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Hyperion Records

CDA67797 - Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 3
Pietrasanta P09.29 (2009) by Caio Fonseca (b1959)
Reproduced by kind permission of the artist /

Recording details: September 2009
Das Kulturzentrum Grand Hotel, Dobbiaco, Italy
Produced by Ludger Böckenhoff
Engineered by Ludger Böckenhoff
Release date: July 2010
DISCID: 040EF811
Total duration: 63 minutes 43 seconds

'The great A flat major Sonata and the later E minor Sonata receive emotionally contained, affectionate performances with exemplary attention to the score (I love the cushioned tone and rhythmic bounce Hewitt brings to Variation 2 of Op 26) … she plays the Allegretto of the 'Moonlight' with a delightful lilt while observing Beethoven's dynamic requests to the letter' (Gramophone)

'Hewitt's pristine articulation and clarity of thought, line and feeling are, as ever, inimitable … I am still surprised at just how expressively, and romantically, the great Canadian plays this music' (The Herald)

'Angela Hewitt's Beethoven is like no one else's … the sense of Beethoven’s music unfolding against a series of harmonic peaks and troughs is at its most poignant in the two-movement E minor Sonata Op 90. Not since Hans Richter-Haaser’s unsurpassed 1960s account for EMI (originally coupled to the 'Hammerklavier' and still, as far as I’m aware, awaiting issue on CD) has the tantalising compression of this priceless, iridescent gem been so exquisitely revealed' (International Piano)

Piano Sonatas, Vol. 3
Allegro  [8'23]
Allegretto  [3'50]
Presto  [4'04]
Allegretto  [2'05]
Presto agitato  [7'15]

Angela Hewitt’s legion of fans will be delighted at this eagerly awaited third volume of Beethoven sonatas. Her first two releases in this series were praised for their ‘clarity, intelligence and elegance’ … ‘fusing poetry and passion’, and all these trademark qualities of her playing are fully present in this third disc.

Four contrasting sonatas are presented here, including Op 27 No 2 ‘Moonlight’, which needs no introduction.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
This recording, the third in my series of Beethoven piano sonatas, comprises four works from three different periods of the composer’s life. As with the two previous recordings, there was no particular plan governing their being put together, other than the inclusion of one very famous sonata (in this case the ‘Moonlight’) with others that are less often heard. Three of these sonatas I learned before the age of fifteen, the other five years later, and as so often it has been a particular pleasure to return to works I first played in my youth.

The year 1801 saw Beethoven publish the greatest number of works up until then in his career, as well as the composition of a string quintet, two violin sonatas, four piano sonatas and The Creatures of Prometheus Op 43. On 29 June he wrote to his friend Franz Wegeler in Bonn:

You want to know something about my present situation. Well, on the whole it is not at all bad … My compositions bring me in a good deal; and I may say that I am offered more commissions than it is possible for me to carry out. Moreover for every composition I can count on six or seven publishers, and even more, if I want them; people no longer come to an arrangement with me, I state my price and they pay. So you see how pleasantly situated I am. For instance, I see a friend in need and it so happens that the state of my purse does not allow me to help him immediately; well then, I have only to sit down and compose and in a short time I can come to his aid.

But all was not rosy. He went on to write extensively about the state of his health (Wegeler was a physician); about tepid baths in the Danube that were advised for his chronic diarrhoea; and perhaps more alarmingly, the humming and buzzing in his ears which had bothered him already for several years but which he had kept to himself. ‘Plutarch has shown me the path of resignation’, he writes. In another letter a few days later to Carl Amenda, he adds, ‘Needless to say, I am resolved to overcome all this, but how is it going to be done?’

