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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 6 (Biret) - Nos. 4, 8, 27 (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 12)
“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
“Idil Biret has recently recorded Liszt’s transcriptions of Beethoven’s nine Symphonies for EMI. Her superbly authentic performance of the 5th Symphony, heard at her Herkülessaal recital in Munich, received a thunderous reception.” Münchner Merkur
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Piano Sonatas, Volume 6
Sonata No. 4 in E flat major, Op. 7 • Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 (Pathétique)
Sonata No. 27 in E minor, Op. 90
Artaria announced the publication date of the Sonata in E flat major, Op. 7, in the Wiener Zeitung as 7 October 1797. The dedicatee is Countess Babett Keglevich, a Beethoven pupil who married Prince Innocenz Odescalchi in Pressburg. Her nephew wrote: “The Sonata was composed for her when she was still a maiden. It was one of the whims, of which he (Beethoven) had many, that, living as he did vis-à-vis, he came in morning gown, slippers and tasseled cap (Zipfelmutze) to give her lessons.”
The impassioned mood of the first movement that Czerny speaks of lasts throughout. In two sections, the first repeated, one hears more than glimpses of later named sonatas—the “Moonlight”, “Pathétique”, “Waldstein” and “Appassionata”. Opus 53’s opening, repeated motto theme is clearly evident in the left-hand’s continuous E flat rhythm at the start, although there is no feeling of gradual exploitation, instead rather a coursing of dynamic energies fed by different wind currents that ‘shift’ all logical workout in varying directions. Such matters are resolved finally in the closing stages. Peruse the score, and you will find only one complete rest marking, and the pianist’s hands will be worn out half way through.
Largo, con gran espressione, combining pace and feeling, is the exact opposite; the problem here is the exact length of the silences as and when rest markings correspond to a change of expression or contrast of subject. The start is majestic, magnificent—two notes, three-note dotted reply. Second time round, the first and third notes in the bar are dotted, which leads naturally to the complete melodic phrase, and the prophetic reply figure. Compare with the Funeral March from the “Eroica” Symphony, for similarity of workout. Both fortissimo (attaccas) in chords and the several pianissimo-piano passages come straight from the passions of grand opera. After a typical tenuto extended passage over staccato left hand semiquavers, high pianissimo ‘replies’ prefaced by tiny grace note patterns bleat out poignantly straight from the inner soul. The end is bleak, solemn and foreboding.
In contrast, the remaining movements are joyfully pastoral in character. The main theme of the Allegro could be designated a happy working-song, but when Beethoven subjects it to variant treatment, simplicity momentarily gives way to philosophizing. The Trio section is rambunctious, rather like the lead in to the Storm section of Symphony No. 6 at a much later date. The Rondo Finale is characterized by a melody of loving sequences introduced by a dotted ‘leaning’ figure that frames much of what follows. Unexpectedly we are transported via B flat, B natural into C minor for a stormy interlude with repeats, before an extended ritardando leads us passively back to the calmness of the beginning.
Following the creation of the three Opus 10 Sonatas during 1796–8, the remainder of 1798 and 1799 were important periods in Beethoven’s instrumental output. We sense, already, the forthcoming early Opus 18 String Quartets and the First Symphony in the large-scale, spacious layout of the opening movement of Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 (Pathétique), with its sturm und drang urgency and terse utterance, the calm nobility of the central movement and the self-contained, expressive clearness of the Finale.
Unlike the overall titles “Moonlight” and “Appassionata” in later sonatas, Beethoven himself aptly chose “Pathétique” for his Opus 13, dedicated to Prince Lichnowsky and published by Eder in Vienna during 1799, then later by Hoffmeister who announced it on 18 December the same year. Sketches for the final Rondo finale appear alongside the String Trio, Op. 9, and a fair copy of the later published Sonata Op. 49, No. 1, in Beethoven’s sketchbook, while we also know that the range of the pianoforte in the latter part of the eighteenth century spanned five octaves (F to F), from the evidence of the composer’s C major Concerto completed in 1798.
Two true stories have come down to us from the years, shortly following. One concerns the reliable Ignaz Moscheles, then under the guidance and tuition of Dionysius Weber, founder and director of the Prague Music Conservatory. Fearing that the reading of new music would injure his pupil’s systematic development of pianoforte playing, Weber prohibited the use of that institution’s library, planning instead a study of Mozart, Clementi and J.S. Bach’s music, as laid down by an express condition of Moscheles’ parents. The young man, though, gained access to the library through his pocket money.
“It was about this time that I learnt from some school-fellows that a young composer had appeared in Vienna who wrote the oddest stuff possible—such as no one could either play or understand. Crazy music, in opposition to all rules; and this composer’s name was Beethoven. On repairing to the library to satisfy my curiosity about this so-called eccentric genius, I found there Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique. This was in the year 1804…I secretly copied it. The novelty of its style was so attractive to me…I became so enthusiastic…I forgot to mention my new acquisition to my master…I seized upon the piano works of Beethoven as they successively appeared, and in them found a solace and delight such as no other composer afforded.”
