Beethoven Piano Sonata no. 4 in Eb, op. 7

performed by Maurizio Pollini, or below by Richard Goode

Also, required (or at least very enjoyable, informative) watching (actually listening) is Andras Schiff’s lecture about the piece from Wigmore Hall below:

Dating from 1796, Beethoven’s second-longest piano sonata, the Grand Sonata, was completed in Bratislava and dedicated to one of his students, Babette, of Keglevich Palace. Sounds Fancy. And like Schiff says, she must have been a hell of a pianist, because this is a seriously big work.

The first movement, as one would expect, demand even, from Beethoven, has two wonderfully engaging subjects, the first more delicate and flowing and quite short, the second expansive and heavier. The transition between them is pretty clear, with the first heavy, almost hammer-like chord that stops the repeated notes in the bass and all the rest, which become only stronger and a bit more orchestral-sounding and virtuosic in the second theme. The exposition and its repeat take up half of the first movement, with a very quick but inventive and tumultuous-sounding development, again very symphonic in nature. As Schiff points out in his lecture on this sonata as well as those that came before it, it appears that Beethoven is thinking orchestrally, and one can hear horns on the repeated E-flats at the beginning and elsewhere, etc. That makes up most of the first movement, but there’s a nice little coda, which feels sort of like a misplaced part of the development; it’s about as lengthy, but it rounds out a very colorful, logical, structural, very enjoyable first movement.

Schiff hails the second movement as one of the greatest slow movements in all of music. It’s in a ternary  (ABA) form with a long coda. This simple ternary form slow movement is nearly as long as the opening sonata-form movement, though, so it’s not insignificant in any way. Broad, expansive, and marked largo, con gran espressione, it’s marked by dramatic long pauses, moments of silence between phrases. It was in this movement that I learned that Pollini, like Gould, likes to (at least in places) hum along with his own performance, and its rather obvious in this movement, with deep, passionate breaths, and his quiet singing along in some of the more fiery moments of rich chords. I’ve gotten used to it, and know when the pianist is most obviously vocal.

The central B section I wouldn’t say is quieter, or even sunnier, or more melancholy, but is void of the hesitation and pregnant pauses that marked the opening theme. What is present is another orchestral quality of the piece, little chirps from high in the piano that sound like they could be clarinet or bassoon or piccolo calling out in the piece, lending a spacious, distant quality to the already quite broad slow movement. The A theme returns before leading to a coda as substantial as any other section of this movement. (It’s the return of the A theme where Pollini appears to me to be most vocal. I’d be moved if I were playing this, too.) The climax comes early in the coda, and the rest closes out the movement beautifully and delicately.

That brings us to the scherzo, the shortest movement of the work. The scherzo itself is merry and upbeat, a less pensive relative of the second movement, without the fury or bite of what the scherzo would come to be in many cases. Pollini gets vocal in the scherzo as well, but his playing is exhilarating.

What is also exhilarating is the trio. It’s suddenly this minor-key storm-clouds-rolling-in passage in two parts, also orchestral, like the stormy passage out of the Pastoral symphony. It’s expansive, ominous, full of texture, and dark blues and grey, but not for long. In an almost illogical change of gears, we’re back to the scherzo, sunny and even a little bucolic-sounding now that the skies have cleared.

And then the finale, a (sonata-)rondo (?). With each section of this work, the orchestral sounds become ever clearer: I hear horn calls, runs from strings, chirps from woodwinds. Again, there are pastoral, glimmering elements here (like the runs up and down in the bass), but also some more tumultuous, busy moments that show this finale to be a virtuosic one. To think that Beethoven wrote this for one of his students. This movement seems to fit so well with the rest of the movements; I hate to keep using words like bucolic or pastoral, but there’s a youthful, kind of natural freeness in the work, especially thinking about the composer out on some visit to a palace in that typically expansive, beautiful countryside type-landscape that palaces are always on.

After all the fireworks and orchestral color and vibrance and small stormy passages, an exploration of the Bratislavan countryside, perhaps, the finale reaches a coda that caps off this rather epic sonata not with fanfare or bombast, but a quiet, polite bow, fading away to a quiet cadence. (Also, you might enjoy the color-coded analysis here of the work, if you can put up with the MIDI ‘performance.’)

What an ambitious work for an op. 7, and again, dedicated to a student of his, no less. Of course, by the time of this op. 7, he already had 3 other sonatas (the op. 2 sonatas) under his belt. While I perhaps read an idyllic, provincial program (or at least scenery) into the piece, however it is that you hear it, it’s still a large work, one with passion and color and scope, and we’re still quite early into the young Beethoven’s career. To think that there are still 28 more sonatas to learn about and enjoy after this one tells you something about how far he would go in the genre, and how much more listening I still have to do. Stay tuned for more from Beethoven this week.

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