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Hyperion Records

CDA67662 - Beethoven: Piano Sonatas
The Cathedral by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917)
Musée Rodin, Paris / Peter Willi / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: September 2008
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: May 2010
Total duration: 70 minutes 45 seconds


'Instantly recommends itself as an important addition to the catalogue … this Beethoven disc similarly makes one marvel at the way Osborne's own personality seems able to ally itself with the composer's, in the way he illuminates aspects of style, structure and substance with clarity, subtlety and dynamism' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Osborne … has that special ability to make music that you thought you knew inside out seem fresh and totally alive' (The Guardian)

'Performances of exceptional quality … and real stature … this is an outstanding disc' (International Record Review)

'The Moonlight, Op 27 No 2 , receives a particularly satisfying performance, from the first movement's magically limpid, unhurried mysteries, through the allegretto's sprightly curtseys, to the finale, so deservedly marked presto agitato. It's in this movement that Osborne really hits the heights. He drives the notes forward, stirring excitement without succumbing to the melodramatic … the Pathétique and Waldstein sonatas receive equally refreshing and sensitive accounts. And all are recorded with Hyperion's usual finesse' (The Times)

'In the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, Osborne casts a spell from the very opening, suggesting improvisation yet also a searching harmonic rigour and beguiling the ear with subtle colour and touch' (

Piano Sonatas
Moonlight, Pathétique & Waldstein
Adagio sostenuto  [6'01]
Allegretto  [1'59]
Presto agitato  [7'26]
Adagio cantabile  [5'06]
Rondo: Allegro  [4'58]
Andante  [2'43]
Vivace  [1'55]
Allegro con brio  [10'58]

Steven Osborne has been performing Beethoven live in concert for many years, always to great acclaim. Now for the first time he has committed these extraordinary performances to disc. It is clear from listening to the opening movement of the ‘Moonlight’ that this release will establish him firmly as one of the great Beethoven pianists of today. Performances of such passionate humility, such musical intelligence, such subtlety and yet such instinctive understanding of the music are rare indeed.

This disc features three of Beethoven’s most celebrated sonatas and the miniature Op 79.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Beethoven’s C minor Sonata Op 13 appeared in 1799, with a title-page proclaiming a ‘Grande sonate pathétique’. The name is unlikely to have originated with Beethoven (his autograph score has not come down to us), but he may at least have approved it. This was the first of his piano sonatas to begin with a slow introduction, and the sombre Grave, with its musical discourse dramatically punctuated by ‘stabbing’ full-blooded chords, is entirely built around the rise and fall of its opening phrase. (Is it coincidental that the phrase was echoed nearly a hundred years later by Tchaikovsky, in the first movement of his ‘Pathétique’ Symphony?)

The notion of bringing back the Grave’s material at its original slow tempo at crucial points during the course of the Allegro was something new to Beethoven’s style, and it heralds the similarly integrated use of a slow introduction in the ‘Les Adieux’ Sonata Op 81a, and in some of the late string quartets. But the ‘Pathétique’ unifies its contrasting strands to an unusual degree, and the start of the movement’s central development section presents the introduction’s initial phrase transformed into the rhythm and tempo of the Allegro.

The Allegro begins with a staccato theme that spirals upwards, above the sound of a drum roll deep in the bass. In order to maintain the tension during his contrasting second theme, Beethoven has it given out not in the major, as would have been the norm, but in the minor; and the eventual turn to the major coincides with the arrival of a restless ‘rocking’ figuration, which far from alleviating the music’s turbulent atmosphere, serves only to heighten it. With the development section, and its abbreviated reprise of the slow introduction, Beethoven returns to the minor and does not depart from it again. The music’s continual agitation is halted only by the final appearance of the introduction, now shorn of its assertive initial chord, and sounding like an exhausted echo of its former self.

The slow movement forms a serene interlude in the key of A flat major. The sonority of its opening bars, with their broad melody unfolding over a gently rocking inner voice, is one that was much admired by later composers, and the slow movement of Schubert’s late C minor Sonata D958, whose reprise has a similar keyboard texture, provides one instance of a piece that was surely modelled on Beethoven’s example. Schubert also follows Beethoven in absorbing the rhythm of the middle section’s inner voice into the accompaniment when the main theme returns.

