About this Recording
8.571268 - BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 9 (Biret) - Nos. 26, 30, 32 (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 18)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Piano Sonatas, Volume 9

Sonata No. 26 in E flat major, Op. 81a (Les adieux)
Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109
Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111


With the French invasion of Vienna imminent, on May 4, 1809 the Empress left the city with her family. Beethoven’s friend and patron Archduke Rudolf accompanied her, and his departure is signified in the opening movement of the Sonata Op. 81a. The composer’s emotions are deeply felt from the opening measures, the three descending notes crying out their message of Le-bewohl! in espressivo style, while the succeeding Allegro graphically depicts the fresh journey ahead. Beethoven’s manuscript has this inscription: ‘The Farewell, Vienna, May 4 1809, on the departure of His Imperial Highness the revered Archduke Rudolph’ while on the Finale we read: ‘The Arrival of His Imperial Highness the revered Archduke Rudolph, January 30, 1810’. In between, comes Beethoven’s most starkly poignant central movement since the ‘Waldstein’ Op. 53. The grieving minor-mode opening, here describes the great man’s absence like some sad cantilena from opera seria, building up hope for a speedy return as the music gradually attains proud heights.

You can picture poor Beethoven hiding in the Rauhensteingasse during the ensuing battle and eventual occupation by the French. As he told Ries: ‘I spent the greater part of the time in a cellar in the house of my brother Caspar. I covered my head with pillows so as not to hear the cannons.’ This further precaution was to ensure that his feeble hearing was not more severely impaired, although he was not to know that the cannons on the bastions or on the streets were not, in fact, fired at all! While Archduke Rudolf had sent him 750 florins, and Prince Lobkowitz a further 350, the pressures of isolation before Vienna became free once again took their toll on his energy. It was another five years before he wrote another keyboard sonata. Meanwhile, on February 10th 1810, Beethoven offered three sonatas to Breitkopf and Härtel—Opp. 78, 79 and 81a, all connected with time and place, but the last was to be published separately from the others. In 1811, the year of the ‘Archduke’ Trio, we find the composer making further revisions for his publisher’s engravers, along with the ‘Emperor’ Piano Concerto, Fantasia, Op. 80 and the Ariettes and Sonatas Opp. 82/83. All this, and his duties towards Archduke Rudolph to whom he apologised for his absence, on the grounds of a tormenting headache, during a two week period.

Opus 81a is very much a Sonata in the Grand Manner. Denis Matthews likens the opening to two horns playing in unison, while the opening of the Allegro with its tenuto indications sounds like one large orchestral fanfare. As it progresses, one can make later comparisons with the symphonic writing of Robert Schumann, i.e. Overture, Scherzo and Finale, and the ‘Rhenish’ Symphony, as the richly scored interlinked motifs progress into various key sequences in exciting fashion.

Of special interest in the central Andante espressivo is the brief appearance of the cantabile motif in the fourth stave, which soon moves back into the minor key. When Beethoven restates it, following an eloquent bridge transition, he lowers the pitch by one tone, before working his opening theme upwards for his bold chordal entry into the final Vivacissimamente movement. The brilliance of the writing here, is unsurpassed, broken up and urged onwards afresh by single sforzando notes in unison, grace note-turns and a profusion of semiquavers in either hands.

In 1820 Beethoven moved back to Mödling, and a new house in the Babenbergerstrasse, paying 12 florins extra for a balcony with a view. His acquired happiness included use of the baths, and he worked on the Missa Solemnis. In his second sketchbook are brief quotes for the Sonata Op. 109, together with the projection for the two final sonatas Opp.110/111. He wrote to the Berlin publisher Schlesinger on April 30: ‘...Also I will be willing to hand over you new sonatas—but at no other price than 40 ducats per piece, thus a sort of enterprise of three sonatas for 120 ducats’. On May 31, he agreed to write them in 3 months for 90 ducats!

