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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 4 (Biret) - Nos. 23, 28, 31 (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 8)
‘Biret grasps the size of Beethoven’s style. The polyphony is laid out in a relaxed way with little indulgence in point making. She keeps the big line and yet is thankfully sparing in her use of fortissimos. The piano tone is sumptuous. Biret’s gentle and almost sensuous sonorities are really captivating. One is reminded that her mentor has been Wilhelm Kempff. (Gramophone) ‘Idil Biret gives an impressive performance. A supreme mastery of tempi, sonorities, polyphony and technique permits Biret—a disciple of Alfred Cortot—to embrace all the moods of Beethoven and gives her playing a symphonic depth rarely heard until now. (Le Nouvel Observateur)
By David Denton
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Piano Sonatas, Volume 4
Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 (Appassionata)
Sonata No. 28 in A major, Op. 101
Sonata No. 31 in A flat major, Op. 110
Beethoven’s Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57, ‘Appassionata’, dedicated to Count Franz von Brunswick, has its basis in opera. This, and its predecessor Opus 54 are contained in the “Leonore” sketchbook for the master opera that eventually became Fidelio, and Thayer verifies that actual sketches for all the later work’s movements “are sandwiched in to plans for the last act”. What is even more revealing and somewhat amusing is Ferdinand Ries’s description of a long walk with Beethoven that deviated from their return to Döbling, where the composer was living in 1804, because “he had been all the time humming and sometimes howling, always up and down, without singing any definite notes”. “A theme for the last movement has occurred to me”, Beethoven replied, running to his pianoforte, tearing his hat off and ignoring his young friend, “I cannot give you a lesson today, I must do some more work!”
Interpretive challenges influenced past master pianists, Lamond, Schnabel, Serkin, Kempff, Fischer, Backhaus, Gieseking, Arrau, and Rubinstein, in various ways, so that the choice of speeds became a matter of concern, with the use of rubato for ‘theatrical’ broadenings, and even in isolated instances the ignoring of that essential last movement repeat, so important for structural reasons. But admirable as these performers are, there has been a leavening of simplicity in recent years in accordance with the basic sonata-form lay-out. Somehow the tight-knit mystery of the so-called “Tempest” Sonata that contrasts with the joyously expressive “Waldstein”, culminates in a sustained torrent of tempestuous passions during Opus 57.
Beethoven’s publisher Cranz gave it the name “Appassionata”, yet the contained brilliance is only released at the end of bar 14 in a series of forte arpeggios followed by rising fortissimo chords of considerable violence. Following these the music softens for the introduction of the first movement main theme in the major, radiating a confidence which is speedily interrupted by an extended F minor sequence that moves to a more consoling G flat. With the left hand firmly in control, dramatic moves to higher spheres and sweeping semiquaver passage-work come to a partial close on four Adagio chords, an obvious invitation to end proceedings with a vehement Più allegro reply and a return to the main subject that eventually dies away on a pianissimo chord.
The middle movement in D flat is marked Andante con moto, consisting of a theme and four variations. Essentially straightforward, the note values at the beginning of Variation 1 might allow for a slight quickening of pace, but this is debatable. As in the “Waldstein” Sonata, Beethoven introduces his Finale with an ‘attacca’ arpeggio chord. The stresses are G flat–F minor/D flat–C in the form of chordal progressions linked by patterns of semiquavers. The overall marking, Allegro, ma non troppo, is exactly right, and the Presto section of the final measures involves the listener in a peroration of exciting events that reaches an abrupt and breathless close.
The dedication of Sonata No. 28 in A major, Op.101, is to Baroness Dorothea Ertmann, renowned for sensitive readings of Beethoven’s sonatas. The word Pianoforte is replaced, for the first time, by the German Hammerklavier, denoting the piano action. While there are no sketches for the first movement, those for the second originally appeared in the sketchbook belonging to Eugen von Miller of Vienna (now part of the Koch collection). Sketches for the Finale are in the Berlin Library. The first in the series of late, great sonatas, completed in 1816, the Sonata in A major is essentially the most exact, compact and expressive, requiring immense skill in choice of tempi, flow, touch and use of rubato. It is so finely balanced throughout—and this includes repeat sections—that any deviation from Beethoven’s markings or failure to control one’s ardour can ruin everything. Beauty then becomes, instead, a travesty of misplaced accents, desperate leaps and wrong judgments.
