About this Recording
8.571269 - BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 10 (Biret) - Nos. 22, 24, 29 (Biret Beethoven Edition, Vol. 19)

The 19th and last volume of the IBA Beethoven Edition—Introductory note


This is the final CD of Idil Biret’s nineteen-volume Beethoven Edition consisting of the thirty-two sonatas, five concertos, the Choral Fantasy and the piano transcriptions of the nine symphonies (by Franz Liszt). They were recorded in fifty-five days during a long stretch of time which spread over twenty-three years.(1) In this same period Idil Biret also recorded the complete solo piano works and the concertos of Brahms, Chopin and Rachmaninov as well as the piano concertos of Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Saint-Saëns, Schumann, Grieg, Franck, Massenet and many other solo works including the three piano sonatas of Boulez, the études of Ligeti and the piano transcriptions of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and Stravinsky’s Firebird.

In the spring of 1985 when Jacques Leiser, then Idil Biret’s agent in the USA, introduced Biret to Michel Devos, an independent producer in Belgium, he could not have imagined that this would lead to a recording odyssey lasting over twenty years, taking her through Beethoven’s complete sonatas, concertos and symphony transcriptions. Initially a single LP of a different composer’s work for EMI Belgium was contemplated. However, when Michel Devos suggested an LP with the Liszt transcriptions of two Beethoven symphonies (Nos. 4 and 5), Idil Biret, who had earlier recorded the Liszt transcriptions of Berlioz, Schubert and Wagner works, agreed immediately. When these recordings were found to be of exceptionally high quality by EMI, Idil Biret was asked to record all the nine symphonies which were then released by EMI internationally in a box set of six LPs during the Liszt centennial in 1986 and gained universal acclaim (see “Making of the Beethoven Symphonies” on the website www.idilbiret.eu).

After an interval of eight years, in the midst of a busy period of recording the works of Brahms, Chopin and Rachmaninov for Naxos in Heidelberg, Biret went back to Brussels in 1994 to record three sonatas of Beethoven in order to test how these would sound in the same location where the symphonies were recorded (Church of St Bavon in Chamont Gistoux near Brussels). The decision was then made in 2001 to record all the remaining sonatas and to release them together with the nine symphonies (the copyrights in which had been recovered from EMI earlier) on Idil Biret’s own label Idil Biret Archive (IBA). With one or two sessions a year devoted to a number of sonatas, the cycle was completed in 2008. All the works of Beethoven for piano and orchestra including the Choral Fantasy were also recorded in January/February of 2008 with the Bilkent Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit, the music director of the Warsaw Philharmonic.

Klaus Heymann, the founder and owner of Naxos, read about the Beethoven sonata recordings in the book on Idil Biret’s life A Turkish Pianist on the Concert Stages of the World published in France by Buchet-Chastel in 2006 (and in Germany by Staccato Verlag in 2007) and proposed to distribute these and other IBA recordings internationally. The first volume of the Beethoven Edition was released on IBA in December 2008 and the last (nineteenth), this volume, in March 2011 thus bringing to completion Idil Biret’s Beethoven odyssey after a quarter of a century. This work is also an homage to Wilhelm Kempff, Idil Biret’s mentor, with whom she worked on all the Beethoven sonatas and concertos over many years.
Sefik B. Yüksel
January 2011


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Sonata No. 22 in F major, Op. 54
Sonata No. 24 in F sharp major, Op. 78
Sonata No. 29 in B flat major, Op. 106 (Hammerklavier)

I am often amazed and somewhat amused how and why some commentators regard certain Beethoven works in smaller format as inferior to those of more famous, larger stature.

The composer, having lovingly and ardently expressed his most noble intentions in his ‘Waldstein’ Sonata, was obviously unwilling to relinquish his hold on the key of F major. At the same time during his time at Döbling in 1804, he was also working on his most daring and dramatic middle period Sonata, the so-called ‘Appassionata’ Opus 57. Informing his brother Nikolaus Johann that: “Not on my life would I have believed that I could be so lazy as I am here. If it is followed by an outburst of industry, something worthwhile may be accomplished”, that particular summer proved his point.