Maximiliane Brentano was the dedicatee. Beethoven wrote to her: ‘A dedication!!!—well this is not one that is misused as in many cases. It is the spirit which holds together noble and better men on this earth and which can never be destroyed by time. This is what is now addressed to you and what recalls you to me as you were in your childhood years, so equally your beloved parents, your admirable and gifted mother, your father filled with truly good and noble qualities, and ever mindful of his children…’

Denis Matthews writes of its ‘renewed intimacy and flexibility of form, following two brief but strongly contrasted sonata-form movements, with an Andante and variations that last twice as long as the other two taken together’.

How can one describe the uniqueness of that opening movement, which combines two sections marked Vivace, ma non troppo and Adagio espressivo—appearing one after the other—on two separate occasions with important changes in notation, key, content and structure? Is this some kind of confession of faith by Beethoven, seated on the edge of a pool, talking to the lady in noble, florid terms, with violent interjections concerning renewed promises. Perhaps not. More likely it represents a new sense of containment, with a stricter order of expression in place of certain ambiguous, outgoing sections in his previous Sonata, Op. 106. This is a jewel in the crown in the way he counterbalances the music’s flow into, and out of seeming counterpoint contained within a melody, and declamations of dramatic rhetoric taking on the form of a cadenza combined to a chain link of beautifully structured demisemiquaver groupings. Reduce the whole thing to simple notes, and it ceases to have any meaning!

The violent brutality of the Prestissimo movement—E minor, with calming influences in the relative major—suggests Beethoven’s pretended irascibility at ungovernable moments. The reply figure in the fourth stave can be likened to monks reproving the composer for his bad manners, while this becomes transformed later on into a chanting phrase in the treble, sempre più piano…(sempre legatissimo) in its attempts to temper the continuing onslaught. Eventually, devout simplicity gives way to the discordance of crashing staccato chords.

But this is really the composer’s ploy to deceive his unknowing listener. What follows, in the most poignant terms touches the heart. Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo, with its mezza voce treatment of the stately 5-note opening theme and answering phrases, includes four variations—the last linked to an Allegro ma non troppo transition of the melody in the descant. This flows serenely into a cantabile chordal setting that builds steadily upwards to high Bs, which ring out resplendently before the pitch gradually falls for a return of the main subject at the close.

The autograph of the composer’s last, great Sonata for the pianoforte, bears the inscription ‘Ludwig am 13ten Jenner (January) 1822.’ Started the year before, it was published by Schlesinger in April 1823, although Beethoven previously offered it to Peters of Leipzig. The matter of the dedication was left to Adolf Schlesinger, but Beethoven wrote his son Moritz on August 31st that he intended it to be Archduke Rudolph.

In his letter to the Archduke on July lst, the composer writes: ‘Y.I.H. (Your Royal Highness) seemed to find pleasure in the Sonata in C minor, and therefore I feel that it would not be presumptuous if I were to surprise you with its dedication.’

Although corrections—as with the two previous sonatas—together with the work’s publication, were to be time consuming and complicated for Beethoven, there are no doubts that this was to be his sonata masterpiece, whereby personal feelings of conflict registered throughout the opening movement—culminating in various upsurges of vehemence—would eventually resolve themselves in the explorations and calm serenities of the second Arietta movement with its marking Adagio molto, semplice e cantabile.

The very opening—unlike the forces of nature, i.e. the Pastoral Symphony’s storm section—depicts the brain-storm inside the composer’s head where he pits himself against the whole world—stark octaves, sforzandi, dramatic pauses. Pianissimo dotted chords stop the rot, then he prepares himself for the fray with ominous trills. Is it wrong to describe this vast exposition as theatrical? The Allegro con brio ed appassionato (C-E flat-B natural) that immediately follows, tests the capacity of the performer and the strength of his instrument in both pianistic and percussive terms. It is as creative a piece of writing as you will find in the whole of keyboard literature.

The C major Arietta, its repeated 3-note opening followed by a 5-note reply, is transfigured and transformed by Beethoven into a continuing statement of devout spiritual belief through the sheer span and inspired handling of its varied notation and rhythmic values. Preferably, it should be heard and not described in the course of its many myriad changes of state. Like all great undertakings, it triumphs over all adversities, ending peacefully in a coda of universal acceptance.

Bill Newman

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