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Hyperion Records

SACDA67605 - Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2
Pietrasanta P02.12 (2002) by Caio Fonseca (b1959)
Reproduced by kind permission of the artist /

Recording details: December 2006
Das Kulturzentrum Grand Hotel, Dobbiaco, Italy
Produced by Ludger Böckenhoff
Engineered by Ludger Böckenhoff
Release date: May 2007
Total duration: 74 minutes 11 seconds


Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2
Angela Hewitt is widely acknowledged as one of the great pianists of the age. Gramophone Artist of the Year in 2006 and the recent subject of a week-long artist focus on BBC Radio 3, her frenetic concert schedule and expanding discography bear testimony to her extraordinary talent and energy. Hewitt’s legion of fans will be delighted at this eagerly awaited second volume of Beethoven sonatas. Her first release in this series was fulsomely praised for its ‘clarity, intelligence and elegance’ … ‘fusing poetry and passion’, and all these trademark qualities of her playing are fully present in this second disc. Angela presents three very different works here, written within a period of seven years: the enchanting ‘Pastoral’ Sonata Op 28, the monumental ‘Pathétique’ Op 13 and the dazzling early masterpiece Op 2 No 3. Her interpretations are vividly personal, yet the voice of the composer speaks clearly throughout.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
This second CD devoted to the Sonatas of Beethoven includes three very different works that were written within a period of about seven years. They are presented in reverse chronological order simply because that way they make a more satisfying recital for the listener.

Beethoven gives us one of the most beautiful of all beginnings in the Sonata in D major, Op 28, written in 1801. Over a low D pedal point in the bass, the theme of the Allegro emerges with great simplicity and calm, though the C natural in the opening right-hand chord already signals a depth of expression. Such a pedal point, reminiscent of a bagpipe drone, was often associated with rustic scenes (Rameau’s Musette en rondeau from the E minor keyboard suite is one such example), and so it is perhaps no surprise that a publisher, even in Beethoven’s day always eager to attach a title to a piece to make it more saleable, dubbed this the ‘Pastoral’ Sonata. Beethoven himself went on to call his Sixth Symphony by that name, but that is a true piece of programme music with specific titles for each movement. In this piano sonata, our imagination is left to roam freely.

In the first movement, although it is outwardly so tranquil and friendly (how different from the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata Op 27 No 2, which could well have been written simultaneously), Beethoven is still concerned with construction and conciseness. In contrast to the fluid, lyrical melodies of the exposition, the short development section takes the second half of the opening melody (when it rises after the descent) and steadily builds up to a climax by gradually losing notes from it until only a single chord remains. A series of questioning pauses then leads us back to the recapitulation. Our idyll is disturbed, but only briefly.

This sonata, according to the composer’s pupil Czerny, was one of Beethoven’s favourite compositions, one which he never tired of playing—especially the second-movement Andante. Over a staccato bass (such as we have already heard during the slow movement of the Sonata Op 7), a solemn, almost foreboding theme is played legato by the right hand. Czerny describes it as ‘a simple narration—a ballad of former times’. Then light appears and we find ourselves in the middle of a dance in the major key, with the right hand now happily skipping about. A return to the minor mode gives Beethoven a chance to embellish the theme and add extra tension. A return to the dance—but this time tinged with menace and staying in the minor—is followed by a series of sighs moving up the keyboard, bringing the movement to a poignant close.

We don’t remain in sorrowful mood for long, though. The Scherzo, marked Allegro vivace, begins with falling F sharp octaves, imitating the cadential theme of the first movement (bar 135), and rooting us back in D major. Another dance it is, where the country folk engage in some back-slapping gestures (descending sforzando chords). The Trio is one of the moments in this sonata where the amateur player is likely to come unstuck, since it demands some very agile left-hand work. That F sharp keeps sticking out in the melody every four bars.

The closing Rondo brings us back to the pedal point D, though now happily lilting. Although it seems only an accompaniment it also serves as the first part of the theme—the right hand then commenting on what it has just heard from the left. It is in sonata-rondo form (as is the finale of the C major Sonata that ends this disc), meaning that the opening refrain is interspersed with episodes, of which the first and the last are basically the same (ABACABA) except for the change of key. The C section suddenly launches into a fugue which builds up to a burst of broken octaves, more powerful than those we have already heard. Beethoven could have ended this sonata softly, fading away into the distance. But no; he preferred a bravura ending, instructing the player to play faster, despite the increasing technical difficulty of the left-hand leaps under a tirade of semiquavers (sixteenth-notes). It is as if he can’t contain his joy. Beethoven’s love of nature is well documented, and it was his most comforting source of nourishment. In this ‘Pastoral’ Sonata he seems to express his thankfulness for all it gave him.

