How to introduce new trends
Every development of a musical genre has its own point of departure. In Ludwig van Beethoven's piano sonatas, this consists of the three Sonatas Op. 2, with which he immediately created an exclamation mark. As Beethoven's first works in this genre, they must naturally undergo an artistic comparison with the contributions made by his near contemporaries Mozart and Haydn. And they must not shrink from this. After all, in these works already, Beethoven took the Classical form of the piano sonata to unprecedented heights. The listener senses his endeavours to set new standards for the genre. Consequently, the Sonatas Op. 2 are the interface between tradition and the new "awakening", the hinge, as it were, between old and new. Because apart from being rooted in the tradition of Haydn and Mozart, as far as composition is concerned, Beethoven forces his way with his three sonatas into the 19th century, in a manner that is impossible to ignore.
The Sonatas Op. 2 are dedicated to Joseph Haydn, with whom Beethoven studied between the end of 1792 and the beginning of 1794. They were written between 1790 (sketches for No. 1) and 1795, and received their first performance in the presence of the dedicatee in September 1795 at the palace of Prince Carl von Lichnowsky. However, in no way can Opus 2 be considered the first attempt of an as yet unsure pupil; rather, it is a work bursting with power and self-confidence, written by a young man who
was attempting to carve his own niche in the market as a major composer. In these independent works, which already differ so greatly among themselves, Opus 2 conveys the greatest individuality - a feature of all the piano sonatas by Beethoven to follow. No work is in any way similar to the next. The first sonata is written in F minor, and is of a concise and strictly dramatic character. On the other hand, the A-major Sonata plays around with the orchestral and frivolous possibilities of the instrument. And the third sonata, written in C major, is a virtuoso work and excels in the concertante parts. However, the four-movement form is common to all sonatas, in which the fast first movements are followed by a slow and a dance movement. In the movements (composed in sonata form), one notices that, frequently, the themes have been compiled simply of basic musical material, such as broken triads, scales, etc., which although slightly arbitrary, at the same time makes them seem very easy to remember. For the most part, the sections of the form themselves are laid out in a highly recognizable style. Besides, Beethoven upgrades the slow movement, and rapidly transforms the rather Baroque-type minuet and trio (Op. 2/1) of the third movement into a fully-fledged scherzo (Op. 2/2). In the last movements, sonata-movement elements are combined with rondo forms. As far as expansion is concerned, all movements exceed the dimensions used until that time. All movements also present an extraordinary diversity of musical characters, about which Beethoven himself later wrote as follows: "When I took a look at my first manuscripts, a few years after I had written them, I wondered whether I was not crazy to have incorporated in one single piece enough diverse content to have filled 20 pieces."
One could consider the first movement of the F-minor Sonata as a study for a sonata movement. Here, Beethoven employs a condensing technique in exemplary manner, in which individual thematic phrases are constantly split off and stripped down to their smallest elements. The consequence of this reduction or, if one so prefers, resolution, is an increasingly stronger "dynamication" of the course of the music. One could also call it an inevitable push forwards, a constantly forward-oriented impulse. It cannot be a coincidence, that Beethoven began his piano sonatas in this manner! And sure enough, he also uses these open, forward-spinning dynamics in the second theme, meaning that once again the "dynamication" of the exposition (in which the themes are normally only "established" and not "developed") leads to a fundamental expansion of the treatment in the development of all structural elements of the movement. For Beethoven, the form of the sonata movement is not so much a model to be filled with musical life, as a "work in progress": the form itself becomes the process.
The slow movement of Op. 2/1 in a varied verse form borrows, albeit with a few adaptations, the main theme from his early C-major Piano Quartet, consequently continuing the musical tradition. The third movement emerges as "a specific dismantling of the traditional, innocent types of dance movement" (Mauser). In keeping with a famous quote, one could also say: "Haydn's wit in Beethoven's hands", which finally in Op. 2/2 also is officially acknowledged with the title of "scherzo".
In the Finale, the listener encounters a sonata form, in which the exposition lacks a real, contrasting theme, and in which the main theme alternates with episodes, and as such behaves as a potential sonata rondo. Compared to the deadly seriousness of the F-minor work, the A-major Sonata Op. 2/2 is bright and lively, in accordance with its key. Playful ease and, in moderation, pianistic virtuosity define its character. In the Allegro vivace, the sonata movement form is enormously extended; here too, the thematic disposition is particularly concise, as was also the case in No. 1, though not free of traces of Beethoven's humour.
The intensity of the expression of the slow movement is profound, and large parts are full of subdued passion, to which certainly also the main theme contributes, which appears three times and contains reminders of the Baroque. After this rather ponderous piece, a new type of movement appears for the first time in Beethoven's piano sonatas: the Scherzo. Far removed from an old-fashioned dance movement, it provides emotional relaxation, even when the middle part of the Scherzo slides away to the remote and mysterious key of G-sharp major.
The Finale is a huge rondo movement, a worthy precursor of final movements to come, such as those in Op. 22 and Op. 90. The disposition of the Piano Sonata in C, Op. 2, No. 3 differs greatly to that of its predecessors. Here, Beethoven was thinking on a large scale, and gave his full attention to the virtuoso and concertante effects. In contrast to the rather chamber-music-like approach of No. 1 and No. 2, the numerous figures, octave and chord passages, as well as scales - particularly in the first movement - could have been taken straight from a Piano Concerto. The first and second themes (at the entrance of which Beethoven deliberately irritates the listener) are allotted well-nigh equal status during the course of the movement and the Coda is a true cadenza, which ends with a trill, as is customary in a concerto movement! Virtuosity and pure pianistic brilliance - even if only for the benefit of the expression. After such a beginning to the work, the slow movement has to come up with a high level of expression - and that is precisely what it does. William Kinderman described the Adagio as one of the "most moving inspirations to be found in Beethoven's early works". It is written in E major (and thus tonally far removed from the original key) and is constructed in three-part Lied form. The Scherzo and, especially, the Finale then again take up the virtuoso character of the first movement. Here, the composer has come up with hitherto unknown pianistic techniques. Here, a pianist-composer is presenting his visiting card. Here, we have a capricious, humorously enigmatic, but most especially, resoundingly virtuoso composition.
English translation: Fiona J. Stroker-Gale
Recording venue: Concertboerderij Valthermond, the Netherlands. 4/2008.
Recording producer: Wilhelm Hellweg
Balance engineer: Jean-Marie Geijsen
Recording engineer: Daan van Aalst
Editing: Ientje Mooij
Piano: Steinway & Sons D-274
Piano-tuner during recording: Michel Brandjes