Carl Czerny, probably in 1800, after playing Mozart’s C major Concerto, K503, then the Opus 13 Sonata followed by the song “Adelaide” in his father’s rendition, was firmly accepted as Beethoven’s pupil. He recalled the disorderly appearance—papers, clothing, hardly a chair—saving the wobbly one at the Walter fortepiano—and “Beethoven himself wore a morning coat of some longhaired dark grey material, and trousers to match…his coal black hair, cut à la Titus, bristled shaggily about his head. His beard—he had not shaved for several days—made the lower part of his already brown face still darker…he had cotton wool, which seemed to have been steeped in a yellowish liquid, in his ears. At that time, however, he did not give the least evidence of deafness.”
The stately build-up in the opening stanzas of the Grave, briefly embracing the relative E major en route, spans a range of two octaves before a downward scale connects with the extended Molto allegro e con brio that provides ongoing propulsive surges of energy to form the main core of activity throughout. The astute listener will note the similarity in thematic material between the two interlinked sections, Beethoven exploring and extending his notation and dynamic range in contrary directions, introducing answering motives through bass clef interjections and constantly employing dramatic turns in leading phrases. Second time round, the truncated Grave repeat reappears in G minor with the restart of the Molto allegro in E minor, but on this occasion the peroration drops rapidly back to the home key. The composer further condenses his ideas, the final statement of both subjects briefer and more dramatic, preparing for the fortissimo coda.
Beethoven’s popularity poll rose considerably when the Adagio cantabile became the focal point of the World War II British film “The Seventh Veil” starring James Mason and Ann Todd. Here again the composer readapts main subject material in poetic fashion for a rising-falling theme of great beauty in A flat. Note the tender second subject commencing in C minor at the end of the sixteenth bar, and the faster falling phrases of sad poignancy. The return of the main subject opens out in majestic fashion, turning tenderness into passion and pulling back slightly for the simple close.
The Rondo Finale finds us on a knife edge in sudden darts of visionary fancy with dramatic changes of state, such as the forte-piano minim chords that introduce new key changes, fresh ideas. Beethoven keeps his dynamic levels fairly restricted until a high F prepares us for the return of the first subject.
From then onwards excitement mounts steadily—rippling arpeggios, bold alternating phrases extending into higher registers—before calming for the extended coda. The composer reserves his final dramatic outbursts for the close—a crescendo upsurge followed by punctuated fortissimo chords, a second passionate buildup of forces, then a sudden quietening prior to the sweeping ending.
Although a period of five years had elapsed between the composition of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 81a and the Sonata No. 27 in E minor, Op. 90, in just two complementary movements, the composer had by no means been idle.
Opus 90 dates from 1814, but in 1809 Six Variations on an original theme, eventually better known as the Turkish March from The Ruins of Athens, appeared in honour of a newly discovered friend, Franz Oliva. Then, in 1810 came the romantic miniature Für Elise, that tiny Bagatelle featuring an endless repeating melody that suggests charming associations—not perhaps a young lady called Elise, but one called Therese Malfatti, whom Beethoven wished to marry. Just before the new sonata, though, quite a different piano work was composed for the Congress of Vienna: Polonaise in C, Op. 89, with its suitably extrovert rhythm that must have delighted the Empress of Russia when Beethoven presented it to her.
The E minor Sonata, however, is far more significant in the way it identifies itself as the beginning, or threshold, of Beethoven’s so-called “third period” style of composition. One is immediately confronted with the ageing, deaf composer voicing deeper philosophical thoughts from which original ideas unfold or spring forth at will, constantly involving the listener as the scene changes to new vistas, different standpoints, fresh challenges.
Sketches for the first movement appear in Beethoven’s Dessauer sketchbook in the Archives of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, which primarily contains revisions of his opera Fidelio. The sonata was dedicated to Count Moritz Lichnowsky, brother of Prince Karl, who originally came into Beethoven’s orbit in June 1799.
A pupil of Mozart, he was a skilful pianist and an influential party member who recognized, defended and praised the originality of his new friend’s music.
Schindler speaks of the “Noble Count” from Beethoven’s final years, but in 1814 the composer was to reply to a letter from Count Moritz, where he addresses him as “Worthy and honoured Count and friend!…I see that you still persist in overwhelming me with kindnesses. As I do not want you to think that a step which I have taken was prompted by a new interest or anything of that kind, I tell you that a new sonata of mine will soon appear which I have dedicated to you. I wanted to surprise you, for the dedication was set apart for you a long time ago, but your letter of yesterday leads me to make the disclosure now…”
Whether or not one hears the first movement as “a struggle between the heart and the head”, there is no denying the regality of the chordal opening, or the controlled drama of the remainder with its octave chords (in tempo) leading to series of key changes, where sforzandi chords followed by descending scales are transformed into lyrical passagework involving semiquaver decorations, interruptions and an extended development on a large scale. In contrast, its companion movement Non troppo presto e molto cantabile is close knit in style and content in the key of E major—first, kept under control by pedal octaves, then by a succession of rippling semiquavers in the left hand. The right carries the legato melody, which is either in the form of decorative semiquavers, octave chords or single notes. Beethoven is clever in the way he introduces quavers in intervals of the third and fifth to give more dominance to sudden key changes. The gentle accelerando at the close, followed by the a tempo in the final two bars, is magical.
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