'...this is a very full-bodied sound...marvellously weighted in the bass and simply presented.' Gramophone
Although, without a doubt, the interpretative analysis of Beethoven‘s piano sonatas represents an absolute peak in the life of any pianist, these exceptional compositions still require the maximum amount of technical skills, highly personal commitment and deeply emotional examination. On the one hand, the 32 sonatas represent, to quote Hans von Bülow‘s famous words, the "pianist‘s new testament" - which definitely tallies with the emphatic, canonical impetus of the works - however, on the other hand, they can be interpreted as "work in progress", in view of their extremely individual and personal expression of the basic form of the "sonata" in general.
In his piano sonatas, Beethoven managed more or less to achieve the unimaginable - in the gigantic range between Op. 2, written between 1793-95 and Op. 111, written between 1821/22, he made his mark with no less than 32 compositional proposals for solutions, whose respective differences must be assessed as distinctive and radical. Alfred Brendel commented as follows: "Beethoven does not repeat himself in his sonatas. Each composition, each movement is a new organism." The form of the sonata
itself had become for Beethoven a technical problem of composition, the solutions to which did not permit any kind of repetition - the prevailing thematic material was so unique, that this was a requisite.
Thus, Beethoven‘s piano sonatas became an open forum for his experimentation; in particular, it was as if the elements of his creative process of composition were focussed on these sonatas like a burning glass, registering their diversity. Here on the piano, the instrument that was truly his, Beethoven tried them out, dismissed them, developed them. New measures, against which following generations had to pit themselves. The sonatas recorded on this SACD are taken, as popular opinion has it, from Beethoven‘s "intermediate creative period" and already demonstrate some distinctive divergence from the usual form on which Mozart and Haydn based their compositions.
The Sonata No. 21 in C, Op. 53 composed in 1803/04, is dedicated to Count Ferdinand von Waldstein. Beethoven‘s decision to replace the middle movement - an extended Rondo in F - which he had originally had in mind with a far shorter, slow introduction, rich in content, shows how this work represents his entry into a new phase in his development as a composer. (The erstwhile Andante was published in 1805 entitled Andante favori.) The measures taken by Beethoven to broaden the harmonic scope in the first movement, Allegro con brio, were highly unusual and had never yet been heard. One could title the course of events in this movement as "Development and Process". Both contrasting themes - chord sequences versus a Choral-like motive - are intensified in a virtuoso manner. The development, located in the middle of the movement, permits the as yet bottled-up thematic energy to burst out completely - and constant new modulations open the door to further areas of sound. The Introduzione: Adagio molto, mediates between the C-major worlds of the outer movements. The final rondo, Allegretto moderato - Prestissimo is no longer an ultimate dance in the Classical style, but becomes in itself the scene of dramatic events. As far as expansion and degree of
pianistic difficulty are concerned, it beats anything Beethoven had so far written. The Prestissimo Coda even comes up with octave glissandi and sequences of multiple trills.
If Op. 53, despite all inherent innovations, may yet be considered a representative of the "Classical" sonata, the Appassionata Sonata in F minor, Op. 57, with its tremendous wild passion and overextravagant expressiveness, bursts its way out of any standard framework. Walther Siegmund-Schulze depicted the sonata, which was written between 1804/05 and dedicated to Beethoven‘s friend Count Franz von Brunsvik, as "the crowning pianistic work of the beginning of the century". In its basic formal structure, the first movement follows the sonata form on the whole. The main theme, a four-bar broken triad, spread over two octaves with a fully harmonized expression of lament and a pianissimo trill, contains the source of suspense for the entire movement. Beethoven heightens the harmonic tension of the construction by wrenching the theme up half a tone. The listener is transported here into a state of suspense caused by loss of orientation, which is re-enforced by a motive which we recognize by its rhythmic structure as the famous pounding motive from his Symphony No. 5. The development unleashes the power of his thematic-motivic work with the material exposed. As a consequence, Beethoven has to place some extended thematic material at the disposal of the recapitulation, so as not to carry too far its function as a counterbalance for the exposition in the sonata movement. The second movement, Andante con moto, is in the ceremonial key of D flat and appears to want to put the world of the sonata movement, which was damaged in the first movement, back on an even keel again, but a suddenly intervening diminished chord leads unexpectedly into the Finale, Allegro ma non troppo, which is unique thanks to its unflagging motivic movement, and passionate and dramatic expression. Beethoven increases the importance of this final movement yet further by the explicit emphasis of his demand "repetizione" in the manuscript - both the development and recapitulation have to be repeated, before a Presto-Coda presents the main theme in an exaggerated version.
The Sonata in E flat, Op. 81a was written between 1809/10 and is dedicated to Archduke Rudolph of Austria, who had to leave Vienna following Napoleon‘s invasion of Austria, as did so many other friends and pupils of Beethoven. Beethoven gave the three movements the bilingual titles "Das Lebewohl - Les adieux", "Abwesenheit - L'absence" and "Das Wiedersehen - Le retour": the work is a three-movement programmatic cycle. The first movement, Adagio. Allegro, opens with a 16-bar, slow introduction, in which Beethoven translates‘ the text: "Le-be wohl!" into music in the opening, horn-like motto. The main part does not just depict a farewell, it also demonstrates his grief concerning his leave-taking of his friends and pupils. The second movement, an Andante expressivo in the parallel key of C minor, consists of lamenting motives and intense dynamic outbursts, and leads without any kind of transition into the Finale, Vivacissimamente, in which the joy of reunion is expressed by the rejoicing quaver-note arpeggios. The work closes in a magnificent fortissimo, thus doing full justice to the heroic key of E-flat major.
(English translation: Fiona J. Stroker-Gale)
Recorded on 20 - 25 January 2003, at the Doopsgezinde Kerk, Haarlem, The Netherlands.
Recording producer: Wilhelm Hellweg
Executive producer: Job Maarse
Balance Engineer: Jean-Marie Geijsen
Recording engineer: Jean-Marie Geijsen
Editing: Holger Busse, Alfredo Lasheras Hakobian
The Steinway & Sons grand piano has been supplied by Ypma Piano's Alkmaar - Amsterdam