About this Recording
8.571267 - BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 8 (Biret) - Nos. 11, 16 and 17 (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 17)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Piano Sonatas, Volume 8
Sonata No. 11 in B flat major, Op. 22
Sonata No. 16 in G major, Op. 31, No. 1
Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31, No. 2 “Tempest”


The Sonata in B flat major, Op. 22 made an indelible impression on me when the late Georges Cziffra programmed it in his Royal Festival Hall London recital back in the late 1950s. Its dedicatee Count Georg von Browne-Camus (1767–1827) came from an old Irish family. He was employed by Empress Catherine II in the Russian Imperial Service, and became severely affected by his large wealth. Johannes Buel, his tutor described him as “One of the strangest of men, full of excellent talents and beautiful qualities of heart and spirit—on the one hand. On the other, he was full of weakness and depravity.” Beethoven dedicated four works to him, and three to his wife the Countess. During 1798 and 1803 he became closely associated with the family.

The grandness of its four movements, following the brusque Allegro con brio start, is clearly shown. In 1800, the composer was working on his First Symphony, Septet and Opus 18 String Quartets, and right hand semiquaver groups rise to high B flat for a short lived cantabile melody, whose brief appearance and abbreviated reply is the result of a superabundance of counterpoint that plunges in and out of various keys at breakneck speed. The writing is largely semitonal, couched in a tense, virtuoso manner and highly suggestive of the Count’s high life style and ebullience. The turns on leading note phrases (B flat, D major) in the fourth stave signify a sign post for further embellishments, Beethoven alternating his material throughout both hands by patterning his running 16ths semiquavers with rising scales, and incorporating thematic links to bridge the gaps. The reprise (in a different key) combines with the development to provide added colorations and complexities.

The Adagio con molta espressione, 9/8 is Italianate in character, crescendoing to high B flat, then C in the opening stanza. During the following section, one notices those tiny falls of hesitancy (dotted crotchet-quaver)—six in all—that made Paisiello and Rossini so famous. Slightly later, Beethoven incorporates florid scales into his textures, with decorative 16th semiquaver clusters surrounding the melody during the emotional transitions of the middle part. The whole is so beautiful that he gets away with it. For the pianist it is a field day!

The Menuetto is sheer delight. I am reminded of pleasurable narratives contained in the literature of Anthony Trollope and Mary Elizabeth Braddon—there is so much gemütlich in the first B flat statement. The reply figure is like older women commenting from the wings, but the real surprise comes in the minor section where the running G minor bass line foreshadows sforzandi chords—D, G, F sharp, C sharp, E flat—all running the gauntlet before returning to the charm of the start.

The Rondo, Allegretto, 2/4, is another charmer, initially in the form of a résumé, but becoming increasingly bolder in the use of octaves, 3-part chords, and demisemiquavers in an attempt to leaven proceedings, before throwing caution to the winds in the profuseness of notation that comprises the drama of the central development. Beethoven finally unwinds, ending on a note of triumph.

The year 1802 was a momentous one in Beethoven’s life. Evidence of his loss of hearing was confirmed by Ferdinand Ries. “Let us go for a short walk” said the composer. Both men would start at 8 am after breakfast, and after some meal in a country village not return until 3 or 4 o’clock. Ries would comment about a shepherd agreeably piping in the woods, his flute constructed from elder. Beethoven for half an hour could hear nothing, becoming extremely quiet and morose.

In the seclusion of Heiligenstadt, with Dobling near by, the composer wrote the famous Testament for his two brothers, Carl Caspar and Johann, discovered after his death among the papers of Stephen von Breuning. Carl had the effrontery to call himself Beethoven’s ‘Royal Imperial Treasury Official’. Unable to resist interfering with the composer’s private affairs, Ries confirms that both brothers “sought, in particular, to keep all his intimate friends away from him, and no matter what wrongs they did him, of which he was convinced, they cost him only a few tears and all was immediately forgotten.”

In one of several letters to Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovecz, written on a strip of coarse writing paper, Beethoven obviously had new keyboard sonatas in mind: “…I am pestered by the whole swarm of pianoforte makers wishing to serve me—and gratis. Thus Reicha was urgently begged by the man who made a pianoforte for him to persuade me to let him make me one, and he is one of the better people…Give him to understand therefore that I will pay him 30 florins, whereas I might have had one from all the others for nothing…on condition that it be of mahogany, and I also want the one string (una corda) pedal…I shall also introduce him to Haydn so that he may see his instrument…piano. ”

There are sketches for the first two of the three Opus 31 Sonatas in the Kessler sketchbook, showing that they originated in 1801/2. Beethoven promised publication to Nägeli of Zurich, despite Carl wanting to send them to a Leipzig firm. Nägeli’s Répertoire des Clavecinistes features No. 1 as Cahier 5 in the Spring of the following year.

