Sunday, May 20, 2012

A vision for the future in Beethoven's last piano sonata

Beethoven's last piano sonata, No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111

In this May 1936 Electrola recording of Op. 111, that great Beethovenian Elly Ney (1882-1968) plays the Maestoso introduction and the exposition of the main Allegro (which is marked for a repeat that we're not hearing).

by Ken

Angry? Defiant? Just powerfully assertive? And yet there's something else going on at the same time, almost at war with those violent outbursts. I tried to find an earlier stopping point, and just couldn't -- I took it right up to the repeat marking. (It's only the Allegro section that gets repeated.)

In Friday night's preview we heard what I think are extraordinary -- as well as extraordinarily different -- performances of Beethoven's first piano sonata, the F minor, Op. 2, No. 1 (a set of three sonatas, like the set of three piano trios that makes up Beethoven's Op. 1), by Artur Schnabel and Glenn Gould. That was in preparation for today's look at the last of the 32 sonatas -- again one of three sonatas written consecutively, and probably overlappingly: Beethoven's Opp. 109, 110, and 111, astonishingly different musical visions that are almost textbook specimens of the composer's haunted and visionary "late" period.

It came about because I was thinking ahead to a recital I eventually attended Thursday night at which a young Korean pianist played Op. 111 and all four of Chopin's ballades. I wasn't sure how the two would go together. It's not a huge amount of music quantity-wise -- figure something under 30 minutes for the Beethoven sonata and maybe 35-40 for the combined Chopin ballades -- but golly, if you want to talk quality! (In the event, after all our talk about piano encores, there weren't any!)

I didn't know going in whether we would be hearing the Beethoven or Chopin first, and was sort of thinking if it was me, maybe I would start with the Chopin. So I thought we might listen to the second of the Chopin ballades, first a lovely performance by Agustin Anievas, then a more searching performance by Sviatoslav Richter (from the same Prague broadcast from which we recently heard the First Ballade).

CHOPIN: Ballade No. 2 in F, Op. 38

Agustin Anievas, piano. EMI, recorded in London, June 1975

Sviatoslav Richter, piano. Praga, recorded live in Prague, Feb. 21, 1960


After the triumph of Glenn Gould's Columbia Masterwords debut record, the still-dazzling 1955 Bach Goldberg Variations, the Columbia folks thought a perfect sequel would be the final trilogy of Beethoven sonatas -- unaware that GG hated late Beethoven. The first movement of Op. 111 starts with a fine, full-blooded Maestoso, then segues into a hilariously raced Allegro. (You'll recall from Friday that in Beethoven's First Sonata, where quick tempos might be stylistically appropriate, GG in fact took slower-than-usual tempos.) The second movement is also kind of silly.


i. Maestoso; Allegro con brio ed appassionato

First we hear the best kind of traditional performance, beautifully resonant, even noble, from Wilhelm Kempff; then something just as noble but tauter and harder-driving, from Richard Goode, and finally, going in the opposite direction, something really special, darker and more tempestuous, from the great Russian pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva.

Wilhelm Kempff, piano. DG, recorded in Hannover (Germany), January 1964

Richard Goode, piano. Nonesuch, recorded in New York, c1987

Tatiana Nikolayeva, piano. Melodiya, recorded live in Moscow, Mar. 11, 1984


You'll notice straight off that we're staring here in about as different a place from the first movement as one could imagine, an "Arietta" that might equally well be thought of as a hymn, which then . . . evolves, and changes shape, and twists and turns. It's a musical travelogue that has more of the character of a fantasia than what we think of as a sonata. (Which reminds me that we really have to get around to Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy one of these weeks. We did Beethoven's weirdly wonderful Choral Fantasy back in March 2010.)

Is it too far-fetched to suggest that another, perhaps nonlinear descendant of the Arietta is, or rather are, the Chopin ballades?

ii. Arietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile

The Beethoven Op. 109-11 Sonatas were specially favored repertory for Rudolf Serkin, which may partly explain why his son Peter, when he approached the late Beethoven sonatas, approached them very differently, starting with the use of a period instrument. Finally we hear Claude Frank, a wonderful pianist in his own right who happens to be a longtime student of Artur Schnabel.

Rudolf Serkin, piano. CBS/Sony, recorded in New York, Mar. 15-16, 1967

Peter Serkin, piano (Graf fortepiano). Pro Arte/Vanguard, recorded in St. Paul, c1984

Claude Frank, piano. RCA/Music & Art, recorded in New York, c1970


In June 1942 Schnabel, then living in the U.S. during the conflagration in Europe, recorded the last two Beethoven piano concertos with Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony. The same year, in four days in June in New York, he rerecorded two of the first Beethoven sonatas he had recorded in the Beethoven Society cycle: Opp. 109 and 111. Under wartime conditions they went unreleased, and after the war were apparently forgotten, and weren't released until 1976.

BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111
i. Maestoso; Allegro con brio ed appassionato
ii. Arietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile

[2nd movement at 8:18] Artur Schnabel, piano. EMI, recorded in London, Jan. 21 and Mar. 21, 1932 (digital transfer by Bob Varney)

Artur Schnabel, piano. RCA, recorded in New York, June 15-16, 1942


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