About this Recording
8.571254 - BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2 (Biret) - Nos. 3, 5, 18 (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 4)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Piano Sonatas, Volume 2
Sonata No. 3 in C major, Op. 2, No. 3
Sonata No. 5 in C minor, Op. 10, No. 1
Sonata No. 18 in E flat major, Op. 31, No. 3


Some years ago at London’s Tate Gallery, Beethoven’s own fortepiano was on display. I casually asked keyboard artist Melvyn Tan how much one could rely on certain commentaries from the composer’s time which stated that he reputedly broke instruments during performances of his early sonatas. He grinned, ruefully. “Not this one!”

Audiences certainly went wild during Beethoven’s own renderings of his Opus 2 Sonatas, which were dedicated to Joseph Haydn. Ferdinand Ries relates that in reply to a request from Haydn to add the words “Pupil of Haydn”, Beethoven expressed a lack of willingness: “Though I had some lessons, I never learned anything from him”, was his ungracious comment, though he admitted it would add slight lustre to his master’s concert in 1795, at which Beethoven was soloist in presumably the first version of his newly composed Piano Concerto No. 2.

The most virtuoso of the group of sonatas, Opus 2, No. 3 is renowned for its brightly-coloured thirds at the start of the Allegro con brio followed by a succession of fortissimo divided octaves that take over at bar 13. The second subject corresponds to a series of key changes, with bold passagework accompanied by twists, turns and accented phrases interrupting the natural vocal progress of new ideas and fresh rhetoric. This was the period when Beethoven, seated in his box at the opera, turned to a pianist lady friend offering to supply her with six easy variations to Paisiello’s Nel cor più non mi sento from La Molinara. Shortly afterwards came Rondo a Capriccio in G, immortalised by its title page Rage over a Lost Penny.

The G sharp major phrase that opens the Adagio second movement stimulated Tomášek, connoisseur of piano virtuosi, when he heard Beethoven play it in Prague. “The giant among pianoforte players”, was how he described him, but Beethoven had professed to have improved as a pianist, his distinguished melodic style of composition and expressive qualities transferring the tune to the left hand in stepping stone octaves at first, then bringing forth visions of plaintiveness by gently accented quavers prefaced by single semiquaver pedal notes. Like the previous movement, passages of sturm und drang introduce strong contrasts of feeling into the musical flow.

The Scherzo, at a true Allegro, is dominated by three-quaver group leading phrases which are cleverly imitated by the left hand. The procedure is reversed for the second subject, while the Trio section that follows exploits the pianist’s technique with continuous leaping arpeggios in the right hand. Of considerable interest is the coda, where exploding octaves mirror what comes later in Opp. 101/106.

An Allegro assai Finale increases the player’s responsibilities with daringly difficult semiquavers in both hands, and extremely fast quaver passages that dart in and out of major/minor situations with complete freedom. The culminating high D major trill and final octaves flourish are typical of Beethoven’s youthful exuberance.

The first of a group of three sonatas dedicated to the Countess von Browne, whose husband owned a riding stable (Op. 10, No. 3 is on IBA 002), the Sonata No. 5 in C minor, Op. 10, No. 1, was started in 1796 and ready for performance two years later.

Looking back to Mozart’s Sonata K457 in the same key, Op. 10, No. 1 has an obvious parallel with Beethoven’s famous ‘Pathétique’ Sonata Op. 13 with its far more dramatic flourishes and extended development. For its composer, C minor was to become a celebrated key signature; the everlasting popularity of the Fifth Symphony written ten years on was to dazzle players, critics and listeners on every occasion it was performed, yet this beautifully contained keyboard sonata in just three movements has no such intentions.

A conversational repartee is clearly evident in the opening stanza’s sudden, stark minor chords with upward leaps in dotted quavers linked to tender chordal replies. The clash of personalities, lasting until the fourth stave, terminates in three abrupt fortissimo statements, when an extended legato melody over a chordal bass accompaniment is introduced. The music moves into C major, interplaying main material from each subject, then both factions are brought together by combining with quicker moving quaver groups in the left hand. The resumption is in C major (interplaying with F minor) following the repeat and the double bar.

