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′

Listen

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

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 #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

Listening to Beethoven #123 – Piano Sonata no.4 in E flat major Op.7


Emilias Kilde by Caspar David Friedrich (c1797)

Piano Sonata no.4 in E flat major Op.7 for piano (1797, Beethoven aged 26)

1 Allegro molto e con brio
2 Largo con gran espressione
3 Allegro
4 Rondo. Poco allegretto e grazioso

Dedication Countess Babette von Keglevics
Duration 28′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

‘If any proof was needed to show that early Beethoven is not just imitation Haydn or Mozart’, writes Angela Hewitt, ‘then surely the Piano Sonata in E flat major Op.7 would be the best example.’

This is a work of formidable size, lasting nearly half an hour and second only to the Hammerklavier Sonata in Beethoven’s 32 published piano sonatas. Yet it has a common thread running through it, as Daniel Heartz observes. ‘The whole cycle is remarkable for its unified tone, which is both stylistic and motivic. No sonata of the Op.2 trilogy quite succeeded in achieving this feat.’

Hewitt has a special affection for the piece. ‘The colour change to C major for the Largo…startles us but immediately calls our attention to expect something different and exceptional’, she says of the second movement, finding the third ‘full of humour and charm’. The finale, however, works as ‘one of the last examples of his early style’, and ‘the movement ends in the most unassuming way. Perhaps if it ended loudly, she muses, this piece would be performed more often.’

The sonata is dedicated to Countess Babette von Keglevics, one of Beethoven’s most gifted piano pupils of the time.

Thoughts

Op.7 certainly is a substantial piece, but – as agreed above – a unified one. The flowing interaction between right and left hand of its opening pages set the tone. The piano writing is dense for its time, with lots going on, and in the middle (development) section of the first movement Beethoven travels far harmonically before suddenly deciding to go back to the first theme.

This proves to be a feature of the other movements. The slow movement, beautifully simple in its hymn-like theme, enjoys the sound of C major but suddenly takes a darker turn, where it really feels like Beethoven is using the piano as an orchestra. The left hand (lower strings) has an ominous figure which turns the music colder. Then we return to the safety of C major and all is forgotten.

The third movement is initially graceful, with a little stop-start motion in triple time, but its central section is a complete contrast, a turbulent episode in the minor key. The finale looks to resolve this, beginning in serenity, before it too succumbs to a stormy central section. Finally peace is completely restored, and Beethoven ends in quiet peace.

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 captures the full drama and exploration of the first movement development section. It takes a little while for the ear to adjust to Paul Badura-Skoda’s instrument but the sonorous tones suit chords that are close together. His is an intimate account if slightly jumpy on occasion, and he achieves considerable turbulence in the stormy trio of the third movement. It’s lovely to hear the piano itself creaking as he plays it. Emil Gilels is superb in the slow movement but perhaps a bit too grand in the outer two, and so it is Alfred Brendel who finds arguably the best combination of expanse and gracefulness.

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 1797 James Hewitt Piano Sonata in D major ‘The Battle of Trenton’

Next up Piano Sonata no.19 in G minor Op.49/1