He did it by working hard. In the same letter to Wegeler he wrote: ‘I live entirely in my music, and hardly have I completed one composition when I have already begun another. At my present rate of composing, I often produce three or four works at the same time.’ Such is the case with three piano sonatas written in 1801: the Piano Sonata in A flat major Op 26 and the two Sonatas Op 27, all published together in March 1802. Each of the Op 27 works famously bears the title ‘Sonata quasi una fantasia’—something which could also easily apply to Op 26. Not one of its movements is in sonata form. It is rather a collection of four character pieces put together more along the lines of a divertimento (a title under which many of Haydn’s early sonatas were published).

The A flat major Sonata opens with a theme and five variations. A flat major is always such a warm, expressive key for Beethoven, and one in which he uses the middle register of the keyboard to great effect (think of the slow movement of the ‘Pathétique’). The warmth is reinforced by the addition of the lower octave for the first two bars and each subsequent repetition. Czerny comments on its ‘noble and almost religious character’. It certainly cannot be classified as either a fast or a slow movement (the indication Andante should not be overlooked). Beethoven was no stranger to variations, having written more than a dozen sets of them (some with violin and cello) from 1793 to 1801. But here we have more than just a show of compositional and technical virtuosity. Without straying far from the theme, Beethoven gives us a satisfying ‘introduction’ to the other movements. The first variation continues the use of the lower and middle register with a lovely swinging effect. The second lightly skips along, with the thematic notes being present more often on the weak beats than the strong ones. The third changes to the minor mode (foreshadowing what is to come in the third movement), making dramatic use of szforzandos. The discreet fourth variation leads us to the harmonious final one, where the theme at first seems submerged by triplets but then appears without disguise in the inner and top voices. A beautiful touch is the short coda at the end, introducing a tender new melody (although some musicologists see in it a derivation from the theme) over a pizzicato bass and a muted string accompaniment. Then the bass switches to legato sighs, finally drawing it to a gentle close with the last four bars marked senza sordini (meaning ‘without dampers’, thus with pedal).

Having started with such a movement, you can see why Beethoven decided to put a lively scherzo second. A slow movement at this point would not have worked. So he wrote something which Czerny described as ‘quick, gay, and smartly marked’. The humour in the scherzo is offset by the lyricism of its D flat major trio. The sighing appoggiatura which ‘gets stuck’ in the opening section re-appears in the short but inspired bridge passage leading back into the da capo.

If you didn’t know this sonata in advance, you would be very surprised by what comes next: a funeral march. Chopin loved this Beethoven sonata more than any other and played it frequently. This movement probably inspired him to write his own Funeral March, which became the central focus of the Piano Sonata Op 35. But how different these two pieces are: while Chopin’s is, though certainly not overly sentimental, at least very affecting, Beethoven’s is objective, almost impersonal, but not without great effect. The middle section of Chopin’s takes us to paradise; that of Beethoven represents, in Tovey’s words ‘salutes fired over the grave’. Beethoven gave it the title ‘Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un eroe’ (‘Funeral march on the death of a hero’), without specifying who the hero was. It probably wasn’t written for anyone in particular. In 1815 he orchestrated it for some incidental music to a play by Duncker entitled Leonora Prohaska (which ended up never being staged). He would never have heard the version of it that was played at his own funeral.

Whereas one can more or less ‘sing’ Chopin’s Funeral March, you can’t do this with Beethoven’s. The idea is simply the harmony and the insistent, dotted rhythms that bring weight to the whole thing. The sudden changes in dynamics are perfectly judged and must be followed. The coda presents a sort of melody in both hands in contrary motion, adding to its solemnity before the final piercing szforzando. A few years later, Beethoven was to write another Funeral March in his Eroica Symphony, but there the vision was much deeper.

Beethoven wisely did not continue the drama in the last movement but wrote what can be seen (and heard!) as a rather flippant, étude-like movement if not enough care is given to it. Czerny tells us that it bears a resemblance to a sonata in the same key by John Baptist Cramer, the English musician of German origin who made Beethoven’s acquaintance in Vienna and was much appreciated by him. It is in strict rondo form, but instead of having contrasting episodes it continues the perpetual movement throughout, adding skips and gunshot-like szforzandos for extra excitement. Instead of going for a brilliant finish, however, the work simply dissolves into thin air—a remarkable end to a remarkable piece.