Two years previously, Beethoven had published his Sonata in C minor, Op 13 as his ‘Grande Sonate Pathétique’, this time giving the title himself. What exactly did he mean by ‘Pathétique’? He himself never said (or at least we have no record of it). The modern meaning of the word, which along the lines of ‘pitiable’, can only be used as a joke (as we did at music school, saying that so-and-so was playing the ‘Pathetic Sonata’). The word comes from the Greek ‘pathos’, meaning suffering, experience, emotion. But as William Behrend says in his book on the Beethoven Sonatas first published in 1923 (for which Alfred Cortot wrote an introduction), ‘it should be understood in an aesthetic sense, as the expression of exalted passion’. Behrend goes on to say how Vienna at the time followed Paris in adopting ancient Rome and Greece as models, even in fashion (it is true that Beethoven himself had a haircut à la Titus which ‘stood up around his head’, as Czerny put it). Beethoven was familiar with Plutarch, Plato, Pericles and Anaxagoras. He was also a great fan of Luigi Cherubini (1760–1842) whom he called ‘the greatest contemporary composer’. In 1797, two years before the appearance of the ‘Pathétique’, Cherubini presented his opera Médée in Paris (a passionate story of hatred, jealousy, and grief). The score of the opera was later found in Beethoven’s library. An article in The Musical Times of 1924 points out the remarkable similarities between themes in the opera and Beethoven’s piano sonata. Perhaps one of Beethoven’s most original compositions, and one which remains his most popular to this day, had its origins elsewhere? It certainly was something extraordinary for the time. Ignaz Moscheles recounts how after finding the ‘Pathétique’ in a library, he was warned by his teacher not to play or study such ‘eccentric productions’.

The first movement opens with a Grave introduction which is nothing less than a rhetorical gesture (‘rhetorical’ being another important word linked to the meaning of ‘pathétique’). Behrend describes it thus: ‘We are at once aware of the dignified, self-conscious throw of the toga with which the figures of the tragedy step forth upon the stage … while they impart to us the story of their fate and their sufferings.’ Once that is done, Beethoven launches into an Allegro di molto e con brio with drum-roll tremolos in the left hand, and a rocketing theme in the right. The second subject introduces some rather perilous hand-crossing which takes great control yet mustn’t sound cautious. I love Tovey’s advice on this movement, which I can’t resist quoting: ‘Remember that it is very unimportant whether you take six months or six years in screwing this Allegro up until you can break speed-records, but that it is very important for your own harmonious development that you should not play it badly at any stage of your practice.’

Then we have a problem to consider. Beethoven never indicated that the repeat of the exposition should return only to the Allegro section. This was added at a later date by a publisher. So perhaps he meant us to return to the very beginning and play the Grave once more? This is what I do (and what many other pianists, including Serkin, have opted to do as well). Considering the overall structure of the movement, each time Beethoven comes to a crashing pause in the Allegro, he then returns to the music of the Grave, so why should this first time be an exception? It makes the first movement longer, of course, but for me much more satisfying to play.

As with the previous sonatas, the Op 10 set, the Viennese publisher Eder issued an edition of the ‘Pathétique’ saying it was for either harpsichord or piano. Again, this is nothing more than a cunning marketing technique. As Michael Steinberg wrote in his wonderful notes to the Beethoven Sonatas, the second movement of Op 13 ‘must have sent the harpsichord owners running to the nearest piano store’! Nowhere is Beethoven’s famous cantabile playing more essential, more demanding, to the point where even the piano seems inadequate to produce what one wants to hear—a pure vocal line, or perhaps one played by a cello (given its low register). In fact, through most of this simple yet profoundly moving Adagio cantabile, I hear a string quartet playing. The triplets that Beethoven introduces in the second episode become a marvellous accompaniment and variation to the original theme, first played by one instrument, and then by two, creating a beautifully harmonious effect.

The concluding Rondo (Allegro) stays somewhat with this air of sophisticated simplicity. Wisely, Beethoven does not return to the dramatic scenes of the first movement (even he could not top that) but gives us a theme that is slightly reminiscent of his Third Piano Concerto finale (also in C minor). It is wistful, somewhat haunting, playing a trick on us at the end by presenting itself in A flat major. But Beethoven ends defiantly in C minor, leaving no doubt as to the nature of the sonata as a whole. It is said that he himself played this movement ‘humorously’ which seems to be at odds with the overall character. Maybe there is some explanation in Mark Twain’s remark: ‘Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of Humor itself is not joy but sorrow.’