Intimacy is suggested from the outset with the key of A major clearly stated in bar 3. The legato phrases dovetail to the a tempo four bars further on, which starts on C sharp rising to B sharp, continuing with carefully notated arch-like formations and sequences of chords mostly on intervals of the fifth and octave, providing ecclesiastical devoutness and nobility to the text. Allegretto, ma non troppo, con intimissimo sentimento at the head of the score should be used in conjunction with Beethoven’s clearly intended ‘espressivo e semplice’.
The second movement, Vivace alla marcia, is full of perilous leaps in both hands; typical of the composer’s pugnacious humour, with sudden sly, slippery asides in the change from sharps to flats at the start of the second subject following the repeat. I cannot think of another parallel anywhere, or the supremely beautiful dolce central subject with its extended trill on high F.
Beethoven introduces the words ‘con affetto’ at the head of his Adagio movement, a piece of inspired genius, half cantilena, half extemporisation. The mini-cadenza (non presto) that links it to the start of Finale proper—typical of Chopin and Liszt at a later date—is followed by an elegant bridge section, a sudden Presto complete with trills above stunned chords, then we are literally plunged into the final section.
The glorious ebullience of the writing is typical of the composer’s wide ranging personality. He alternates themes, throwing his material in every conceivable direction while incorporating an intriguing fugue subject into the mêlée before resolving his forces into a grand conclusion. There is never a note out of place.
In a letter to Ignaz von Mosel, dated Vienna 1817, Beethoven states the following: “I have often thought of giving up these absurd terms allegro, andante, adagio, presto. Mälzel’s metronome gives us an excellent opportunity to do so. I give you my word, in my future compositions I shall not use them”. Not quite true!
The score heading of Sonata No.31 in A flat major, Op.110, reads Moderato cantabile, molto espressivo, with an additional request ‘con amabilità’, denoting warmth of understanding for the singing A flat harmonies in the four-bar introduction, a first subject that follows which soars aloft, and a variant of the same melody in demisemiquaver groupings that leads to the transition. The sonata has no dedication, but Beethoven wrote “December 25, 1821” on the score autograph. Sketches are to be found following the Agnus Dei from the Missa Solemnis, begun the same year. Schindler, however, discovered evidence that the composer intended dedicating his final two keyboard sonatas to Madame Brentano.
Basically, the opening movement consists of architectural layers that build upwards and outwards at the same time. With renewed strength of purpose, Beethoven re-examines his material over changing order sequences, signposting each fresh attempt, i.e. this originally comes in bar 25, where crescendo left-hand trills set the first change in motion. The same thing recurs later, but continuity is never harmed even at the expense of music occasionally wandering from the tonic.
The second movement in the relative minor key, F minor, a Scherzo substitute, like Opus 109, is marked simply Molto allegro, yet the soft, questing opening stanza and brutal reply figure are really turned on their heads during the middle section where crotchet sforzando leaps and running quaver figures nearly cause havoc and consternation to the musical line. After the Scherzo repeat, the Coda has stark open chords which fade away on the ritard.
The Adagio, ma non troppo, with Beethoven’s specific annotations, is one of those unique creations that defies description, yet the order of subject matter from the mysterious chordal opening embraces a Recitative, Più adagio, Andante, Adagio (twice), and Meno adagio through to a most poignantly sad Arioso dolente. The scene is set for the magnificent Fuga ending, with its succession of crescendoing chords and fade-away, and the inverted fugue which skilfully avoids any introspective byways to break out in unbelievable ongoing passions of heroism. Such music is akin to paradise.
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