Movement 1: Allegro con brio
Movement 2: Adagio con molta espressione
Movement 3: Minuetto
Movement 4: Rondo: Allegretto
When Denis Matthews wrote his guide to the Beethoven Piano Sonatas in 1967 he stated that this sonata had ‘dropped out of the repertoire’ and that it was ‘surprisingly free of surprises’. It deserves much more than that. Take the first movement, a brilliant Allegro con brio: there is a lot of material here with which to build something impressive, including unison thirds (which become slightly tipsy when presented in syncopation), rolling tremolos and broken octaves, and then a final subject presented in solid, unison octaves, giving a firm end to the exposition. These octaves, and the opening turn, become the main material of the development, the most surprising part of which is how those same fortissimo octaves become mysterious and almost inaudible when presented in single notes, low in the bass. The recapitulation is almost a carbon copy of the exposition.
The slow movement, marked Adagio con molta espressione, is for me the best part of the piece. Written in 9/8, a lot of its success depends not just on the quasi-operatic singing of the right hand (in which Beethoven’s famous cantabile playing would have showed itself at its best), but also in the quiet and regular delivery of the repeated left-hand chords. The mood is darker in the middle section, with embellishments swirling underneath plaintive sighs. As in the first movement, there is no coda. Enough has been said.
The turn that begins the slow movement reappears in the opening of the Minuetto, but this time with a rather cheeky grace. It is disturbed after the double bar by some written-out trills for all voices, answered by a fortissimo, negative reply. The second time round a decrescendo leads us back to good manners. The trio (actually described as Minore), uses this turning figure in descending passagework, emphasized by offbeat chords. It is reminiscent of a similar passage in Schumann’s Humoreske. Czerny, Beethoven’s pupil, said this section could be a little quicker than the rest.
I have always thought that it is the last movement that causes the most problems in this work. It is one of Beethoven’s rondos (like those of the Sonata in E flat major, Op 7, and the ‘Spring’ Sonata for violin and piano, Op 24) that are quite long, and need a good technique combined with an equally good imagination to hold them together. In his book on the Beethoven Sonatas, originally published in Danish in 1923 (which my father had in his library), William Behrend points out the obvious similarity between its theme and that of a piano sonata in the same key by Ernst Wilhelm Wolf (1735–1792), a composer very much in favour at the time. Perhaps Beethoven knew it. To what could be an otherwise banal theme, Beethoven adds, to quote Czerny, ‘much feeling and tenderness’. The B section gives us drama, bringing back the tremolos and thirds of the first movement. A particularly tender moment comes when the theme is presented in sixths in the left hand. This time there is a coda that almost brings the piece to a quiet close, but in the final second decides against it.
from notes by Angela Hewitt © 2013