The next work on this disc, the Piano Sonata in F major Op 10 No 2, takes us back to 1797, two years after Beethoven’s first public appearance in Vienna. Not only did he appear in many benefit concerts during that time (one of them was in aid of Mozart’s widow, Constanze, at which Beethoven played her husband’s Concerto in D minor, K466), but he also took part in several pianistic ‘duels’ with other Viennese and visiting virtuosos, each of whom had their own camp (Gelinek in 1793, Wölffl in 1799, and Steibelt in 1800). Gelinek told Czerny’s father one day that he was going to compete with some foreigner that very evening, adding ‘we must make mincemeat out of him’. When asked about the outcome, he said: ‘I’ll never forget yesterday evening! Satan himself is hidden in that young man. I have never heard anyone play like that! He improvised on a theme which I gave him as I never heard even Mozart improvise … He can overcome difficulties and draw effects from the piano such as we couldn’t even allow ourselves to dream about.’

When playing a Beethoven sonata it is important to remember how new and different this music sounded when it was first heard. Op 10 No 2 is basically a comedy, set up by the two chords and the throw-away turn at the very beginning. Of course we sense the presence of Haydn, but Beethoven was never anyone other than himself. After the development section of the first movement, in which another turn figure refuses to disappear, the music comes to a brief pause, making us wonder what will happen next. Beethoven teasingly gives us the recapitulation in the wrong key—D major—adding a whole new colour to the mix. But then he sneaks back to the tonic and brings this fun movement to a brilliant close.

The second movement, Allegretto, was initially conceived as a minuet and trio. Perhaps the title was changed because the repeat of the ‘minuet’ is quite varied and the whole thing not very dance-like. The middle section in D flat major makes us momentarily wonder if we are not listening to Schubert rather than to Beethoven. But the characteristic szforzandos couldn’t be by anyone else.

The finale seems to fuse Haydn’s mischievousness and Bach’s counterpoint, but with an exuberance typical of the young Beethoven. A hint of D major reminds us of his first movement high jinks, before hurtling us to the final unison F. Tovey writes that ‘a scrambling performance of this movement is among the ugliest experiences in music, and is permanently hurtful to the technique and style of the scrambler’. To be convincingly ‘bustling and merry’ (as Czerny describes this movement) one must unfortunately also be able to play the notes!

For the Piano Sonata in E minor Op 90 we skip ahead to 1814. For the past five years, Beethoven had not written a piano sonata (the last one was ‘Les Adieux’ Op 81a in 1809), and indeed these years saw fewer major works composed. His seventh and eight symphonies were written and published in 1811–12, but by the end of 1812 his creativity seemed to have dried up, and in 1813 he did not write any major work at all. Why was that? His health was not good for sure, but it seemed to be his mental state that was more worrying. On 27 May 1813 he wrote to Archduke Rudolph: ‘A number of unfortunate incidents occurring one after the other have really driven me into a state bordering on mental confusion.’ On that same day he travelled to Baden where his friends the Streichers found him ‘in the most deplorable condition’. We now know that the whole episode with the Immortal Beloved must have taken place in July 1812 (the beloved most likely being Antonie Brentano) and it caused Beethoven enormous grief. The one time in his life when he was loved unconditionally by a woman had come to nothing. His brother Caspar Carl had also been terribly ill. His other brother Nikolaus Johann was having an affair with his housekeeper which enraged Beethoven so much that he sought a police order compelling the woman to leave town (in the end his brother married her to make it legal). Fortunately in the summer of 1813 he received a commission to write Wellington’s Victory, which was a resounding success at its premiere and set him to work once more.