To finish this disc, I return to the young Beethoven, newly arrived in Vienna and going all out to conquer his public (see the notes on his early life in volume 1, CDA67518.). When he went there in 1792, his patron in Bonn, Count Waldstein, urged him to work diligently and to receive ‘Mozart’s spirit from the hands of Haydn’ (with whom he was to study—Mozart having died the previous year). In the end, the lessons, which began with the study of counterpoint, were not a big success. Haydn was busy with his own compositions and successes in England, and was ill-equipped to deal with the wild personality of the young Rhinelander. Beethoven learned more from studying Haydn’s music than from the man himself. Nevertheless, when the time came to publish his three piano sonatas Op 2 in 1796, the dedication was to ‘M. Joseph Haydn, Docteur en musique’ (referring to his honorary degree from Oxford).

Written between 1793 and 1795, each of these sonatas has a distinct personality, with the Sonata in C major, Op 2 No 3 being the most brilliant of them all. If Beethoven wanted to show how different he was from the many virtuosos who did the rounds of the Viennese salons, he couldn’t have written anything more impressive. Certainly in the opening movement alone, marked Allegro con brio, he would have rattled off the double trills, broken octaves, and crashing chords with an energy that would have been admired by all. There is, however, much more than sheer display in this music. The material, some of which was taken from a piano quartet written as early as 1785, is highly contrasting. The opening twelve bars are rather teasing, with much humour and a glint in the eye. Then we have a sudden explosion in C major (it is important to note that there is no crescendo before this) into a great bravura passage. The second subject, lyrical but restless, is in G minor, saving the more usual G major for the tender third theme, which has some beautiful counterpoint. In the development, Beethoven teases us again by presenting a false recapitulation in D major—the wrong key altogether—but then finally comes home to the tonic after more brilliant excursions. Just when we think we might be coming to the end, a crashing chord in yet another ‘wrong’ key—that of A flat major—suddenly gives us a jolt, and leads us into a cadenza which explores the extremities (and thus the different sonorities) of the keyboard at the time. Beethoven is having a great deal of fun here, but at the same time shows an incredible awareness of form and architecture.

This precocious maturity is even more evident in the following Adagio. By choosing the remote key of E major (which Haydn did in his E flat major Piano Sonata written in 1794—an exact contemporary of Beethoven’s Op 2), Beethoven already announces something special. Reading it through for the first time can be deceptive: there is a lot below the surface in this piece which takes time to discover. The opening bars, for instance, can sound rather banal if the silences between them are not full of expression. There can be no sense of hurry—only total repose. After only ten bars things change and we enter the minor key. The melody switches to the left hand—or at least what passes for a melody, as this is in fact nothing more than a series of octaves followed by sighing gestures with the left hand crossing over the accompaniment in the right. A successful interpretation of this movement requires a huge palette of keyboard colours, and a sense of how they are applied depending on the harmonic progressions. How new all of this must have sounded to contemporary ears. The music wanders, but the language is so poignant, and each return to the opening theme so welcome, that the total effect is mesmerizing. In the middle, a typical Beethoven surprise comes when he makes a fortissimo insertion of the theme in C major—just in case we have forgotten the key of the sonata.

All of the three sonatas Op 2 are in four movements, another way in which Beethoven stood out from the crowd. The Scherzo takes us back to those counterpoint lessons, with its opening theme presented in strict imitation. As in the first movement of the ‘Pastoral’ Sonata, Beethoven is already using his trick of taking just a few notes of his material and insisting upon them. The Trio provides another moment of bravura, keeping up the pace. Only in the coda tacked on at the end do things calm down, with a tiny note of mystery being added in the left hand.

There is, however, no rest for the player at this point. The last movement, marked Allegro assai, is not for the faint-hearted or weak-fingered. Technical difficulties abound: the ease with which the ascending staccato chords must be thrown off at the beginning; the subsequent finger-breaking passage which must remain light, clear, yet brilliant; awkward tremolos in the left hand; perilous leaps and double-thirds (bar 87); a pseudo-cadenza at the end with a triple trill more reminiscent of a concerto than a solo sonata; and finally brilliant octaves in both hands to bring it all to the most spectacular, yet witty conclusion. In the middle of all that, Beethoven inserts a totally unrelated episode in F major, which starts off like a chorale and ends up sounding like his ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. The perfect combination of heart, mind and humour makes this sonata, in my opinion, one of his most fulfilling pieces to perform.

Angela Hewitt © 2007

Other albums in this series
'Beethoven: Cello Sonatas, Vol. 1' (CDA67633)
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'Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 1' (CDA67518)
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'Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2' (CDA67605)
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'Beethoven: Cello Sonatas, Vol. 2' (CDA67755)
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'Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 3' (CDA67797)
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'Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 4' (CDA67974)
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