Beethoven Piano Sonatas
Artur’s choice of instrument for the CD has been informed by intensive aural research into a large number of Beethoven piano cycles on disc. Though in many ways out of fashion, his choice of a Blüthner concert grand piano, model 1 allows him to create his own soundscape: “I selected a Blüthner because it’s more nimble than a normal 20th-century grand, more transparent in texture. I wanted something ridiculously expressive.”
“The popularity of these sonatas can probably be attributed to the public’s liking for titles, since those with titles are among the best loved.” So said the pianist Edwin Fischer; however unfair it may be on those Beethoven sonatas (or Haydn symphonies for that matter) lacking a sobriquet, the memorable nicknames undoubtedly helped to establish these works in the public imagination, where they have remained since Beethoven’s day.
Unlike the other works on this recording, the Grande Sonate Pathétique was so titled by its composer. Its mood of high seriousness is established in the Grave introduction, which turns out to be rather more than that. Its reappearance in the development and recapitulation looks forward to the “arrest/movement” polarization of the Op. 31/2 Tempest sonata. The popularity of the Pathétique is due in part to the straightforward appeal of the Adagio cantabile, a simple rondo whose memorable theme is sung out in the rich tenor register of the instrument. The concluding Rondo, despite the defiant “Beethoven-in-C-minor” final gesture, is lighter in mood than its preceding movements; its rather elusive theme, which Beethoven is said to have played “humorously”, is a world away from the brow-furrowed sentiments of the opening movement.
The “moonlight” title derives from a striking image from the pen of the poet and critic Ludwig Rellstab – “a boat visiting the wild places on Lake Lucerne by moonlight”. The predominantly low sonorities of the opening Adagio sostenuto certainly conjures up a crepuscular scene. Timothy Jones has suggested that the constant piano (or softer) dynamic and the desolate, tolling melody could be “a representation of Beethoven’s impaired auditory world and – at the same time – a lament for its loss”. The brief Allegretto – “a flower between two abysses” in Liszt’s telling phrase – is directed to be played attacca from the Adagio and serves as a moderately-paced bridge between the slow opening movement and the climactic finale. Beethoven employed a similar formal strategy both in Op. 27 No. 1 (like the Moonlight entitled Sonata quasi una fantasia) as well as the preceding Op. 26 sonata. In all of these works, Beethoven finds new ways of interconnecting materials between movements and of transferring weight to the finales. The concluding Presto agitato of the Moonlight transforms material from the Adagio sostenuto in a movement of astonishing drive and force.
Indirectly, we have Beethoven to thank for the “tempest” tag to his D minor sonata Op. 31 No. 2. Anton Schindler, one of Beethoven’s circle, reported that he once asked Beethoven to explain the “key” to the Op. 31/2 and 57 sonatas, to be gnomically advised “just read Shakespeare’s Tempest.” The story has the ring of truth about it; it was not the only time that Beethoven made reference to Shakespeare with regard to hidden “programmes” in his music. If it was his intention to link his genius with Shakespeare’s, it worked; during the nineteenth century, the notion became a critical commonplace. The D minor sonata opens with a stark opposition of materials; a soft, arpeggiated chord, marked Largo, followed by a nervous burst of active music, which has more than a hint of the opera house about it. The arpeggios take on an unsettling quality when they reappear at the beginning of the recapitulaion. They flower into strange recitatives, their poetry intensified by their very wordlessness. As Charles Rosen has remarked, Beethoven’s direction to hold down the sustaining pedal at this point lends them “a hollow and even cavernous quality like a voice from the tomb”. Both the arpeggiated chord and elements of the recitatives are employed in the succeeding Adagio, in which the concept of opposites is also continued. Here, the farthest reaches of Beethoven’s piano are exploited in a dialogue of extreme registers. In the concluding Allegretto, the arpeggio is transformed into the material for a nagging perpetuum mobile in which the intimation of the human voice, ever present during the first two movements, seems entirely absent.
Czerny declared that Beethoven’s Op. 57 sonata is “much too magnificent” for its Appassionata title. Beethoven disliked the nickname provided by his publisher, although he declared himself satisfied by the work itself. The enormous scale of its opening movement is symphonic both in structure and sheer volume; for the first time, a work for solo piano could challenge the power of an orchestra. The Appassionata could only have been conceived for a state-of-the-art instrument. In 1803, Beethoven acquired an Erard grand piano, which afforded him an extended treble range as well as considerably increased robustness. The Walter fortepiano on which he performed the Pathétique would have been reduced to matchwood by the shattering power of the fortissimo chordal assaults which Beethoven unleashes at various points in this stormy movement. The Andante con moto presages Beethoven’s visionary slow movements in his final sonatas. A stately, chorale-like theme is subjected to three variations, which ascend by degrees into higher registers of the instrument. As Donald Francis Tovey remarked, the Andante is “…a dream that must be shattered at the first hint of action.” The finale, a tumultuous Allegro ma non troppo, is a sonata form in which Beethoven directs the performer to repeat both the development and recapitulation, thereby creating an effective counterweight to the massive opening movement. In the coda, the pulse is further increased to a Presto for a savage, Dionysiac dance that breaks into a final, frenzied statement of the opening material.
Programme Note by Sandy Matheson, Edinburgh, January 2003
Recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk 16 - 18 October 2002
Artur Pizarro plays a Blüthner concert grand piano model 1 (280cm/9'2") supplied courtesy of the Blüthner Piano Centre, London W1
Artur Pizarro uses the Heinrich Schenker edition originally published by Universal-Edition A.G. Vienna in the republication by Dover Publications Inc.