is more immediate than the first. Beethoven’s mood is playful right from the start, with a glint in the eye as the clipped phrases of the first tune are announced. This is one of many instances where the silence around the tune is every bit as important as the notes themselves – and we are drawn into the charm and impish nature of the writing. Beethoven’s development of his ideas is bold, but the wit still shines through.

The second movement is a soft reverie, graceful and hymn like, but with a walking bass that could easily have come from a Haydn symphony, showing how Beethoven is now treating the piano like an orchestra. This lovely, calm water is interrupted briefly by a minor-key middle section, but becomes the prevailing mood by the end.

The third movement is classed as a Scherzo and exhibits the qualities you would expect with that label, returning to the playful mood of the first movement. For the trio section in the middle Beethoven moves from the key of A major to A minor and a more strident passage of music – but then switches on the charm again before the end.

As with Op.2/1 the last movement is substantial, bringing together the different moods of the previous three. It flows rather nicely, with a bright disposition but with the odd moment of shade. The calm finish is rather touching, as though Beethoven has said all he needs to say and is setting down his pen with a sigh of satisfaction.

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)

There are some excellent recordings of this piece, which as Paul Badura-Skoda illustrates sounds really good on the fortepiano. Angela Hewitt is characteristically detailed, and almost a little shy in the first and third movements, which really suits Beethoven’s writing. András Schiff is very relaxed in his choice of tempi for the first and third movements especially, but justifies this with pure melodic phrasing.

Claudio Arrau gets the balance perfectly aligned. Emil Gilels spends almost as much time in the slow movement, where he gets lost (in a wholly good way) in the music until a stern middle section. Igor Levit, the most recently released version, throws off the third movement with some style, and signs off with a flowing finale.

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 1795 Haydn Piano Trio in E-flat minor Hob.XV:31 .

Next up Piano Sonata no.3 in C major Op.2/3

Listening to Beethoven #59 – Piano Sonata no.1 in F minor Op.2/1


Ship in the Arctic Ocean by Caspar David Friedrich (1798)

Piano Sonata no.1 in F minor Op.2/1 for piano (1793-95, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication Franz Joseph Haydn
Duration 21’00

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Opus 1 for Beethoven was the piano trio; Opus 2 the piano sonata. Both publications contain three works, and both serve notice of a composer planning innovations in his chosen form. Compared to the piano trio the piano sonata was very well established, with Haydn and Mozart writing works in the form for many years previously. Signs of change were afoot however, the instruments themselves shifting away from the harpsichord to the fortepiano. Beethoven was also looking towards the symphony for inspiration, writing each of these sonatas in four movements (most had been in three) and within those movements constructing more expansive designs.

Opus 2 is dedicated to Haydn, Beethoven’s teacher at the time – around the time of his second trip to London. Commentators look to link the two composers musically, too, while acknowledging the influence of the Mannheim school in the main theme of the first movement, which is described as a ‘Mannheim rocket’ because of its quickly ascending melody. There are also parallels with C.P.E. Bach.

Pianist Angela Hewitt, in the booklet of her own recording on Hyperion, describes how Beethoven ‘is very precise with his markings for dynamics and articulation’. She makes the point that while this sonata was being written Haydn was just completing his last piano sonata. About Beethoven’s final movement, she says ‘the modern pianist would do well to try out this movement on a fortepiano to hear how terrifying it can sound’.

Thoughts

The first of Beethoven’s 32 published piano sonatas, the beginning of what Hans von Bülow called ‘The New Testament of Music’, makes a keen impression right from the off. The bold melody we hear in the right hand stays rooted in the mind, especially as Beethoven comes back to it time and again, putting a new spin on its profile. The links made to Haydn are understandable – there is a bit of the ‘Sturm und Drang’ about it (see the Mannheim link above), but already Beethoven has made it clear he is looking forward.

That much is clear in the slow movement, placed second. Here the music, while relaxed, often arrives at a suspended chord that Beethoven takes a while to resolve – and this creates a fair bit of tension, even within a passage of music that is softer on the ear than the first movement.

These tensions remain in the third movement, which is quite stern for a minuet – again in the vein of one of Haydn’s minor-key sonatas. The clouds part for the trio section, however, with some lovely bell-like figuration for the pianist’s right hand, until we turn inwards again when the minuet returns.

