performed by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, or below by Annie Fischer
In today’s work, as with all previous Beethoven sonatas, and likely with all future ones as well, we turn to the wealth of knowledge to be found in the lecture series about these works given by Sir András Schiff. I believe these have to be some of the greatest gifts given to music. They are outstanding. As below:
The second sonata of this set of three is also in three movements, also dedicated to Countess Anne Margarete von Browne, or rather the entire set is. It’s one of the shorter sonatas in Beethoven’s output, and the shortest of this op. 10 set. We shall soon see some more of this Browne family, in this weekend’s posts, but they were an important family for Beethoven, the husband at least.
In contrast with the C minor seriousness of the previous sonata, Schiff describes this work as witty, bright, humorous. The fifth sonata is in Cm, and as we saw yesterday, even prefigures the fifth symphony in a certain figure. Well, to back up his claim that F major is a sunny, pastoral key, Schiff plays the opening of the sixth symphony, on the piano, immediately identifiable, the ‘Pastoral’, and we get the point. The sixth symphony is also in F major.
Again, in this sonata, we have two themes, ‘something vertical against something horizontal,’ as Schiff says. The opening is bright and bouncy, with chirps and echoes, but then that second theme is the “huge melody” of which Schiff speaks, thick chords, in bright C major. It’s so simple, yet so effective.
In the close of this exposition, Schiff mentions the importance of humor, the sense of comedy, found in this work, the great contrasts of dynamic range:
Musical humor as Haydn taught us, and as he told Beethoven, is based on expectation and surprise… it only works in a situation where composer and performer and the audience share the same language…
Toward the end of the exposition, there’s a “correction” in an interesting chord Beethoven writes. It’s at a critical point in the phrase, and it’s not what we expect to hear, so after this ‘wrong’ chord, we get the correct one as kind of a timid whisper just behind it. Listen for yourself:
… and then Beethoven carries on with his finishing the development. Schiff says that
What follows is comical, because it’s sort of out of a circus. The two hands are deliberately not together. This is again funny because it’s something very naïve, and the two registers… it is like somebody who is very short and the other one is very long, or very thin and very fat, Laurel and Hardy.
The exposition (and its repeat!) ends with three final, commanding (and also correct) chords, tonic-dominant-tonic, giving us a good sense of close to the exposition, but there’s yet another echo that appears, in the parallel minor, of this final statement, and it launches us into a fugal development, where “then, like a homage to Johann Sebastian Bach, he takes this like a theme of a fugue… with a little counterpoint of triplets, and then continuing in fortissimo, but always secco, dry and short…”
It’s really wonderful how this very serious sounding development, a fugue seemingly out of nowhere, presents another great contrast to the light, even comical, opening. There’s another contrast, though, which is this sonata’s long development as compared with the very brief development section from the fifth sonata.
We hear a bit of the same ‘hands out of sync’ splashy offbeat type thing after this fugal passage, but Schiff says it’s brand new. After all this musical excitement, we find ourselves back at the theme of the opening, but again in the wrong key. As Schiff says, “that’s his joke. He pretends that he has lost his way. He doesn’t know where the exit is, and so he misleads us into a false reprise…” So we find ourselves in D major, also a bright key, but then we eventually do return to F major to round out this delightful movement.
This entire F major sonata, as Schiff says, “would be sunny and cheerful to the very end were it not for the allegretto, like a dark cloud above it.” It’s not tragic, necessarily, certainly nothing like we’ll hear later, but it’s melancholic, more like an intermezzo, as Schiff says. It is indeed about half the length of the first movement, and is a minuet in the minor key, with a brighter, more relieved trio. The return of the minuet at the end is “developed differently” than how it was first introduced to us, making for a beautiful movement, simple, but full of little gems.
The final movement, yet shorter than the minuet (at least in Bavouzet’s recording), is a “tour de force,” as Schiff says, with “Bachian invention… rustic, like a peasant dance.” The line that begins the movement in the bass voice is repeated two more times, for a total of three entries, but Schiff tells us not to worry: it isn’t a real fugue. Instead, we have a playful, rustic theme that’s never played loud until the first forte only later in the movement, after this exposition is repeated, and it’s somehow even more delightful than the first time we heard it. The development is very short, and there’s more counterpoint and fugue-like ideas, and the recapitulation is not an exact return of the opening but yet more fugal variation, with a closing coda.
What excites and astounds me is the whimsy present in this work from the very beginning. It’s free and light and joyful, but there are also some very “serious” musical elements present throughout, like the “Bachian” fugal elements and use of counterpoint. Even the perpetuum mobile of the finale, with its Bach-like elements and nonstop notes, is fun and refreshing. The middle movement brings some quieter somberness to the work, and overall, it sounds to me like we can hear the composer smirking to himself at the piano, with a wealth of ideas and color in the spontaneity of the work.
We’ve covered two of the three op. 10 sonatas, the first serious, the second humorous, and now we have only to finish this set with the final work, the seventh sonata, op. 10 no. 3, and we will do that Friday, so stay tuned and thank you very much for listening.