About this Recording
8.571251 - BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 1 (Biret) - Nos. 1, 2, 19, 20 (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 1)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Piano Sonatas, Volume 1
Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 2, No. 1 • Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 2, No. 2
Sonata No. 19 in G minor, Op. 49, No. 1 • Sonata No. 20 in G major, Op. 49, No. 2


Beethoven had arrived in Vienna in November 1792 under the auspices of Count Waldstein. After renting a piano, he was plunged into the world of aristocracy with its attendant luxuries, officialdom and exultations. His piano playing at various houses clearly showed outward emotions and reckless challenges in his cause for originality in conception. Clearly at odds with his ugliness in appearance, a pock-marked skin, flat nose and uneven teeth hardly detracted from music’s intended message. Coteries of female admirers, as well as envious males, were bowled over.

Enter Josef Wolfll, native of Salzburg and pupil of Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang’s father. His good looks, enormous hands and dreamy, pleasant humour and greater accuracy as a performer may have swayed the issue. Instead, he and Beethoven became firm friends and competed with one another at Baron Raimund von Wetzlar’s resplendent Roman villa, where audiences took sides.

Having played most of Bach’s Well-Tempered Klavier, served his period as Court Organist and Pianist, Beethoven stuck firmly to the pianoforte and began his studies with Joseph Haydn and Albrechtsberger. Then, a short article appeared in the Jahrbuch der Tonkunst für Wien und Prag, 1796, obviously written during the spring of the year before, which read: “We have a number of beautiful sonatas by him, amongst which the last ones particularly distinguish themselves”. Already well-known in manuscript, they were ready for Haydn to hear them performed by their composer at a Prince Lichnowsky morning concert. Their dedication at the head of each of the three reads Joseph Haydn gewidmet, and in 1798 Tomaschek was to hear Beethoven, “the giant among pianoforte players”, perform excerpts when he came to Prague for a concert at the Konviktssaal.

Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 2, No. 1, reflects the composer’s ever-consistent efforts to perfect his own playing. The precise, abrupt opening, with its compact style of writing rises from middle C to high A flat, then in repeat phrases to a chord of C minor. The reply motive features semiquaver turns that first evolve in dramatic octaves, then legato crotchets and three-quaver groupings balanced by four equal measures in the left-hand. The writing and overall mood soon becomes more elaborate. After the repeat, Beethoven restarts his main theme a third higher, but everything remains beautifully self-contained and tightly constructed until the final sforzando chords. The serenely graceful Adagio that follows glances back to late Mozart, the key moving into D minor then slowly being persuaded back by trills and turns into the tonic by series of semiquaver legato flourishes. One immediately senses Beethoven’s intended forward progress in his future sonata writings. The graceful Menuetto movement, the left hand subtly imitating the right, and gently-rippling Trio section has its own simplicity, but the Prestissimo finale with its wild Sturm und Drang start, a lessening of tensions, then eternal sweetness in the middle part, strongly suggests the pianist-composer out to impress.

The playful nonchalance and charming asides of the opening movement of Sonata No. 2 in A major, Op. 2, No. 2, with Beethoven, as in Op. 1, No. 1, modifying his themes by inverting subject matter almost at will, shows him growing in confidence by leaps and bounds. The immediate open quality in approach, combined with an astuteness for wandering over an extended key range has the music surging upwards then descending intermittently in both hands, alternately. It must have had audiences holding on to their seats. The main source of drama commences half way. The stateliness of the Largo appassionato, three measures of tenuto sempre per bar (right hand) to identical measures of staccato (left hand), linked to a graceful swan-like reply that emphasises the note F sharp an octave above, is surely unique, and almost chamber like in its middle-voice harmonization as the structure gradually unfolds. The crashing D minor chords two-thirds through build ominously, but the atmosphere becomes just as suddenly transfused by light as the musical line takes flight independently of the maelstrom that preceded it. Something similar occurs in the following Scherzo movement, where piquant rising semiquaver statements, reiterated in the left hand, include a legato Trio in minor mode. Yet, the Rondo finale, Grazioso in the extreme, embellishes, improvises, then extends its perorations almost beyond belief with successions of semiquaver phrases rising continually upwards—so much so that both mind and imagination are caught up in extremities of sheer delight by the time it is all over.

Both the sonatas that form Opus 49 were probably started in 1796 and completed by 1797–8. Although they are described as ‘Easy Sonatas’, much care has to be taken in performance. Beethoven held them back for publication in 1802, but they did not appear in print until three years later. Gustav Nottebohm verifies that they were finished before the “Pathétique” Sonata Op. 13 and the String Trio, Op. 9, No. 3, and certainly Beethoven’s only full-scale Sonata for four hands in D major, Op. 6, appeared during this period. Beethoven’s nephew Carl attempted to interest André Offenbach in their publication, but they subsequently appeared in an imprint by the Bureau d’Arts et d’Industrie, with an announcement to that effect in the Wiener Zeitung.

There is a slight element of sadness in the opening movement of the Sonata in G minor, Op. 49, No. 1. At first, it suggests itself as an even-paced Andante of calm tender feelings, but the composer gradually varies his writing—decorative semiquavers and turning phrases in the right hand, semiquaver accompaniment in the left. The second subject is bolder, but any key changes are brief in order that the shape and tightness of the construction is maintained. The Rondo Allegro second movement moves to the major key, the mood light-hearted and playful. One has to be careful not to decrease the tempo after the double bar when the accompaniment switches from quavers to semiquavers for the reply subject. The winding subject is pushed up a third to heighten the tension, but when the main theme returns, Beethoven combines his notation, interplaying the D above G as a kind of pleading motive to take us calmly into the coda.

Sonata No. 20, Op. 49, No. 2 continues in the key of G major, its Allegro, ma non troppo first movement a lovely graceful turning melody in Alla breve (2/2). The pace ‘sounds’ faster when Beethoven continues his legato introduction in triplet quavers and moves into D major. Following the double bar, we move into the minor key briefly, then drop back into the tonic for a partial recapitulation, sidestepping into B major-F-G sharp-F sharp, before floating gracefully over alternate keys (A-G-D-F-G) and suddenly finding ourselves back at base. The caressing Tempo di Menuetto contains an exquisite ‘pendulum’ accompaniment figure that introduces stately calmness to the proceedings. The pace quickens for the reply subject, moving into C-C sharp-D—just as if we were being given a private viewing of valuable treasures in some resplendent palace and half-watching dancers in the distance, rehearsing for the evening’s entertainment. The final surprise is delayed until thirteen bars before the end: The main subject becomes G-F natural, steadily climbing downwards, and features three charming semiquaver droplets, A-C, G-B, F sharp-A, prior to an elaborate close.

Bill Newman

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