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Since the previous work of this composer, the three Piano Trios Op 1 that are already in the hands of the public, has been received with so much applause, one expects the same from the present works—the more so since besides the value of the composition, one can see from them not only the strength that Herr v. Beethoven possesses as a pianist, but also the sensitivity with which he knows how to handle this instrument.
It was Beethoven’s pupil and early biographer Ferdinand Ries who reported that Haydn wanted him to print the words ‘Pupil of Haydn’ on the title page of all his early compositions. According to Ries, Beethoven refused, on the grounds that he had never learned anything from his former teacher. But for all the unsatisfactory nature of Beethoven’s lessons with Haydn, who seems to have been too busy composing new symphonies in preparation for his forthcoming trip to England to pay sufficient attention to his headstrong young pupil, the entire basis of the dynamic, thrusting symphonic style Beethoven was to cultivate with such individuality owes an immeasurable debt to the older composer’s example. In this, Beethoven stands much closer to Haydn than he does to Mozart.
If there had been a falling-out between Beethoven and Haydn in the early 1790s, their relationship appears sufficiently to have mended by the time Beethoven’s first group of sonatas was published. Its title page bore, if not an actual acknowledgement of Beethoven’s former status vis à vis Haydn, then at least a simple dedication to him. Like the Op 1 trios, the sonatas were tailor-made for Beethoven to present his credentials to the Viennese public in the dual role of composer and virtuoso pianist.
On the occasions when Beethoven grouped three works together, one of them would almost invariably be a dramatic work in the minor. More often than not, the minor-mode work formed either the centrepiece of the group, as in the Op 31 piano sonatas, the Op 30 violin sonatas and the Op 59 ‘Razumovsky’ string quartets, or it was placed at the end, as a form of dramatic culmination (the Op 1 piano trios, the Op 9 string trios). In Beethoven’s first two sets of piano sonatas, however, the work in the minor appears at the head. In both cases, the last sonata was clearly the grandest of the triptych; and of the three sonatas Op 10, the second was in any case too compact and lightweight to carry the banner for the entire set. The sonata Op 2 No 1 is also conceived on a smaller scale than its companions, but its placing is justified by its dramatic weight. On stylistic grounds, this first work in the set would seem to be somewhat earlier than its two successors: in addition to its comparatively modest dimensions, its keyboard writing is considerably more simple. Nevertheless, the stark juxtaposition of violently contrasting dynamic extremes in its outer movements is nothing if not characteristic; and the finale is a fiery outburst of a kind pianists would not previously have encountered. The finale’s tempo marking of ‘prestissimo’ is one Beethoven also used for the finale of his two other early works in the minor featuring the keyboard—the trio Op 1 No 3 and the sonata Op 10 No 1. Of his subsequent works, only the middle movement of the E major sonata Op 109 has a similar marking.
One of the novel features of both the Op 1 trios and the Op 2 sonatas was their inclusion of a minuet or scherzo in the domain of what had traditionally been a three-movement form. In the case of the sonata Op 2 No 1, all four movements are in F minor or major, and even the minuet’s trio does not seek to offer tonal contrast. Such homogeneity on a large scale was something of which Haydn was fond, though it had been largely shunned by Mozart. On the other hand, Beethoven’s finale seems to borrow a structural procedure that stems directly from Mozart: its first stage is carried forward in a single thrust, with no room for any change in mood, and thematic contrast is reserved for the start of the central development section, where we at last find a relaxed theme in the major which in normal circumstances would have furnished the exposition’s second subject. The melodic postponement is of a kind that Mozart had used on a few occasions (the ‘Hunt’ quartet K458 and the piano trio K502 provide familiar examples), but its use here is unique in Beethoven. His new theme occupies by far the greater portion of the development section, with the main subject’s characteristic rhythm reappearing only shortly before the onset of the recapitulation.
The shadow of Mozart can also be detected in the ‘rocketing’ main subject of the first movement, which seems to recall the theme of the finale from the great G minor Symphony No 40. Beethoven had, however, already used a similar theme for the opening Allegro of one in a series of three piano quartets he had composed at the age of fifteen, at the time when he was still living in Bonn. The sonata’s slow movement is nostalgic enough for its entire first stage to be based on the Adagio from another of those early piano quartets. (Material from the same work also found its way into the opening Allegro of the last of the Op 2 sonatas.) This first slow movement of the set may lack the breadth and originality of the corresponding piece in the companion works, but it provides the ideal foil to the agitation of the movements that surround it.
from notes by Misha Donat © 2018