Hyperion Records

Piano Sonata in E minor, Op 90
composer
summer 1814; No 27; dedicated to Count Moritz von Lichnowsky

Recordings
'Simon Barere – His celebrated live recordings at Carnegie Hall, Vol. 4 – 1949' (APR5624)
Simon Barere – His celebrated live recordings at Carnegie Hall, Vol. 4 – 1949
Buy by post £8.50 APR5624 
'Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 3' (CDA67797)
Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 3
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67797 
Details
Movement 1: Mit Lebhaftigkeit und durchaus mit Empfindung und Ausdruck
Movement 2: Nicht zu geschwind und sehr singbar vorgetragen

Piano Sonata in E minor, Op 90
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The Piano Sonata in E minor Op 90 dates from 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 Op 26 Sonata 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.

from notes by Angela Hewitt © 2010

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