It seems that the E minor sonata was written in the summer of 1814, just after he had finished revising his opera Fidelio (its revival was as much a success as the premiere had been a flop). It is dedicated to Count Moritz von Lichnowsky (the brother of Prince Lichnowsky to whom the first sonata on this CD was dedicated), and it was given to him as a surprise by Beethoven. A synopsis attached to this sonata that was circulated by Anton Schindler in his biography of the composer (1840) is, according to the Beethoven scholar Barry Cooper, pure hogwash (as is much else in the book). Schindler called its two movements a ‘Struggle between Head and Heart’ and ‘Conversation with the Beloved’, depicting the Count’s personal situation at the time (he was then having an affair with a woman who was later to become his second wife). Perhaps it is more appropriate to think of what Hans von Bülow remarked: that the first movement was ‘speech’, and the second ‘song’.

The tempo markings of each movement are given in German (as of 1814 this was Beethoven’s preference rather than using the customary Italian). Mit Lebhaftigkeit und durchaus mit Empfindung und Ausdruck can be translated as: ‘With liveliness and throughout with feeling and expression’. Even if this sonata is not quite in Beethoven’s ‘last’ period, it is on the brink of it in many ways. The first movement uses very little material to express a great deal. We do certainly have the idea of two different characters engaging in conversation right at the beginning—one quite straightforward, the other pleading (made clear not only with the different dynamics but with different note lengths as well). The second movement switches to the major key (something which Beethoven used again in his final sonata, Op 111). Marked Nicht zu geschwind und sehr singbar vorgetragen (‘Not too quick and in a very singing manner’), it is very Schubertian, and indeed the latter was thinking of it when he wrote his Rondo in A major for piano duet. It is in strict sonata-rondo form, with the main theme appearing three times in its original form, and once at the end starting with the tenor voice, giving it a beautiful warmth. Czerny advised finding different colours for it each time and especially not dragging the tempo. Some expressive counterpoint in the final pages is a hint of what will come in the final five sonatas. The end comes as a surprise—a slight accelerando followed by the briefest of goodbyes.

Is there anything left to say about the Piano Sonata in C sharp minor Op 27 No 2, the so-called ‘Moonlight’ Sonata? Every pianist, professional or amateur, has had a go, at least at the first movement. It is one of the most famous pieces ever written, and was so even in Beethoven’s day. Czerny reports that the composer remarked: ‘People are always talking about the C sharp minor Sonata. Really, I have written better things.’ And poor old Rellstab, the poet and music critic, would probably be very angry to know that he went down in history mostly for being the person who dropped on it the title of ‘Moonlight’. It is not at all certain that Beethoven was dreaming of his latest amour when he wrote it in 1801; it was dedicated to the sixteen-year-old Countess Giulietta Guicciardi (with whom he had fallen in love by November of that year) only as an afterthought when another piece he had dedicated to her had to be given to somebody else.

In the opening movement of this sonata ‘quasi una fantasia’, Czerny sees a ‘night scene, in which the voice of a complaining spirit is heard at a distance’. There is much discussion about Beethoven’s pedal marking senza sordino, meaning with pedal. On the instruments of his day, you could hold it down without clouding the harmonies too much, giving a very special effect. On today’s pianos that would sound very strange indeed. Czerny recommends changing it with each bass note, which seems more sensible. The most important thing is to capture a magical mood, to play it with a beautiful touch, thinking of the long lines and the alla breve time signature (two to a bar, not four). The short Allegretto that comes next cannot immediately be unconditionally happy. Its cheerfulness is still tinged with regret. But then all hell breaks loose in the final Presto agitato. Something which I find often overlooked is that much of this tempestuous movement is actually marked piano. The loud bits are then in contrast even more dramatic. In a letter to Wegeler, in which he also confessed his love for la Guicciardi, Beethoven wrote of his determination: ‘For some time now my physical strength has been increasing more and more, and therefore my mental powers also. Every day brings me nearer to the goal which I feel but cannot describe … I will seize Fate by the throat; it shall certainly not bend and crush me completely.’ This sonata proves that abundantly.

Angela Hewitt © 2010

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