Artur Pizarro plays a Blüthner concert grand piano model 1 (280 cm / 9’2”) supplied courtesy of the Blüthner Piano Centre, London – www.bluthners.co.uk
Artur Pizarro uses the Heinrich Schenker edition originally published by Universal-Edition A.G., Vienna in the republication by Dover Publications, Inc.
‘So rich an artistic life may, perhaps, best be compared to a splendidly landscaped garden with paths which wind to often wonderful effect among woodland, meadows, valleys and rocky gorges' - Leipzig Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, Thursday 1 April 1824
Ludwig van Beethoven's thirty-two piano sonatas - the mirror of his creative span - explore, like the quartets and symphonies, dimensions of universal experience. To the Romantic pianist-composers they were a turning point: an Olympian reply to the Parnassian world of Bach; a New Testament to the Old of the Forty-Eight, in Hans von Bülow's telling allegory. Bernard Shore's words on Beethoven's symphonies could apply as easily to the sonatas, in focussing their place in history. For him the symphony as a classical genre had its apogee in Beethoven: "During the century that came after him," he believed, "great musicians composed much beautiful music in the form, but we have only to contemplate Beethoven to realise that the zenith was passed, and all-music since is the music of a long-drawn afternoon."
Combining elements of sonata, variation, fugue, slow Viennese ländler and scherzo, shot through with ‘the charm and luminosity of an old sweetheart met again after twenty years' (Edwin Fischer's description), Op 109 - ‘Sonate für das/Hammerklavier,' as it is described in the autograph (Library of Congress) - dates from 1820. In Beethoven's most celestially associative key, E major, the way the subject groups of its concentrated, fantasia-like first movement are contrasted by extremes of tempo and metric change (Vivace, ma non troppo 2./4; Adagio espressivo 3/4) was to have an especially far-reaching influence on Romantic thought. The central E minor 6/8 ‘bagatelle' borders on the Schumannesque. Czerny (Beethoven's pupil) thought it ‘extremely quick and passionately excited, but with a melancholy colouring.' The finale, more tonally passive than its companions, is a set of six variations on one of the most poetically intense melodies of the classico-romantic era. Wonderfully balanced in tempo, texture and detail, it finds its climax in a remarkable series of swelling, trembling trills; and takes its repose in a simple restatement of the theme out of which it all blossomed in the first place. ‘In a collaboration of head and heart,' Eric Blom famously remarked of its timeless poetry, ‘the mind has been in hard pursuit of truth and beauty, but it is the heart which is allowed the last word.'
Op 110, an intricate forging of classical rigour and modern fantasia, recitative/aria and baroque fugue, was completed on Christmas Day 1821. ‘A work in every respect wholly excellent, extremely melodious throughout, and rich in harmonic beauties,' admired the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung. Musical aesthetics of the period held A flat major to be a tonality emotionally ‘as black as night' (Voríšek, Musik Bemerkungen, MS c 1812-15); ‘a key of the grave, death, the Last Judgement, eternity' (Christian Schubart, Ideen zu einer Ästhetik der Tonkunst, c 1784-85, published Vienna 1806). Beethoven's greatest A flat music - the Opp 26 and 110 Sonatas, the slow movements of the C major Piano Concerto, the Pathétique, the Fifth Symphony, the Opp 74 and 127 Quartets - suggests, like Schubert's, a less forbidding, more dolce climate.
Of wraith-like terpsichorean pulse, the proportionately-balanced first movement - its development section signposted by characteristically Beethovenian falling unisons distantly remembering perhaps the (harmonised) start of the Eroica's first movement coda - is through-composed, dispensing with repeats. Following the Hammerklavier and Op 109, the ‘scherzo' comes second - a burly F minor dance in 2/4 offset by a tumbling, hand-crossing middle episode in D flat, and a metrically-displaced tierce de picardie coda. Innovatively, the gravitationally climactic finale combines slow minor-key ‘operatic form introduced by operatic feature' (Hans Heimler) with quick major-key fugue - on a subject derived from the opening of the work (more remotely, the first A flat Fugue from the Forty Eight). Effectively, there are two fugues - the second (‘gaining new life', Beethoven calls it) a compressed inversion of the first - each preceded by a common arioso, the una corda second bordering on the Grecian for sheer tragedy and ‘plaintive exhaustion.' The G major semitone drop of the second fugue, with its ten prefatory ‘Golden Section' chords of dynamically indeterminate crescendo and undamped muted strings (the prolongation of the leading-note from the end of the C major Concerto and the first movement coda of the Seventh Symphony heroized) echoes among the high inspirations of Western music.
