Classical Music for All is the musical blog of the Pianist Boris Giltburg. For more articles see here.
Hardly any composer is more closely associated with the piano sonata than Beethoven. His 32 form a nigh unparalleled canon, remaining to this day one of the greatest (and most rewarding) challenges a pianist faces, both as individual works, and, on a vastly larger scale, as a cycle.
As opposed to larger orchestral works conceived for public performance, sonatas were predominantly played in more intimate settings, be it at home by skilled amateurs, or by professional musicians in social gatherings (only a single Beethoven sonata was performed at a public concert during his lifetime). Beethoven could thus employ them as a laboratory of ideas, often surpassing himself in daring and innovation.
The three sonatas on this recording (representing the Early, Middle and Late periods of Beethoven’s creative life) are united by their key: C minor/major. Beethoven in C minor—his Fifth Symphony, the Third Piano Concerto, the Coriolan Overture—is often characterised by a dramatic, stormy, high-intensity mood (‘C minor mood’: a semiofficial term in Beethoven literature) and by a relentless, sometimes demonic drive. Turned to major, C could be the bright, merry key of the first piano concerto, the Piano Sonata No. 3 or the First Symphony—but not only: in the Waldstein and the second movement of Op. 111 the key becomes malleable in Beethoven’s hands, ranging from mysterious to brilliant to profound/philosophical.
Unrestrained (yet completely genuine) emotions, a haunted rhythmical pulse, a sense of abandon, all contribute to the immediate appeal of the Sonata No. 8, Op. 13 ‘Pathéthique’. The slow introduction (the heavy opening chord ideally not bombastic but rather tragic or sorrowful) shows Beethoven a master wielder of a diverse emotional palette: there is much pain and pathos, but also nobility and hope, seamlessly interspersed with despair and crushing of said hope—all within a single page.
A quick descending run launches the movement proper, and the C minor mood immediately asserts itself. The merciless drive, the storm, the drama are all there, supported by sharply juxtaposed dynamics, a very fast tempo, and a series of special effects (e.g. the timpani tremolo imitation at the very beginning). Even the second subject—a kind of dialogue between the lower and the upper voices—doesn’t contrast as much as one could expect, as both the unremitting pulse and the sharp, spiky articulation go on. The exposition thus maintains an almost unified mood, with only the closing section bringing some lightening of spirits.
The change comes later, as the introduction returns, forming a buffer between the exposition and the development—an expected effect for us, overfamiliar as we are with the music, but one that was completely novel, and probably unsettling, for the first listeners. It shows Beethoven as a master dramaturge, and he will use it to create much suspense before the end of the movement, through a series of short phrases taken from the introduction, interspersed with long silences between them, before the Allegro’s final return, which closes the movement with a series of harsh, decisive chords.
The second movement feels like a refreshing drink after the dense, no-space-to-breathe intensity of the first. Its melody, beautifully natural and flowing, would not feel out of place in a Schubert Lied, and Beethoven enjoys it to the full, repeating it five times within the relatively short movement. Two episodes in minor keys come in between, the first delicate and subdued in its dynamic range (01:31), the second beginning very softly but then suddenly exploding in true Beethovenian fashion (02:47). A small masterpiece in its own right, the movement possesses an equanimity and refinement which also form a much-needed moment of respite, contrasting with the ‘dangerous’ outer movements.
The last movement, a rondo, though short, is nonetheless packed with musical material. The main theme (derived from the second subject of the first movement), fiery and impetuous despite the mostly soft dynamics, alternates with light-fingered, humorous, even playful episodes. This lightheartedness makes the seemingly inevitable return to the refrain and its worried, neurotic mood that much more impactful; the growing feeling of despair at the inability to escape this doom culminates in an explosive coda, crashing upon us with almost no build-up. It winds itself up into a frenzy, and then, at its most driven, halts; a series of short phrases follows, confident at first, but questioning and even imploring later; one final silence, and a hectic downward run finishes the movement and the sonata, reasserting the C minor mood at the very end.
If the Pathétique’s movements may be seen as forming one continuous narrative, the three movements of the Sonata No. 21, Op. 53 (known as Waldstein, after its dedicatee, Count von Waldstein, a close friend and early patron of Beethoven) seem to me to fall into two distinct groups: the energetic, taut as a wound spring Allegro con brio on one hand, and the expansive, poetic, highly imaginative finale with its slow introduction on the other.
Its very beginning is pulsation made melodic, brimming with barely-contained energy—the long row of repeated notes seemingly straining against the imposed meter, only content once they arrive at the short melodic figure in bar 3. It is immediately repeated higher up, forming a micro-dialogue before the main theme is relaunched, a full tone lower than in the beginning, adding colour to what is usually a neutrally coloured key (no sharps, no flats).
That short melodic figure will prove important later on, as Beethoven builds half the development section around it: first as an imitative narrative, then in a veiled, pianissimo section, and finally as material for a wonderful buildup, from a mysterious (though always driven) half-whisper and up to a blaze of brilliance leading back into the recapitulation. The other half of the development, incidentally, is built around a minor transition motif from the exposition, that Beethoven takes out of its anonymous existence and puts centre stage, repeating 12(!) times with nearly manic insistence in a wildly-modulatory section. This is one of Beethoven’s hallmarks: tiny musical building blocks developed beyond the limits of their perceived potential.
The second movement, a very slow atmospheric introduction to the finale, is at its heart a similar exploration of the opening motif: a longer note followed by an ascending interval, the three bound by a dotted rhythm (the same pattern that, some 18 years later, Beethoven will explore extensively in the second movement of his sonata Op. 111). Beethoven never hides his interest in the motifs he develops, and here, too, it is laid bare in the last third of the movement, as the motif builds up to a climax, climbing higher and higher, and then descends, calming down before the seamless transition into the finale.
