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 #52 – Piano Trio in C minor Op.1/3


The Cafe Griensteidl, on Michaelerplatz, Vienna by Reinhold Völkel

written by Ben Hogwood

Piano Trio in C minor Op.1 no.3 for piano, violin and cello (1792-94, Beethoven aged 23)

Dedication Prince Charles Lichnowsky
Duration 32′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven was already leading his audiences into new sound worlds and structures with the first two piano trios of his Op.1 set – but with the third installment he cut many of the cords tying him to the past. In his booklet notes accompanying the Florestan Trio’s recordings of the trios on Hyperion, Richard Wigmore takes up the story.

“In the first two trios Beethoven’s subversiveness was still cloaked in the language of the classical comedy of manners. But in the Piano Trio in C minor Op.1 no.3, it erupted in a work of startling explosive vehemence and dark lyric beauty.” Haydn, who had recently returned to Vienna from London, was in the audience with the work’s dedicatee Prince Lichnowsky. He was full of praise for the first two works in the set but had reservations around the third. Those reservations, according to a diary entry from Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries, led Haydn to advise his pupil not to publish the work. The truth, it seems, was more subtle – Haydn not necessarily critical of the musical content but airing doubts about its difficulty for the musicians of the day and its challenging content for the Viennese audiences. They were not accustomed to hearing music of such assertiveness and drama in the form of the piano trio.

Beethoven was his own man here – with the influences of Mozart less keenly felt. As Wigmore writes, “the music is profoundly Beethovenian in its abrupt, extreme contrasts, with violent rhetoric (the first page alone is peppered with sforzando accents) alternating with intense pathos and yearning lyricism”.

Thoughts

A very different atmosphere inhabits the third of Beethoven’s Op.1 piano trios. From the outset there is a chill down the spine of the music, a shiver as the bare octaves from the three instruments announce the opening theme. The mood is similar to that of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no.24, also in C minor – which gives an idea of the orchestral concepts behind Beethoven’s writing. It sets the tone for further outings in this key, with foreboding tones and a repressed energy suggesting the music could erupt at any minute. In contrast to the first two works in the set, it grabs the initiative and looks forward with every opportunity.

The ‘coiled spring’ is kept largely intact in the first movement, though the music does threaten to run away at times, often countered by the calmer second theme. The next movement is serene but retains a serious demeanour to start with, loosening up as its theme and variations format unfold – shaking off its ‘slow’ tag, too, with variations such as the driving third, with lots of attack on the piano, and the jaunty fifth. The fourth variation, set in E flat minor, is laden with melancholia.

The Scherzo finds Beethoven setting a relatively sombre mood, with the first real smile on the face of the music arriving in the tumbling piano figure that opens the ‘trio’ section. This is where he moves from minor key to major, moving from shade to sunlight.

For many the Finale provides a telling shift in Beethoven’s expression, with the sudden outbursts and syncopated rhythms of its main theme. Here the ensemble sounds so much more than violin, cello and piano, as though a whole orchestra were punching out the statement. This is where the no-holds barred approach has its roots, and the energy levels remain high through towards the end. This makes the closing bars even more striking, a brooding coda only heightening the feeling that this is a beginning, a statement of clear intent. Even at the end there is little resolution, the performers’ emotional energies spent, what little solace, there is clouded by what has gone before.

One can only imagine the atmosphere when the first audiences in Vienna heard it, and Haydn’s relative shock at such a bold, aggressive tone. What a striking piece it is, reaching moods barely hinted at in Beethoven’s output until now. The Piano Trio no.3 sets a precedent for all the other ‘traditional’ forms – symphony, piano concerto, string quartet and instrumental sonatas – combining formal innovation with deeply expressed emotions which liable to change like the wind.

Recordings used

Castle Trio (Lambert Orkis (piano), Marilyn McDonald (violin), Kenneth Slowik (cello) (Warner Classics)
Florestan Trio (Susan Tomes (piano), Anthony Marwood (violin), Richard Lester (cello) (Hyperion)
Beaux Arts Trio (Menahem Pressler (piano), Daniel Guilet (violin), Bernard Greenhouse (cello) (Philips, 1964 recording)
Wilhelm Kempff (piano), Henryk Szeryng (violin), Pierre Fournier (cello) (Deutsche Grammophon)

The Castle Trio are great to listen to here, as they capture the sense of originality that first audience would have experienced. Their account features some very impressive fingerwork from Lambert Orkis and intense expression from the string players. Another recording on ‘period’ instruments to mark up is that by Andreas Staier, Daniel Sepec and Jean-Guihen Queyras. It is superbly played, taken at daring speeds and arguably plumbing even greater emotional depths.

