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The Opus 106 Sonata stands as Beethoven’s most emphatic glorification of the piano from its first measure to its last, and even, indeed, from its title page. The work was published as 'Sonate für das Hammerklavier'—Hammerklavier simply specifying the modern piano (played by striking the strings with hammers) rather than the harpsichord (plucked strings)—following Beethoven’s patriotic determination in 1817 that 'henceforth all our works on which the title is in German shall, instead of ‘pianoforte,’ carry the name of ‘Hammerklavier.’' Of course, each of the thirty-two sonatas is decidedly for the piano—although his Opus 2 was published, so as to not preclude sales to keyboard players yet to upgrade their salons with modern instruments, as 'TROIS SONATES pour le Clavecin ou Piano Forte'; but to play even these early sonatas on the harpsichord is ridiculous—and the title page of Beethoven’s previous Sonata, Opus 101, bore the same German designation as his Opus 106. However, for musicians and music-lovers, 'Hammerklavier' can and will forever mean only this magnificent B flat major Sonata. The word itself, with its suggestion of force and the enormity of fate, aptly reflects the Sonata’s immensity, and the score illustrates Beethoven’s assiduous attention to register, dynamics, and color in custom-fitting this Sonata for the instrument. (Lewis Lockwood adds that Beethoven composed the Sonata after receiving a new six-octave grand piano from the English maker Broadwood; 'If the Broadwood tone was perhaps less brilliant than that of Viennese pianos, its capacities for a wide range of dynamics and tonal shading compensated well. And modern performances of Beethoven’s later sonatas on a restored Broadwood should convince anyone that tonal shading, subtlety of dynamics, and beauty of sonority, were now more vital than ever in Beethoven’s conception of keyboard writing.')
The 'Hammerklavier' Sonata makes its mission statement clear straightaway in the exposition of the first movement Allegro. Its first theme foreshadows Robert Schumann’s Romantic alter-egos, the virile Florestan and the sensitive Eusebius, in its integration of starkly contrasting ideas: clanging fortissimo chords, answered by gentle lyricism.
The tension established between these contrasting humors is drawn out as the movement unfolds, especially in the thoughtful counterpoint of the development section, itself a prefiguration of the fugal finale. Meanwhile, Beethoven makes purposeful use of the piano’s expansive range and broad color palette, as the music forayscourageously into remote harmonic terrain.
The pithy Scherzo is the shortest among any of the piano sonatas: a puckish postscript to the Allegro (and in the same key), punctuated by a strange trio section. A heartrending slow movement follows, to be played appassionato e con molto sentimento. Beethoven here makes use of the una corda pedal, softening the instrument’s timbre, and instructs the pianist to play the theme in a hazy mezza voce. This, the longest of the 'Hammerklavier'’s four movements, is an inspired expression of pathos and tenderness.
An extended Largo introduction prefaces the massive fugue that concludes the Sonata. Here, Beethoven’s lifelong fascination with Bach—dating from his childhood mastery of The Well-Tempered Clavier, and resurgent in his later years—is given voice with the muscularity of his 'heroic'-period works. The fugue subject itself is a sprawling utterance, betraying the movement’s grand aspirations before its contrapuntal treatment has even begun.
The exhaustive fugue that follows marks one of Beethoven’s most staggering contrapuntal accomplishments. 'There is in this finale, as in the Grosse Fuge, an element of excessiveness', writes Martin Cooper, 'an instinct to push every component part of the music … not just to its logical conclusion but beyond.' The obsessive exploration undertaken in this finale reveals simultaneously a completist impulse and a transcendent artistic vision, calling to mind Gustav Mahler’s view of the symphonic form that it 'must be a world. It must embrace everything'.
from notes by Patrick Castillo © 2014
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