The finale’s opening presents us with what was (intentionally, I believe) missing from the first movement—a long melody of true poetic beauty, earning the sonata its second, much more artistic nickname: ‘L’Aurora’, the dawn, as its gentle caress seemed to evoke the first colouring of the sky at daybreak. And day breaks indeed, with the sun appearing in all its glory at, above a blazing trill and a burst of energy in the left hand.
A string of episodes follow, most of them boisterous, finally leading into a frenzy of a coda. There, everything is extreme: the tempo (the indication, prestissimo—the fastest one there is—a marked contrast to the uncommonly held back Allegretto moderato of the movement proper), the dynamics, the accents, and, not least, the technical difficulty (culminating in an entire section of octave glissandi, which on modern pianos—their keys much heavier and deeper than those of Beethoven’s keyboards—often require inventive solutions).
Following the glissandi the frantic energy suddenly peters out, and the theme appears several times above a pianissimo trill and a gently flowing left hand. I’ve heard it said about this place that
material melts and becomes spirit, and it rings true to me; this forms an unexpected connection with Op. 111, as both this use of a trill—not ornamental, but part of the music’s core—and the concept of material-into-spirit will play a major role in that sonata’s second movement. Here, however, it is just a passing (though highly effective) episode, whereupon the dazzling energy returns and the sonata ends in full triumph.
At first glance, the first movements of the Sonata No. 32, Op. 111 and the Pathétique, its C minor predecessor of 24 years, share much genetic code. Both feature a slow, dramatic introduction (and are the only two piano sonatas of Beethoven to have one) in which dotted rhythms and diminished seventh chords play a prominent role. Both then launch into wildly driven Allegro con brio movements with relatively short developments.
However, many differences lie beneath the surface. While in the Pathétique several themes are presented and developed, the first movement of Op. 111 is almost completely monothematic. Its nucleus, a three-note motif which bursts out of the trill at the end of the introduction, followed by a descending line, is almost obsessively re-worked by Beethoven throughout the movement, building most of the exposition and recapitulation and all of the development. Only the short second theme, and the coda present new material.
Their impetus is of a different nature as well. In the Pathétique it is maintained throughout the fast sections, only halted by the reappearance of the slow introduction material—a formal separation, a clash of two contrasting worlds. In Op. 111 the hesitations, the slowing-down, the momentary releases of tension pervade the music: from the introduction, where Beethoven suddenly leaves aside gravity and drama and embarks on a questing journey towards the abstract, through the main theme section, as right after the first statement the theme is repeated more slowly and hesitatingly—a recurrent idea—and up to the second theme section, a free, fragmented line in itself, which slows down, and then stops completely; a beautiful frozen moment, before plunging back into the raging waters.
Finally the codas: the Pathétique’s final stormy restatement of the main theme is worlds apart from the new material introduced at the end of Op. 111’s first movement: a calming down of the storm and a gradual brightening, paving the way to the world of the second movement.
That movement, an Arietta with variations, is for me one of the absolute highlights of Beethoven’s music, profound, all-encompassing, utterly beautiful. The theme, belied by its name (‘a short aria’), is a prolonged slow melody, defined by its opening motif of three notes. Universal in its message, it nonetheless touches a very personal world in its second half, set in a minor key.
The first three variations that follow are, for me, a gradual awakening-to-life, culminating in the boundless drive of the third: the exuberance of youth, drunk on happiness and on the impossibility of defeat. (I respectfully but resolutely refuse to hear this variation as ‘jazz’, ‘ragtime’ or ‘boogie-woogie’ music, as it is often described—for me it is not a merrily unhinged ‘stomping dance’, but music which is completely and tightly held together).
Thereafter the movement makes a decisive turn: all earthly matters are left behind, and Beethoven embarks on a journey in very distant lands, be it outer space, or the farthermost reaches of the soul. An expansive double variation (its first half in the depths of the keyboard, its second floating at stratospheric heights) is followed by a transition (the main motif wonderfully hidden within the texture)—and then a standstill: a long trill appears, and the main motif is restated several times, above and below it. The trill gradually becomes the music itself, and the two hands separate, getting as far apart as was physically possible on Beethoven’s keyboard—a sound effect startlingly modern in its sparseness. A modulatory section follows, the only instance of Beethoven leaving the home key of C major in this movement; as if to make up for lost time, those ten bars cover a wide array of keys: a shifting, unstable harmonic world—but then how heartwarming the homecoming that follows!
That homecoming is both a recapitulation, with the theme restated in full, and a further development, building up to a powerful climax. The heart overflows—and at the point of utmost fullness, a trill returns, to become the core of the final, ethereal variation. It is probably the only possible continuation at this point, the trill simultaneously being the highest intensification of movement, and its complete absence.
At the movement’s end, after the final farewells seem to have been said, a duet of figurations appears, soaring higher and higher to reach the highest note of this movement—a high C—and immediately descends towards the final, sparse appearances of the main motif, and the gentle, nearly pastoral closing chords.
This C, which appeared several times in the first movement (not surprising, considering the key—Beethoven always uses the extremes of the keyboard, often to great effect) has not been played even once in the second movement prior to that moment. I never know whether to attribute importance, or indeed premeditation, to such ‘statistics’, but coming at the very end it seems to me to stand for something transcendent, which we, having made the arduous, transforming journey, are finally capable of touching for the briefest of moments—but never of holding permanently.
And this, for me, symbolises the movement itself—its truths both profoundly (and alluringly) simple and tantalisingly elusive, I believe it can never be held or known, not really, not fully. One derives tremendous satisfaction from travelling the paths, and an even greater one if at a certain performance a small glimpse of these truths can be gained, but always more remains to be found: an endless quest, a life’s worth of soul-enriching searching.
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