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International concert pianist Artur Pizarro offers a recital of some of Beethoven's most beautiful sonatas, the last three, composed between 1820 and 1822, played on a Blüthner piano.
All three show Beethoven breaking the bounds of the traditional sonata by abandoning the traditional movement forms of the medium and exploring new ones. For example, variation technique and fugue usurp the more familiar ‘sonata form’ and the layout of the sonatas as a whole has managed to become both more condensed (Op 111 has only two movements) and more diffuse, in the sense that traditional movement ‘types’ are no longer the cast-in-stone sureties of earlier works. This is particularly the case with Op 109, where none of the movements are where one would expect them. The first alternates between two areas of music marked respectively Vivace and Adagio and, with the latter predominating, seems to be turning the slow introduction/allegro first movement form on its head. The middle movement, despite its tempo marking, has more of the characteristics of a first movement than the expected scherzo, while the finale, like that of Op 111, is a set of variations.
If the form seems diffuse there is at least a sense of unity provided by the thematic material. The arabesque-like figuration of the opening Vivace hides within itself the main idea of the Prestissimo as well as the theme of the variations. The arabesque soon leads into the first of the two improvisatory Adagio sections; only in the movement’s coda does the latter’s stepwise motion merge with the arpeggiated chords of the Vivace. The Prestissimo is in E minor, though, as we have seen, its melodic outline has already been prefigured in a major-key form in the Adagio opening. Unlike the other two late sonatas, there is no fugal writing as such in the present work, though this central movement instead explores elements of canon.
Where variation movements in early Beethoven sonatas usually kept to the basic pulse and form of the melody, gradually introducing increasingly decorative figuration, in Op 109 his approach is much more wide-ranging. The tempo changes with virtually every variation (there are six in all). The third, for example, is based not on the theme’s melody but on its original bass line, and the fifth is an extended Allegro with canonic writing to the fore. The sixth reverts to the tempo of the theme and features repeated notes that gradually quicken until they become a trill that finally dissolves into a last presentation of the theme in its largely unadulterated form.
Piano Sonata No 31 in A flat major, Op 110 (1821)
The ‘disintegration’ of accepted sonata norms continues in Op 110. It is ostensibly in three movements, but the last incorporates both slow movement and finale in alternation. The first movement is in sonata form, opening with a deceptively simple idea (marked—unusually for Beethoven, at this stage of his life—con amabilità), a theme that forms the basis for much of the motivic working of the whole Sonata. The second subject group is an amalgam of short ideas in E flat, one in the extreme high register of the instrument, another a brief alternation of rising scales and falling fifths and the last a more gentle codetta idea that leads into a reprise of the first subject which is in effect the brief, 16-bar development.
The scherzo turns to F major, and is again remarkably simple in its outline and almost joky ideas. Its trio is in D flat major. The real heart of this Sonata is its finale. It opens with a recitative, full of changes of tempo and figuration, before the Adagio proper gets under way—a klagender Gesang (tearful song) over incessant semiquaver chords. This leads straight into a three-voice Allegro fugue and the genius of Beethoven’s scheme becomes clear when the fugue subject recalls the outline of the opening melody of the first movement—a subtle association by suggestion rather than outright imitation. The fugue dissolves into the Arioso and returns with the fugue subject turned upside down, leading into a triumphant coda.
Piano Sonata No 32 in C minor, Op 111 (1822)
In his last sonata, Beethoven seems to have found the ultimate solution to the unity of form by resolving in one movement the conflicts of the other. The two movements contrast on a number of planes: major/minor, Allegro/Adagio, appassionato/semplice, sonata form/variation form, turmoil/ecstatic serenity, earthly/spiritual. The perfection of this two-movement form was not, however, immediately realised by everyone when it was written in 1822. Beethoven’s publisher assumed a rondo-finale had got lost in the post when he received a sonata ending in a long Adagio. Later, when Beethoven’s friend and biographer Anton Schindler questioned him, Schindler was given the reply that he ‘had not had time to write a third movement’, which was conceivably true in that a sketch for an Allegro finale was apparently abandoned in order to complete the Missa solemnis. But most probably Beethoven came to the decision that another movement would have disrupted the character of the sonata as it already stood.
The Maestoso introduction, with its double-dotted chords, prepares the way for the energy and conflict of the main Allegro. Here the semiquaver movement is relentless, with only occasional dramatic pauses and poco ritenente interrupting the constant tossing about of fragments of themes between all registers of the piano. The movement finally comes to rest in a pianissimo C major, and that, in effect, is where the music remains through most of the Arietta. Here there is no conflict—tension is exchanged for sublimity. The simplest of themes is subjected to ever more complex subdivisions of metre, until by the third variation the calm of the original is transformed into euphoric abandonment (with an uncanny foreshadowing of 20th-century boogie-woogie). The fourth variation returns to a more static representation of the theme over a demisemiquaver bass pedal. The fifth variation that follows an episode of trills, with the only real excursion away from C major in this movement, uses the theme in its original form over a busier accompaniment. In the sixth and final variation the theme moves into the uppermost register, intertwining itself around a continuous trill on the dominant, G, the whole becoming ever more ethereal, followed by a short coda ending in a mood of calm contentment.
Matthew Rye © 2003