The last movement is stern, and fleet of foot, with more challenging writing for both hands as the music surges forward. The writing for octaves in the right hand shows how Beethoven is expanding the sound of the piano, and the music ends resolutely in the minor key – a technique of which Haydn would surely have approved.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Alfred Brendel (Philips)
András Schiff (ECM)
Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)
Paul Badura-Skoda (Arcana)
Stephen Kovacevich (EMI)
Igor Levit (Sony Classical)

András Schiff gives a very fine account of the piece that brings out its connections to Haydn, and especially the Symphony no.49 which is one of his only works in the same key. The slow movement is expertly judged, while the finale is even better, dramatic and never letting up, even as he slows to the finish. Claudio Arrau draws the listener in, especially in the slow movement. Paul Badura-Skoda, playing an instrument from Vienna in 1790, gives a crisp performance and the fortepiano has an appealing timbre.

Stephen Kovacevich is extremely brisk and does not use repeats – so his version is dispatched in a mere 15 minutes. Igor Levit, the most recent addition to this discography, also gives a quickfire performance and chooses not to use the repeat markings, but he still has time for the Minuet to dance gracefully and for the slow movement to have poetic pause for thought.

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 1795 Clementi 2 Piano Sonatas and 2 Capriccios Op.34 .

Next up Piano Sonata no.2 in A major Op.2/2

Listening to Beethoven – approaching the piano sonatas


A piano of Aaron Walter, similar to the one Beethoven used after his arrival in Vienna in 1792.

Written by Ben Hogwood

If you’re a regular visitor to these pages – first of all, thank you! – you will have noticed Arcana’s Beethoven project has been picking up some momentum of late. So far it has covered 55 pieces from early on in his careers in Bonn, and has now followed him to Vienna and his first official publications, the three Piano Trios Op.1. That means one very significant body of work is coming into view – the Piano Sonatas.

One of the main attractions to this project was to attempt to fully appreciate this cycle of 32 works, long considered one of the finest achievements in Western music. It means that writing about these amazing pieces is potentially quite intimidating, given the body of work that already exists – and yet the appeal of the music is that anyone at any level can fully enjoy the fruit of Beethoven’s labours.

Amateur pianists – such as yours truly! – can enjoy them too. A couple of the works published as Op.49 are what I would call ‘entry level’, and I had the pleasure of playing one at university, post-Grade 5. Some famous passages are within scope, too – the slow movement of the Moonlight sonata (not the fast one!), the Pathétique (again the slow movement!) and isolated passages of some other works.

There are many, many recorded versions of the sonatas. Most complete cycles – curiously – are by male pianists, so it gives me great pleasure to have interviewed Angela Hewitt about these works, a piece I will publish soon on the site. She has nearly crossed their line with her own cycle, and we will enjoy her versions on the Hyperion label. Other guides I have chosen are ‘classic’ sets from Emil Gilels, Claudio ArrauStephen Kovacevich and Alfred Brendel, an older set from Wilhelm Kempff, and one of the newest of all from Igor Levit, released just last year on Sony Classical.

I also felt it important to include a cycle on pianos of Beethoven’s time, so have opted for Paul Badura-Skoda on the Arcana label, ironically, performed on now fewer than seven different fortepianos.

The cycle will start shortly with the three works published as Op.2 and dedicated to Haydn in 1795. It will then set us down in a heap with the final utterance, the C minor sonata Op.111, finished in 1822. By that point we will know an awful lot more about Beethoven, and just how these extraordinary pieces came to be. Hope you can join us for the ride!

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here:

2020 Beethoven: The Story So Far

As you may well know, Arcana is undertaking a Beethoven listening project this year, in celebration of the 250th year since his birth.

We are approaching Beethoven by way of composers and teachers that had an influence on his output – J.S. Bach, son C.P.E., Handel and teachers Albrechtsberger and Salieri. We have also had a quick look at the Mannheim school of composers who helped the forms of the symphony and sonata to spread their wings.

We will shortly hear from Haydn and Mozart, then a quick look at Clementi – who Beethoven held in very high regard – before a guide to the music of 1770, the year of Beethoven’s birth. Then – finally – we will start on the music of Beethoven himself.

Arcana have several exciting interviews in the bag to help us with our discovery of Beethoven. Pianist Angela Hewitt has given some pearls of wisdom on the Piano Sonatas, while this morning Cyprien Katsaris held court as he talked of his upcoming Beethoven Odyssey. Many discoveries were made! We will also hear from cellist Steven Isserlis, who has offered his thoughts on the Cello Sonatas.

It has been a relatively slow start – but expect the tempo to rise considerably over the coming months! Meanwhile here are clips from one of Hewitt’s discs for Hyperion on the Piano Sonatas, including the wonderful opening pages of the Pastoral: