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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

The Final Sonatas

Melvyn Tan (piano)
Download only Available Friday 12 July 2024This album is not yet available for download
Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: December 2022
Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School, Stoke d'Abernon, Cobham, Surrey, United Kingdom
Produced by Nicholas Parker
Engineered by Mike Hatch & Alex Sermon
Release date: 12 July 2024
Total duration: 59 minutes 37 seconds

Cover artwork: Photo © Studio 2359.
Beethoven’s final three piano sonatas, Opuses 109, 110, and 111, represent towering moments in the piano literature. And yet, without the intuition of Adolph Schlesinger, the Berlin-based publisher who requested the works in April 1820, they probably wouldn’t exist at all; for all their otherworldliness, they also stand as an example of music’s shifting position in the marketplace, as the dominance of the previous patronage model met the new economics of publishing. Accordingly, there’s something especially epochal about this set; for Thomas Mann, writing in Doctor Faustus, the two-movement form of Beethoven’s Op 111 marked 'the farewell of the sonata form'. Regardless of the form’s history after Beethoven, the three works mark a personal farewell to the piano sonata in particular: three displays of structural genius that draw a clear line under a life’s journey in an instrumental form.

In September 1820, Beethoven wrote to Adolph Schlesinger, in an attempt to convince the publisher that the three piano sonatas he had requested were on their way. The first sonata (what would become Op 109) was finished, Beethoven wrote, and the other two were being written frantically, without delay. However, we know from his sketches that Beethoven was being a little creative with the truth here; he was working on his Missa Solemnis in 1820, and only began work on his final two piano sonatas in late 1821. Owing to the delay, the final two sonatas (Op 110 and 111) were not published in Berlin, but instead in Paris, by Adolph’s son, Maurice.

Beethoven’s late style involved many progressive takes on the Theme and Variations form, moving from a structure based on decorative variety to a more analytical style, in which base material was reduced to its core elements, or fused with other forms to create more elaborate modes of organisation. Yet the opening movement of the Sonata in E, Op 109, feels like a mixture of the two styles. It opens with two juxtaposed themes—a bumbling Vivace, slight at just 8 bars in length, then an Adagio espressivo, fulsome and wrought, using expansive diminished harmonies—rather than pitting the two themes against each other as warring statements that eventually synthesise, the ideas develop in tandem, separately. It’s fascinating to watch their developments dovetail through the opening measures.

The fiery Prestissimo that follows is a sudden gear change. Arriving starkly in the tonic minor immediately after the warm bathe of the first movement’s E major conclusion, its terseness continues as it swerves a development section—making the movement a sonatina in essence—in favour of a return to the swashbuckling opening theme. It’s over in a single furious scrawl.

The final movement is a theme and six variations. The theme is a slow movement in triple time; though a natural cantabile melody, Beethoven writes 'Gesangvoll' (‘songful’) to emphasise the singing character, rather than a more literal description like 'Gesang' or 'Aria'. Similarly, the theme’s recurring emphasis on the second beat of the bar suggests a sarabande-like quality, that doesn’t really match its melodic content and character. In these instances, it’s as if the music is actively creating distance between itself and reality.

The first variation maintains the song-like quality, as the melody is transported up the octave and embellished, though a switch in pulse here turns the sarabande into waltz. The second variation sees two contrasting themes developed in binary; the whole movement calls to mind Bach—the Goldberg Variations use the same altered sarabande form as its theme—and the third variation, now in fast duple time, resembles a two-part invention. The invention becomes an elaborately decorated counterpoint in the fourth, and a springy fugato in the fifth. Where that variation builds distinct, individual voices, the motion of the six is formed from a blur: a gently oscillating pattern winds up excruciatingly, then a cadenza-like figure tumbles forth. Completely spent, the opening theme is restated in its entirety, a literal full-circle moment as the same material is repeated, its viewpoint transformed.

The Sonata in A flat, Op 110, begins with another hushed, singing melody, and another sarabande-esque rhythmic pattern, with stress on the second beat of a three-time bar. The bigger form is similar to Op 109, too: a long final movement, preceded by two shorter movements, including a fast, concise second. This scherzo is fast and jocular, with outbursts that sound a little like street-song refrains. A trio section wanders free-form through all manner of chromatic moments; a rare moment of the surreal in Beethoven’s late style, before returning to the squarer, folksy material of the movement’s opening.

The final movement involves a variety of shorter forms, fused together to make a single tragic sweep. It begins with something resembling a recitative-aria structure; after another hushed opening, a lone voice ascends through the middle register, concludes a brief flourish, before settling into a section Beethoven marked 'arioso dolente' (‘lamenting song’). Its anguish is palpable and unrelenting in this A flat minor passage, with every harmonic embellishment only compounding the pain. The second composite, a fugue, lifts some of the gloom, but a redemptive major conclusion is just out of reach, and the ‘lamenting song’ theme returns, sunk down another semitone. At this bleak junction, Beethoven writes 'Ermattet, klagend' above the score: 'exhausted, lamenting'”

Three unison droplets—similar shapes to the motto in the finale of Op 111—mark the movement’s exhausted embers. Out of them, a single G major chord forms, and catches light; the final movement resuscitates around the repetition of this single chord. Beethoven marks the score wieder auflebend (‘gradually coming back to life’) and after the first major-key consolation was spawned a few minutes earlier, the A flat major resolution is finally reached in joyous rapture: a fitting conclusion to a truly heroic form.

Heroism of the tragic kind shapes the opening of Op 111: great leaps, diminished chords, and an overall overture-like grandeur give way to a fateful unison figure, repeated twice; a rumbling trill—important later—collapses into a bustling Allegro. (The combination of key and character make this section more than a little reminiscent of the Fifth Symphony.) Consistent throughout is the sense of Beethoven drawing exclusively from a single internal source, tunnelling into the single motif heard so dramatically at the start, and letting all its possible permutations spring forth. It’s relentlessly restless movement; even when the C major resolution emerges in the final passage, a rumbling bass undercurrent still flows beneath the frozen upper parts.

The second movement couldn’t be more different in character: placid at first, transcendental later on. It opens with a 16-bar theme that glows amber in the first half, and brings to mind the second movement of his Seventh Symphony in the second. Marked 'Arietta', the theme sounds like a distant aria, or cantabile melody designed for an instrument, constructed from leaps rather than steps, continuing the 'song-like' idea from previous sonatas.

And unlike the opening movement, the second of Op 111 retains a clear, steady pulse throughout, despite its increasingly complex mesh of rhythmic subdivisions. As the rhythmic complexity increases—Beethoven later uses unusual time signatures like 12/32 to corral some of these rhythmic quirks—the harmony fleshes out, with increasingly ornate inner parts emerging to fill in the gaps of the sparse opening theme.

There’s a breezy swing to the first variation, as the inner parts pass freely between the hands. The second begins with something approaching modern-day swing, but the feel is altogether less breezy; if anything, this much-feted section is more like rag-time, with its chromatic tweaks, compact piano textures, and uptight syncopated figurations. Then, it explodes into life, with an exuberant solo line falling from up above. There are many extraordinary things about this particular sonata, but one of them principally is the amount of variation Beethoven manages to gain out of a single idea in a single key; with no significant modulations until later on, and few elaborations from the original cell, Beethoven’s first few variations focuses solely on rhythmic, textural, and registral sleight-of-hand to vary his material, working at the extremities of the form.

There’s textural contrast in the next variation, in a rush up the piano from the dark middle-ground and rumbling bass to beguiling, bubbling filigree at the top. A chain of time-stopping trills brings the movement to its stirring climax, before it returns to the original ground of C minor for an extended coda, an improvisation-like expansion on what has come before. The Coda feels like a release that collapses with its final, spent breaths. If the sonata form is truly an exercise in thesis and antithesis, a dual form, then Beethoven’s journey with it ends here: with a black line at the end of a second movement, and no need for a third.

Hugh Morris © 2024

So much has been written about and pondered over with these last three sonatas of Beethoven that I scarcely know where to begin.

I have always seen these works as Beethoven’s eternal homage to his two great inspirations, Johann Sebastian Bach and his more wayward son, Carl Philipp Emanuel whose influence is very much present in the first two of these Sonatas. Take Op 109 for example where almost the entire piece is a glorious musical homage to the ‘Fantasy’, that halfway world between reality and dream, between what might have been improvised and what was written down. Beethoven himself was a famed Improvisor who moved many in performance only to suddenly break away and detach himself in mockery. ‘Cantabile’ and ‘Legato’ passages are very much present too, another Beethoven first, who according to his contemporaries made the piano really ‘sing’. This singing quality continues into Op 110 where the presence of Carl Philipp Emanuel is deeply felt, and where homage this time is paid to the glories of the Clavichord, favoured by numerous composers of the day. This aurally elusive keyboard remains one of the most difficult to play, yet the most expressive. Take the reference to the 'Bebung' effect for instance in the ‘Recitativo’ movement. On a Clavichord the player is able to vibrate the string thus creating a ghostly other worldly effect. On a piano this is much more easily achieved by only half lifting the keys and dampers whilst playing the repeated notes in the right hand, thereby creating a similar effect.

But it is to Johann Sebastian Bach we eventually return to in Op 111. Contrapuntal madness twisting and turning long melodic lines into a passionate fury before finally surrendering to the peacefulness and tranquillity of the second movement and its variations, but not before one last stab of ferocity in the now infamous Bach-goes-to-town variation.

Tackling and approaching any Beethoven piano Sonata can feel like a climb up Everest. If so then the last three Sonatas must equate scaling that very Peak, which we all acknowledge changed the course of musical history.

Melvyn Tan © 2024

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