The slow movement’s key exerts an influence on the rondo finale, whose extended central episode, almost like a miniature set of variations in itself, is in A flat. Sketches for the finale appear among Beethoven’s ideas for his string trios Op 9, and since those preliminary drafts are clearly conceived with the violin in mind, it is possible that the sonata’s rondo theme was originally destined for the last of the trios, also in C minor. As so often with Beethoven, these initial thoughts show him trying to hit on a suitably dramatic way of bringing the piece to a close. That close is effected both in the sketches and in the sonata itself by means of a gentle fragment of the rondo theme, followed by a peremptory final cadence.

If the title of the Op 13 Sonata at least has some semblance of authenticity, the same cannot be said of the nickname that has become attached to the second of the pair of sonatas Op 27. It was the poet and music critic Ludwig Rellstab who described its famous opening movement as evoking ‘a boat, visiting, by moonlight, the primitive landscapes of Lake Lucerne’. Curiously enough, to Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny, writing before Rellstab had penned his phrase, the sonata’s opening movement also suggested a nocturnal landscape. The piece, said Czerny, was ‘a night scene, in which the plaintive voice of a spirit is heard far in the distance’.

The Op 27 sonatas were issued in 1801, both of them with the sub-heading of ‘quasi una Fantasia’—a qualification indicating the freedom with which Beethoven was treating the traditional sonata design. The ‘Moonlight’ Sonata’s famous opening movement bears the direction: Si deve suonare tutto questo pezzo delicatissimamente e senza sordino (‘This entire piece must be played with the utmost delicacy, and without dampers’). ‘Senza sordino’ was Beethoven’s habitual marking at this stage of his career for the use of the sustaining pedal, and although on a modern piano his instruction needs to be treated with some caution, a certain degree of harmonic blurring is implied in order to convey the music’s unbroken atmosphere of plaintive mystery. As we shall see, Beethoven was to exploit similar overlapping pedal effects in the rondo theme of the ‘Waldstein’ Sonata.

As he was to do the following year in his ‘Tempest’ Sonata Op 31 No 2, Beethoven maintains the darkness of the minor mode throughout the two outer movements, while writing the middle movement entirely in the major. (‘A flower between two abysses’ was Liszt’s evocative description of the minuet-like second movement of Op 27 No 2.) The finale is an unrelentingly agitated piece whose coda, with its ‘strummed’ diminished-seventh chords sweeping up the keyboard, reaches new heights of turbulence. Not until the ‘Appassionata’ Op 57 did Beethoven write another finale for piano of comparable dramatic intensity.

The nineteenth-century Beethoven biographer Wilhelm Lenz, whose Beethoven et ses trois styles was the first substantial study of the composer to divide his output into three stylistic periods, described the ‘Waldstein’ Sonata Op 53 as ‘a heroic symphony for piano’. Certainly, it is among the most dazzlingly brilliant of all Beethoven’s middle-period works. It is one that exploits a full range of keyboard effects, and finds the composer for the first time in his piano sonatas making use of a keyboard with an extended compass reaching up a major third higher than the five-octave range that had been in use ever since the days of Mozart and Haydn. Perhaps it is not by chance that preliminary ideas for the first movement are preceded in the composer’s sketchbooks by keyboard exercises consisting of scales in parallel tenths, and in contrary motion.

The sonata’s opening movement is largely based on the opposition between a toccata-like main subject and a broad second theme in the style of a chorale. Beethoven had tried a similar juxtaposition some seven years earlier in his Sonata Op 7, but the ‘Waldstein’ brings into play a new element of contrast: the second subject occurs in the radiant, and comparatively distant, key of E major. The remoteness of the chorale theme’s key lends it an expressive serenity it would not otherwise have achieved.