Dedicated to his patron and pupil the Archduke Rudolph of Austria, Beethoven's final sonata, Op 111 (1821-13 January 1822), travels a Romantically-charged journey from dissonance to concord, black forte G minor diminished-seventh homelessness to white pianissimo C major repose, primeval darkness to celestial light, earthly passion to heavenly pæan. ‘A summing-up of Beethoven's whole nature,' believed Fischer, a spiritual testament symbolizing ‘this world and the world to come.'
In Beethoven and the Voice of God, Wilfrid Mellers, isolating nine motivating ‘Réti' cells, reminds how the profound introduction, with its gestures of operatic ‘fear' (subsequently recurrent) and ‘French overture' double-dotting, is the work's seed-bed. Typically late period (thought not so extreme as Op 109) are the slower tempo interruptions of the allegro. Likewise the melodic throwback. Previewed in G minor (key of some of the sketches, and of the introduction's initial question and the development's subsequent fugal answer), the essential outline of the unharmonised opening subject, for example, turns up, in F sharp minor, Andante, among sketches for the pre-Eroica A major Violin Sonata from Op 30 written twenty years before (Kessler Sketchbook, 1801-02, SV 263 [Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde]). Much later, in C minor, forte, it lurks among jottings for Op 110, labled ‘3tes Stück presto' (Artaria 201 ‘Skizzenbuch E', 1819-22, SV 14 [Berlin, Staatsbibliothek der Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz]) - suggesting that while Beethoven never lost sight of its bass-identity, he to the end had doubts as where best to place it schematically.) Audibly Beethovenian sound-prints include the unconventional cadencing of the (repeated) exposition in A flat; the dynamically momentous recapitulation; the bass-registered second recall of the second subject, transmoded and transformed into F minor, the sub-dominant; and the prophetically Chopinesque coda, with its diminished seventh and plagal tensions resolving in a twilight halo of pedalled maggiore resonance. The chordal, unisonal, imitative and polyphonic keyboard writing, spanning, compressing and contrasting the registers and colours of Beethoven's six-octave London Broadwood, has a sculpted leanness impossible to miss.
Fancifully likened by the Berlin theorist Adolf Bernhard Marx to ‘the music of a distant funeral procession echoing through the night,' going ‘beyond anything in pure piano music which has ever come before us' (Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung), the visionary second movement is a remarkable synthesis of ‘closed' contained division (with repeats) and ‘open' continuous variation (without). The theme or ground, a neo-baroque 16-bar binary structure in 9/16 pivoted into A minor for the start of its second half, is followed by three progressively quickening variations, the third boisterously syncopated - ‘like looking back at life before leaving it,' Claudio Arrau thought, ‘a joyful assertion.' Var. iv ascends from the deep to high paradise bells that dissolve into what Tovey labelled a ‘modulating coda' - a novel excursion given that Beethoven's codas are more usually about tonal affirmation than denial. Glimpsing E flat (Schubart's ‘key of intimate discourse with God'), this interlude combines the fourths and fifths of the theme with an intriguing metamorphosis of the tonic/subdominant relationships and diminished sevenths of the first movement. Var. v returns to C major for a texturally elaborated da capo of the theme. Reversing earlier event, the timeless ecstasy of the cadential epilogue traces a famous descent from sopranino trebles and pedal-point trills to tenored caesura and bass fourths now rising rather than falling. Schnabel's edition (1949) personalises a più lento/ritardando across the final three bars, con sublimità, espress. Schenker's Urtext (1934), following Beethoven, does not - leaving the sound at liberty to fade away a tempo, like a spirit leaving life inexorably.
‘Unconventional, experimental' music of' ‘lofty spirituality' peopled by ‘many different characters' was Hugo Leichtentritt's postcard landscape of Beethoven's late sonatas. Ranging ‘from inferno to paradiso,' he told Harvard audiences in the thirties, ‘their magnificent cosmic visions (Opp 106, 109, 111) have passed beyond the appassionato and the Titanic phases into metaphysical depths, mystic regions of a world beyond, [while] intermezzi of incomparable lyric beauty and intimacy of utterance (Opp 81a, 90, 101, 110) tinged with melancholy sing of the enchanting loneliness of the terrestrial world.' Op 111, decreed Thomas Mann (Doktor Faustus), ‘brought' the (classical) sonata as a form to an ‘end' - ‘it had fulfilled its destiny, reached its goal, beyond which there was no going'. Ates Orga 2003