On 26 August, Breitkopf and Härtel were urged to part with 2000 florins for a suggested package of music that would comprise the Oratorio Christus am Olberg (Christ on the Mount of Olives), the ‘Eroica’ Symphony, Triple Concerto and three Keyboard Sonatas—Opp. 53, 54 and 57. Beethoven’s directions were very clear: “…I want a speedy edition made of my works”.

The eminent musicologist-performer, the late Denis Matthews calls the Sonata Op. 54 “strange and neglected”, but admits it as a work that repays study as an example of Beethoven at his most capricious. I cannot argue with that, perhaps agreeing to a slight feeling of remoteness in the opening In Tempo d’un Menuetto—but this is the composer all set to uncoil his spring, devising three interlinked stanzas travelling from F, A (a tenth above), then higher still to D, and gently falling back to the beginning in bar 24. At this point, the scene changes to sempre forte e staccato—a series of octaves containing forte and sforzandi markings at strategic points—solely to emphasize rhythmic buoyancy without altering either structure or weight of tone (as some pianists do). Beethoven’s mastery when repeating his subject matter: varying his ideas with added decorations, trills, sustained fortissimo B flat octaves (at half way stage), counterbalances the jeweled precision of his overall plan to permeate the whole movement with an indelible charm. Astute listeners will note that its 3-note beginning would be inverted and changed to F minor in the more popular Opus 57. The Allegretto movement with its dolce expression marking, is a model of integrity, superbly worked out in moto perpetuo fashion, with a succession of startling key changes, and brim full of energy and subtle quips of various kinds. The intended steadiness of tempo has to be maintained along with a flexible wrist action in both hands, allowing for very slight rubati at certain points in order to bring out contrasting ideas and the sonorities on high Ds and Gs. Again, I feel that crescendo markings, sforzandi, and those fleeting changes from fortissimo to piano, should not harm the flow or basic content. While listening, I wondered how much Chopin was influenced by the harmonic textures while composing his Etudes.

In 1809, Beethoven was spending more time in Hungary, notably with the Brunswicks. He also sent on manuscript copies for Archduke Rudolph’s catalogue collection, so we learn that a Fantasia for pianoforte, Op. 77 would be dedicated to Count Franz, and the Sonata Op. 78 to his sister, Therese. Both signify the happy hours the composer spent with them. This encouraged him to live at home, where he appointed Herzog, man and wife, as his servant and housekeeper. Breitkopf and Härtel published the Sonata the following year.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.24 in F sharp major, Op. 78, is dedicated to the Countess Therese von Brunswick. The two movement sonata is Beethoven at his most subtle and caressing. The beginning of the Adagio cantabile in 2/4 contains four introductory bars that possess an almost suppliant quality, which serves to introduce listeners to the Allegro ma non troppo, with its dolce marking. The main subject is not only song-like in essence, but ardently loyal and persuasive in character. The composer soon varies the subject with semi-quaver groupings, leggieramente, then descending quavers that link with ascending chords, simple in style. A turning phrase ending on F sharp, an octave higher, is the sign for groups of variants in the form of four-note groups of semiquavers with chordal accompaniment which modulate and rise over ten bars, closing on a left-hand trill and ending on a C sharp major chord. A counter statement, almost like a muted fanfare appears suddenly, and is played twice. Beethoven brings his variants back into the picture, which rise, then fall with the chords appearing this time in the right hand. The whole subject is repeated. Now we go into the minor mode.

An aura of mystery tinged with a sense of drama provides a connecting link, with rising-falling phrases ending on a fortissimo C sharp, E sharp, then G sharp, back to where we began. But this time, the music rises in tonal steps, forte, fortissimo, piano, alternately falling back then pressing forward as it reaches higher echelons, where the semi-quaver phrases ring out anew. We return to the muted fanfare, also high up. Swirls of connecting phrases in the left hand support repeating successions of chords in the right. There are feelings of rejoicing and satisfaction.