Szeryng, Fournier and Kempff inhabit the drama of the outer movements in particular but there is a great intensity between them throughout. The slow movement variations are more expansive but tastefully so.

Once again the Florestan Trio have the measure of this music but also its inherent drama – where they are well-matched by the superb Beaux Arts Trio.

Spotify links

The playlist below compiles the recordings made by the Castle Trio, Beaux Arts Trio and the ensembles of Kempff-Szeryng-Fournier and Staier-Sepec-Queyras:

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 1794 Haydn Symphony no.101 in D major ‘Clock’

Next up Der freie Mann WoO 117

Listening to Beethoven #44 – Octet in E flat major Op.103


View of Vienna during the Baroque era by Bernardo Bellotto (18th century)

Octet in E flat major Op.103 for wind octet (2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 horns and 2 bassoons) (1792-93, Beethoven aged 22)

Dedication Maximilian Franz, Elector of Cologne
Duration 21′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

The Octet dates mostly from 1792, when Beethoven was still in Bonn – where author Daniel Heartz confirms it was written as Tafelmusick for the Harmonie band of the elector. The Harmonie band had a specific instrumentation mirroring the one written for by Mozart in Vienna – two each of oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons.

When Beethoven had arrived in Vienna and was studying under Haydn, the elder composer unwittingly submitted the completed work back to the Elector in Bonn. It was covered in the enclosure of ‘a few pieces of music, a quintet, an eight-voiced parthie, an oboe concerto, variations for the piano, and a fugue composed by my dear pupil Beethoven, who was so graciously entrusted to me’. The Octet was finally published as Op.103, three years after Beethoven’s death.

In his appraisal of the piece, Anthony Burton writes that ‘some of the accomplishment of this work may be due to its revision in 1793, after Beethoven had moved to Vienna and begun studying with Haydn. He complements the first movement as ‘particularly well constructed, with intensive treatment of its opening idea’, saying that ‘Beethoven yields nothing to Mozart in his handling of the instruments. If anything, he makes more effective use of the contrast between the full band and groups of two or three players’. He gives the bassoon in the second movement as an example of this, and in the fourth movement applauds the way in which Beethoven ‘spreads the arpeggio figuration of the first theme around the group, including – spectacularly – the horns.’

Thoughts

The Octet is an attractive and entertaining piece, with all the first principles of communal chamber music. Beethoven’s part writing is inclusive, passing his melodies and their development between the groups of oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons.

The lively first movement explores the lovely sonorities of the wind ensemble, with lively exchanges and imaginative working of the melodies. The second movement is effectively pared down to bring out the solo qualities of oboe and bassoon, who pass Beethoven’s graceful writing between each other, the rest of the ensemble content to accompany from afar.

The Minuet (really a scherzo in all but name) has a nervous energy running through it, generated from the four-note motif the instruments share, with a few unexpected minor-key harmonies and occasional pauses. The trio section of this movement has fragments of melody from the clarinet and bassoon, punctuated by horns.

The last movement is the standout, ending on a high with some virtuosic writing for the horns amongst the bright and characterful writing, while the clarinets bubble to the surface too. Beethoven’s wit comes out smiling here.

Given this is one of his early works for wind ensemble the assurance of Beethoven’s writing is striking, taking the piece close to the world of Mozart’s serenades for wind of around 11 years earlier. The Viennese audiences would surely have been impressed, and it’s no wonder Haydn made a case in favour of the Octet.

Recordings used

Members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)
L’Archibudelli (Sony Vivarte)
Sabine Meyer Bläserensemble (Warner Classics)
The Albion Ensemble (Helios)

Like the Rondino previously heard, there are some fine versions of the Octet. The Members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, a starry cast, give a strong account from 1969 for Deutsche Grammophon. There is a greater lightness of touch from the Sabine Meyer Bläserensemble, who are especially fluent in the first movement. The rougher contours of the L’Archibudelli horns are appealing, as is their expansive approach to the second movement, taken at a slower tempo. The finale is an eventful quickstep.

Spotify links

L’Archibudelli

https://open.spotify.com/track/21tzSX512uU3pTJgClXMeR?si=BfN5sBRoQiSFSnCIfkTk0w

Sabine Meyer Bläserensemble

https://open.spotify.com/album/14YW4LEuvkVJfAqB3Ed2PX?si=eIF2H30PQ7aLHqut9MiNcA

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

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/4BJCc2kWe7McJUVsR7t7bF?si=t8WaPuz4SIGhzDawjH2avA

Also written in 1793 Cimarosa Concerto for 2 flutes in G major

Next upOboe Concerto in F major (fragment)