Hyperion Records

Piano Sonata in E major, Op 109
No 30

'Beethoven: The Last Three Piano Sonatas' (CDH55083)
Beethoven: The Last Three Piano Sonatas
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Movement 1: Vivace, ma non troppo – Adagio espressivo
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Movement 2: Prestissimo
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Movement 3: Andante molto cantabile ed espressivo: Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung
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Piano Sonata in E major, Op 109
Beethoven was fifty. Though completely deaf, the ageing composer stood at the height of his creative powers. While rumours circulated that he was ‘written out’ since few of his pieces had recently been published, Beethoven was sketching several gigantic new works: the Missa Solemnis, the ‘Diabelli’ Variations, and the Ninth Symphony. Then, in the spring of 1820, he turned for the last time in his career to his favourite medium of the piano sonata. Between 1820 and 1822, he repeatedly set the Mass aside in order to write a trilogy of piano sonatas for the publisher Adolf Schlesinger, which became one of the outstanding achievements of Beethoven’s late style.

The compositional origins of the Sonata in E, Op 109, actually preceded his negotiations with Schlesinger. It was apparently another request, from the editor Friedrich Starke, that motivated Beethoven in April 1820 to write a ‘new little piece’ or bagatelle – this is what eventually became the Vivace ma non troppo of the sonata. Beethoven seems to have originally contemplated a new two-movement E minor Sonata (like his earlier sonata Op 90) with the independently conceived first movement. In the end, however, he integrated all three movements through a network of motivic and thematic relationships.

The first movement of Op 109 reflects Beethoven’s interest in parenthetical structures that enclose musical passages within contrasting sections. The opening Vivace material is interrupted after only eight bars, as it reaches the threshold of a cadence on the dominant of E major.

The cadence is not granted but evaded in the ensuing fantasy-like Adagio passage, whose elaborate arpeggiations make a striking contrast with the Vivace material, with its uniformity of rhythm and texture. Yet, when the music finally arrives firmly on the dominant cadence, this is timed to coincide with the resumption of the Vivace music in the very same register as before. The entire Adagio section is thus positioned at the moment of the interrupted cadence, and the resulting parenthetical structure give the effect of a suspension of time, or the enclosure of one time within another.

The bold and unpredictable quality of the music is sustained by Beethoven’s avoidance of literal recapitulation in later stages of the movement. Only in the coda are aspects of the Vivace and Adagio sections combined, while Beethoven simultaneously prepares the surprising plunge into the ensuing Prestissimo in E minor. The Prestissimo is in 6/8 metre and suggests a scherzo, though it is in sonata form and lacks a trio. Its driven, agitated character relents at the end of the brief contrapuntal development, leading to a soft una corda passage that slows and then virtually suspends all sense of forward motion.

The theme of the variations that close Op 109 resembles a sarabande, a dignified Baroque dance type whose rhythm stresses the second beat of each bar of triple metre. Its reflective character results in part from a meditative dwelling on the tonic note E, which is approached at first from the third above and then from more expressive, distant intervals above and below. Beethoven’s indication Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung (‘Cantabile, with the most heartfelt expression’) underscores the sublime lyricism that characterises the whole, culminating in the extraordinary sixth variation and the following closing da capo of the original theme.

After the striking contrasts of the first five variations, the sixth at first seems to bring us full circle, with a return of the original sarabande; but Beethoven now explores the theme from within. Its dominant pedal is prolonged and soon elaborated as a slow trill; after several rhythmic subdivisions, it grows into an unmeasured pulsation of fast trills sounded in both hands. Through a process of rhythmic acceleration and registral expansion, the slow cantabile theme virtually explodes from within, yielding, through a kind of radioactive break-up, a fantastically elaborate texture of shimmering, vibrating sounds.

This ecstatic moment was foreshadowed in the coda of the first movement and at the fortissimo climax of the fourth variation, among other passages. After the climax a gradual diminuendo eventually resolves to the slightly varied da capo of the sarabande, which now seems transfigured by the experience we have undergone in re-approaching it.

The variations concluding Op 109 embody two cycles of transformation: the first five variations recast the theme and develop its structures and character in a variety of expressive contexts, while the sixth variation initiates a new series of changes compressed into a single continuous process that is guided by the logical unfolding of rhythmic development. In the final variation an urgent will to overcome the inevitable passing of time and sound seems to fill up the spaces of the slow theme with an unprecedented density of material. This idea, in turn, was to be expanded by Beethoven into the controlling framework of the variations on the Arietta that conclude Op 111, the last movement of his last sonata.

In Op 109, unlike Op 111, Beethoven concludes his variation finale with a da capo repetition of the original sarabande-like theme. This procedure suggests an affinity with Bach’s celebrated ‘Goldberg’ Variations, in which the theme or ‘aria’ is also a sarabande whose concluding return frames the entire series of variations. Two of Beethoven’s variations in Op 109 show a kinship to Bach’s ‘Goldberg’ set: Var. 4 is motivically related to Bach’s Var. 3, and the fugal ‘Alla breve’ Var. 5 displays a rhythmic similarity to Var. 22 of the ‘Goldberg’. On the other hand, the return of the theme at the end of Op 109 is not a literal da capo restatement: internal repetitions in the sarabande are now removed and Beethoven also simplifies certain details, curtailing all but one of the arpeggiated chords that decorated the original theme. His most important change, however, has often been misunderstood: he added in his autograph score a marking for the pedal to be employed for the final chord, but indicated no release. Here, the sound has been allowed to decay slowly. Such innovative use of the sustaining pedal enhances the openness of the conclusion, as the long resonating sound prolongs the E major sonority that began and closed the sarabande. This remarkable closing gesture of Op 109 creates a rapport between sound and silence that reminds us of Beethoven’s favourite dictum, ars longa, vita brevis (‘art is long, life is short’). Even as the work ends, it protests against termination and inevitable transience, inviting us to continue within ourselves its circular design beyond this germinal sonority.

from notes by William Kinderman © 2002

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