Although it is acknowledged that the second “Tempest” Sonata has grabbed the attention with its overall drama and pathos, the first of the group in G major has interesting features. The semi-quaver flourish at the start of the Allegro vivace 2/4 movement provides the basic motivic idea quoted throughout, while right hand dotted chords—with interplaying left-hand octaves—becomes the reply figure. The composer repeats his initial statement a tone down, as in the “Waldstein” Sonata at a later date. Starting in B major and moving into the minor, the more detached, lyrical second subject (quavers linked to semiquavers) is more playful-serious in its slight condensations of the tune. After the repeat, the material is turned into a mini-development of key changes and extended ideas, while at the close, Beethoven delights us with alternations of very quiet (19 bars), very loud (4)—closing on piano.

The incredible grace and dignity of the central Adagio grazioso is established straightaway in the first nine bars—from the C major trill extending upwards to A, eight notes above. Beethoven switches his effortless melody to the left hand, introducing measured semiquaver groups (leggieramente) into the right. During the minor central section, a tonal drop again takes place, but when one expects C minor to establish itself, the composer cleverly skirts round it, changing key frequently and bringing 16ths semiquavers more into the picture. After one enormous cadenza swirl, we hear the tune down in the low bass, prior to rising high up at the close.

The Rondo Allegretto finale is one of those innocent tunes—an opening linked to an answering melody, rather like a gentle roundelay—which is afforded the same extraordinary treatment as in previous movements. The regular pulse is given an upsurge when Beethoven not only transforms his melody into the other hand, but brings in vigorous arpeggios, successions of tremolo octaves and bold sforzando chords to colour the text. It then becomes a kind of competition—bouts of Adagio and Tempo I giving way to a final Presto, full of jesting good humour.

Op. 31, No. 2 in D minor, and its predecessor—the G major, Op. 31, No. 1—were published by Nägeli of Zurich in 1803. Although there is no dedication, both were the cause of friction between Beethoven and his brother Carl. The title of Nägeli’s publication was Répertoires des Clavecinistes, Cahier 5, and proof sheets were submitted. When Ferdinand Ries played through the sonata to Beethoven, he jumped up in rage, half-shoving him from the piano stool: “where the devil do you find that?” Instructions were given, forthwith, to send the sonatas to Simrock in Bonn with a note of all the errors. A further note was made to Ries: “Not only are the expression marks poorly indicated but there are also false notes in several places—therefore be careful! or the work will again be in vain. Ch’a detto l’amato bene?”

Three years earlier Beethoven was living in his old quarters in the Tiefen Graben. The Bohemian composer Wenzel Krumpholz had introduced him to the 20-year-old Johann Nepomuk Emanuel Doležalek, who hailed from Chotieborz, Bohemia, in Vienna to have lessons from Beethoven’s old teacher Albrechtsberger. Unwisely, Doležalek casually consulted Beethoven about the correctness of a passage in Opus 31, No. 2. “Certainly it is, but you are a countryman of Krumpholz—nothing will go into that hard Bohemian head of yours!!”

“Read Shakespeare’s The Tempest Beethoven told Schindler, referring to the Opp. 31, No. 2 / 57, “Appassionata” Sonatas. Denis Matthews likens the opening movement of the so-called “The Tempest” to Prospero, the second to Miranda. “The piano must break” said its composer, referring to the colossal onsurge of ideas ranging from the out of space Largo, at the start, to the ensuing Allegro, interrupted by central restatements of the phantom-like opening—twice after the repeat prior to a fortissimo modulation; then a page later when it is transformed into a poignant recitative con espressione e semplice. The ending is stark, ominous.  The Adagio middle movement (B flat major), largely confined to the lower register, is mainly calm, its dungeon-deep colorations occasionally bestirred by left hand tremolos and flickering arpeggios. Note the crescendo-piano turn at the close.

Hardly anything disturbs the incessant repetition of the four note figures of the final Allegretto—albeit linking semiquavers at modulatory points. Schubert must have been totally influenced, also by the quiet ending.

Bill Newman

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