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Piano Sonata in E flat major, Op 31 No 3
No 18; sometimes called 'The Hunt'

'Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 4' (CDA67974)
Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 4
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Movement 1: Allegro
Movement 2: Scherzo: Allegretto vivace
Movement 3: Menuetto: Moderato e grazioso
Movement 4: Presto con fuoco

Piano Sonata in E flat major, Op 31 No 3
If the Sonata Op 22 is the last of the early sonatas, sitting on the bridge to Beethoven’s middle period, then the Piano Sonata in E flat major, Op 31 No 3, is firmly in the latter. Beethoven used this key for several of his most famous ‘heroic’ pieces (the ‘Eroica’ Symphony and the ‘Emperor’ Concerto, for example), but in the piano sonatas that feeling won’t appear for another two years (beginning with the ‘Waldstein’, Op 53). And whereas Op 22 begins with its feet quite firmly on the ground, Op 31 No 3 does not. A questioning, dotted gesture on an inverted chord doesn’t even give us much idea of what key this piece is in. We don’t find that out until the eighth bar. Even then, more questions continue to appear in different registers of the keyboard, finally allowing the piece to take off without interruptions. This is for the most part a sunny movement, despite some rumblings and outbursts in the development. It is quite ingenious how that questioning sigh becomes a definite dismissal when the note values are shortened.

Perhaps since Beethoven had just written a glorious slow movement in the previous sonata, Op 31 No 2 (‘The Tempest’), he decided on another route for this work—and what a route it is! The Scherzo, marked Allegretto vivace, is a brilliant piece of writing for the piano, even if it makes one think of the orchestra. Its Haydn-like surprises (fortissimo chords that make you jump out of your seat) come in the middle of staccato writing that must remain very light yet incredibly precise. Not an easy feat, especially if you want to add the necessary humour.

Something else is needed before the finale, so Beethoven gives us one of his most graceful minuets (which he demands to be repeated, even on the da capo). The trio begins with some elegant leaps which, after the double bar, become more insistent, and almost get stuck like a broken record. Seventy-two years later, Camille Saint-Saëns wrote his Variations on a Theme by Beethoven, Op 35, for two pianos using this trio theme as his subject (I performed Saint-Saëns’ variations several years before learning this sonata!). The eight-bar coda is a stroke of genius, quietly withdrawing from the ballroom scene.

Then what? A Presto con fuoco, of course! This finale is the reason why in some countries, mainly France, the sonata is nicknamed ‘The Hunt’ (‘La chasse’). The direction con fuoco is significant in Beethoven’s works (even if only a pretty experienced hunter could go at this speed, as Tovey rightly remarks). Yet every note in each triplet must be distinct and ever so slightly detached. The hunting theme is obvious, and propels us forward in the development section with incredible energy. As Behrend writes: ‘It races on through storm and gale, defiant and gay in its valiant assurance of its own force and strength.’ The passage towards the end where the left hand crosses over the right is treacherous. Beethoven is in his element, for sure.

from notes by Angela Hewitt © 2013

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Details for CDA67974 track 5
Recording date
18 August 2012
Recording venue
Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, Germany
Recording producer
Ludger Böckenhoff
Recording engineer
Ludger Böckenhoff
Hyperion usage
  1. Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 4 (CDA67974)
    Disc 1 Track 5
    Release date: December 2013
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