Compare the lovely central movement of Opus 13 with the incredibly bestilled tranquillity of the Adagio molto from Op. 10, No. 1. In the latter, attempts to transform its steady gait by added turns, trills, demisemiquaver right-hand flourishes, hardly detracts from its magnificent status of nobility. This is mastery of a special kind, somewhat akin to Leonora’s eternal love and saviour attitude towards Florestan, but giving little clue to Beethoven’s own, hidden passionate thoughts. Behind his grim visage, however, the music clearly reveals his purposeful male persona.

The Prestissimo Finale is something else with its jocular, dry witted pungency on a high scale. You can imagine the composer’s glasses slipping to the end of his nose as he endeavours to bring out every sforzando / fortissimo attack, while highlighting the many bizarre twists and turns that permeate every other bar. One immediately senses series of new innovations intending to shock, cajole and charm performers and audiences with their fresh feats of daring. Take the forte accents that end the first subject proper, then the calm plasticity of the reply motive, soon to be taken up in the maelstrom of a devilish development. The element of unrest is intentional, until the unexpected inclusion of a mysterious glissando chord—an interval of eleven notes in the bass register—just ten bars before the end. Then a pause on the tide note, followed by a further fortissimo glissando reply, at which point we return to Tempo 1 when the main theme reappears, piano. Beethoven’s method of delaying the music’s true message to the final bars is typified by this example.

Thayer informs us that in Breslau, January 1801: “The pianoforte players gladly venture upon Beethoven, and spare neither time or nor pains to conquer his difficulties. In June, the composer had more commissions, almost than was possible for him to fill”. Characteristically, he commented to his publishers: “I ask and they pay”.

The unknown student, who first entered Vienna in 1792, had become a recognized member of the great triumvirate—Haydn, Mozart, plus himself—by 1804 when he completed the third of his Opus 31 Sonatas. Two years earlier, Nageli of Zurich had applied to him for a number of sonatas for inclusion in a costly enterprise entitled Répertoire des Clavecinistes. With its bright, open key of E flat major, it was an obvious selection. It became known as “The Hunt”, with connections to Mozart’s String Quartet in B flat, K458 (1784) and Haydn in his Symphony No. 73 in D, “La Chasse”, two or three years earlier.

The writing is far more gemütlich in style and temperament compared to its predecessor—the so called “Tempest” Sonata – none of it slow paced; a scherzando styled second movement of Mendelssohnian sparkle and vivacity replacing the more usual Adagio slow movement. In place of the customary Scherzo third movement, Beethoven opted for a Menuetto instead.

The exploratory Allegro juxtaposes minor-major key hesitancies in the first six bars; a simple run up the scale repeats the same motives an octave higher. While hunt connections are linked to the last movement, perhaps red-coated sportsmen gathered by the fireside for the customary drink of punch, are present here. Swirling semiquavers and dotted groups of quavers denote a spirit of conviviality, while a B flat legato second subject—patterns of sixteenths (semiquavers) in the left hand—travels down in trills, then reverses upwards with high spirited sforzandi. Beethoven’s imaginative scope stems from the main subject’s return, right through the development. Freedom of harmonic colourings, profusion of phrasing and note values, sequences of C, A and D minor, all become part of the ongoing plan.

For the designated Scherzo, Allegretto vivace, 2/4, we have visions of horsemen exercising their animals in fast canters. Running bass figures depict continuing forward movement, until unconnected fortissimo chords—F major, D flat major later—promote new ventures, fresh departures.

In contrast, the Menuetto that follows, Moderato e grazioso, has more social connections, with a serenading top line that attempts to move into remoter climbs—C natural becoming C flat during the subject reply. The Trio, with interval chords of the seventh and ninth, is both original and charming.

The Finale plunges straightaway into the Presto con fuoco excitement of the hunt, relentless in its pursuit of sporting glories, with endless persuasions for suddenly deviating off course into successions of sharps, naturals, added flats. Fortissimo glissando chords just before the close hardly hold up the a tempo ending.


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