The tempo direction of the second movement, Allegro vivace, in this context can almost be described as a quirky compared to the calm dignity of the opening movement. The very opening, spanning eight bars, is repeated for emphasis: the deliberate question (forte), followed by the carefully considered reply (piano). By the ninth bar, when a modicum of agreement has been reached, the music cavorts gleefully into action. Throughout, the regularity of the composer’s writing, where slurred groups of semiquavers—four in all, accommodating eight notes for each bar—are kept in strict discipline by a legato line of quavers in the left hand. The exception is the isolated stretches where they are allowed a free hand to conduct their interplay in both hands ‘unmolested’.

Anyone outside Beethoven would no doubt have failed in this original enterprise. Here, genius wins the day. Count the number of key changes, especially the contrasts between major and minor. As we enter the final furlong, the composer reverts to the normality of the movement’s opening, momentarily, then, following two paused chords and an ascending cadenza, plunges back into the jestings.

Artaria’s elaborate announcement of the masterly ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata appeared in the Wiener Zeitung on 15 September 1819. Beethoven’s payment was 100 ducats. He had also started sketches and partial developments for the Ninth Symphony, while his labours on the new sonata mostly took place during the summer of 1818 at Mödling. Czerny gave the first run-through in the composer’s presence, and Ferdinand Ries had a copy for sale and publication in England. Beethoven regarded it as his greatest, although “The Sonata was composed under distressing circumstances.” Karl, his recalcitrant nephew had been misbehaving himself in church and on the street. It had also been agreed that he should also keep clear of other pupils at the educational institution to which he had been sent.

“Y.I.H” (the Archduke Rudolph) had meanwhile received the composer’s letter “enclosing two pieces”, copied out and already written prior to the name-day of His Imperial Highness. Beethoven made excuses for his sadness and despondency; also his bad health—but this had now improved somewhat, hence the many manuscripts on his writing desk, including “a large Fugato that constitutes a Grand Sonata which will soon be published, and long ago in my heart…”

In the region of 45 minutes, the overtly expressive and deeply spiritual qualities of the ‘HammerklavierSonata, particularly in the long, slow movement, match up to its intellectual achievement overall. It stands alone in the whole of pianoforte literature, linking the beginnings of the first, second and third movements by a third interval, and begins with an acclamation to the Archduke, its dedicatee—“Vivat, vivat Rudolphus”—with clarion calls in octaves. The answering motif is reverential, benign, changing in a flash at the a tempo into a surge of excitement that leads back to the opening theme, similarly treated. The masterly development links vigorous counterpoint to partial secondary themes—D major combating with E major, with varieties of key changes travelling upwards to B flat for the repeat. Following this comes a fugal treatment trying to settle into a cantabile pattern, soon banished by the main theme’s fortissimo outburst, then a gigantic crescendo followed by series of sforzando octaves, quaver sequences and a final apotheosis. The even wilder Scherzo assai vivace movement, a minor key second subject involving sustained right hand octaves against 3 quaver-groups in the left, plus a daemonic Presto-prestissimo cadenza and two bars of tremolo, is a further challenge, while the sheer span and poignancy of the central Adagio sostenuto, Appassionato e con molto sentimento, its lengthy, extended melodic phrases harmonically divided over both hands, explores a gamut of expression and ideas. Analyses can only be made alongside the composer’s Diabelli Variations, Ninth Symphony and Missa Solemnis; likewise the Largo introduction to the final movement in its range of vision, and the enormous Allegro with its tremendously involved, daring fugal writing and trills. It is all clear in the manuscript, yet try and perform it in conjunction with Beethoven’s metronome indications, and it is another story. It has been realised, often with much credit to the performers concerned, that an approximation of tempo values allied to overall artistic achievement more often enriches interpretative insight.
Bill Newman

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