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Piano Sonata in C major 'Waldstein', Op 53
No 21

'Beethoven: Piano Sonatas' (CDA67662)
Beethoven: Piano Sonatas
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Movement 1: Allegro con brio
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Movement 2: Introduzione: Adagio molto
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Movement 3: Rondo: Allegretto moderato – Prestissimo
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Piano Sonata in C major 'Waldstein', Op 53
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.

from notes by Misha Donat © 2010

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