Beethoven first conceived the ‘Waldstein’ as a large-scale work in three discrete movements, but he eventually removed the middle movement (it was issued separately in September 1805, some four months after the Sonata, and became popular enough to earn itself the title of Andante favori), and in its place wrote a concentrated and dramatic introduction to the finale. Beethoven may well have felt the original Andante was stylistically old-fashioned in comparison to the remainder of the work, but the new plan heralded a general move on his part away from the concept of a sonata as consisting of three self-contained movements. Apart from the Op 79 ‘Sonatine’, the half-dozen sonatas Beethoven composed following the ‘Waldstein’ consist either of two movements only (Opp 54, 78 and 90), or—like the ‘Waldstein’—of three movements telescoped into two (the ‘Appassionata’ Op 57, ‘Les Adieux’ Op 81a).

The introduction with which Beethoven prefaces the ‘Waldstein’ Sonata’s rondo ends with a sustained, accented note G—the pitch around which the rondo theme itself is to oscillate. Underpinning that theme, and sounded before it begins, is a low C in the left hand, so that the theme’s top G is heard almost as an overtone of the bass note. Beethoven’s interest in exploiting the piano’s resonance is further shown by his pedal markings for the rondo’s theme, which require the player to hold the sustaining pedal down not only through changes of harmony, but also through alternations between major and minor.

An even more ethereal sonority seems to be indicated in the movement’s Prestissimo coda, where similar pedal markings accompany an appearance of the theme shrouded in trills. As if the trills were not enough, Beethoven brings another virtuoso device into play: pianissimo glissandos in octaves for both hands, moving in opposite directions. The effect was relatively easy to bring off on the pianos of Beethoven’s day, with their narrower keys and shallower action, but on a modern concert grand it is much less feasible to play the passages in question without a discreet redistribution of notes between the hands. In the final bars Beethoven sets the piano’s strings in vibration one last time, with a triumphant series of fanfares.

The miniature Sonata Op 79 is something of an anomaly among Beethoven’s mature works of the kind, and in view of its stylistic simplicity it was once thought to be considerably earlier than its opus number would suggest. However, the composer’s sketches for the sonata’s opening movement are contained in the same book as his drafts for the ‘Harp’ String Quartet Op 74 and the ‘Les Adieux’ Piano Sonata Op 81a, composed in 1809–10. His first idea for the sonata’s opening bars shows it in the key of C major, and with the inscription ‘Sonate facile’. This was the title that had been used some three years earlier for the first Viennese edition of Mozart’s famous C major Sonata K545. Beethoven’s piece was probably commissioned by the composer and publisher Clementi, who owned the autograph score, and issued the sonata in London more or less simultaneously with the first German edition, published by Breitkopf und Härtel. In offering the work to Breitkopf in 1810, Beethoven suggested they should bring it out as a ‘Sonatine facile’, or simply ‘Sonatine’. (Breitkopf chose the latter title.)

The Presto alla tedesca (‘In the German style’) designation of the sonata’s opening movement looks forward to the Alla danza tedesca third movement, likewise in G major, of Beethoven’s late String Quartet Op 130. Curiously enough, the quartet’s theme is an exact inversion of the sonata’s opening subject. Beethoven’s sketch for the sonata’s initial subject shows it in a dance-like form, and in a regular eight bars. The final version is less symmetrical, but Beethoven appears not to have forgotten his simpler original idea, and he returns to it in the movement’s coda, where the melody’s phrases are shared between the pianist’s two hands. Beethoven clearly enjoyed the notion of ending the movement with what sounds for all the world like a contredanse, and he even added acciaccaturas (‘crushed’ notes which make it sound as though two adjacent notes are being played simultaneously) to the melody, as though in imitation of a village band. As for the movement’s central development section, it is mainly based on the main theme’s ‘cuckoo-call’, involving some crossed-hands gymnastics which are by no means easy for beginners to negotiate.

The middle movement is a melancholy barcarolle in the minor, and the sonata comes to a witty close with a rondo whose theme looks forward to another of Beethoven’s late works: its harmonic outline is the same as that of the opening subject in the Sonata Op 109. Following a central episode rather like some miniature ‘Rage over a lost penny’, Beethoven returns to the rondo theme in the middle of a continuing phrase, so that the reprise seems to begin in mid-stream. It is a witty touch, and one that is matched by the charming effect of the work’s gently understated ending.

Misha Donat © 2010

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