performed by Jean Efflam-Bavouzet, or below by Annie Fischer
In the two posts from earlier this week, we discussed the other two sonatas from Beethoven’s op. 10, the fifth sonata, in Cm, as well as the sixth, in F. These works were discussed with the insights provided from Sir András Schiff’s exceptional lectures given on these works, and today will be no different.
Beethoven’s third sonata in his three works from op. 10 is the most adventurous of the set, and is the only one of the op. 10 sonatas cast in four movements, making it the largest of the three as well.
Angela Hewitt, at Hyperion, calls this work “the first masterpiece in the cycle of sonatas,” and Schiff calls it “one of the miracles of music, not just of Beethoven.” In any case, here we are at the seventh sonata, in D major, four movements, at around 24 minutes of playing time, what Schiff also refers to as a sunny key, which may remind us of the sixth in F major. Of its place in the op. 10 set of sonatas, Schiff says:
If I said that the first sonata was dramatic, and the second was comical, I cannot really find an adjective for the third, because it has many, many faces. It’s an enigmatic piece. It has this extraordinary slow movement, largo e mesto, which is an expression of the deepest tragedy that has ever been written, to me, but the first movement is presto a la breve, so…
… and he begins to play.
In his lectures, Schiff discusses not only the structural aspects of form and development, but also interpretive ones, often things he says people seem not to pay attention to, such as where there isn’t a certain marking that people assume, or other fine areas of detail. These certainly enrich our appreciation for Beethoven’s skill, but we shan’t discuss them here.
What is very much of interest is what Schiff refers to as its “monothematic thinking…” Of the very beginning figure, he says:
If you take the first four notes, you can derive almost everything in this sonata from these four notes. We will see later… always these four notes, and the inversion of it…
Once he draws our attention to it and plays a few passages, it’s as if suddenly our black-and-white vision has become vivid color, and we see it everywhere, prime or inverted, in all sorts of uses, and that is the fundamental building block we deal with here. The opening is in D major, as we said, and then after a long modulatory passage through some minor key stuff, we reach the dominant and the second subject. Here he makes a special point of a figure that’s “a grace note, a crotchet and two quavers” that many people, including, unfortunately, the otherwise excellent performance from Annie Fischer, treat simply as four quavers. As Schiff says, if Beethoven had wanted it played that way, he’d have written four quavers.
Anyway, after the “very dramatic development section” with tons and tons of this four-note motif everywhere, very satisfyingly, I might add, we have the recapitulation, “which echoes the exposition in different tonal relationships” and then a coda, where Schiff discusses Beethoven’s special use of the subdominant, here G major. Schiff says Beethoven always reserves “for something very special, and in this case, it’s for this coda… four notes, again like in a string quartet, four players. How much can you do with four notes? He’s really using it to the limits, and then… huge orchestral crescendo, wonderful sonority.”
After that truly exhilarating first movement, we find ourselves at such a wildly different space, the tragedy of the D minor second movement. Schiff tells us that the ‘mesto’ is “something that we associate with death and lamentation, really a crying over somebody very dear.”
He says “I don’t think there had been gravity in music before like this.” If you like Chopin, the funeral march from the second sonata, something like that, have a listen to this movement. It has the deepest, most encompassing sorrow, all around you. “The sheer weight of it…”
In fact, regarding this weight, Schiff speaks of the “severe pulse” that he thinks it should have, and even from listening to the passages he plays, it suits the music. In what Schiff calls “the lament”, or the sorrowful melody that appears, we hear the rubato and expression that sounds like Romantic music that would be written decades later.
…. it is rather operatic, and that’s when one has to apply ‘tempo rubato.’ This is when… Mozart always complained when he heard Clementi’s piano playing… ‘I don’t like Clementi’s piano playing,’ he said, ‘because his two hands are always together,’ and Liszt said beautifully of tempo rubato that it is like a tree: the trunk of the tree is solid, and it stands there, but the wind is blowing the leaves…
The melody is indeed free here, unlike anything we’ve heard from Beethoven (or anyone else?) up to this point, and Schiff emphasizes the idea that the hands are almost independent here, despite what some critics might say.
In any case, of the second movement, not much needs to be said. Wikipedia says that “it is famous for its intimations of later tragic slow movements,” and while it’s touching and heartbreaking, Schiff says that it is “not pretty, not lovely, like a Goya painting.”
After such deep tragedy and frozen silence, then suddenly life begins, and it is like a ray of hope, like a little flower on the side of a grave…
It is indeed sweet, delicate, light, but there’s an atmosphere about it afforded by the previous movement. I’m not just saying this to quote Schiff, but I think if we’d never heard this movement before, and it were plopped into another work somewhere, or alone, not preceded by such a dark, somber movement, that it wouldn’t have this mildest fragrance of sorrow.
… we cannot forget what we heard in the last 10 minutes, so it is through the tears of the previous movement…
The trio is lighter, and more playful, but this small minuet movement is still dwarfed by the length and weight of the largo e mesto.
The finale… starts with a very innocent question: ‘is it true?’
… and slightly after that three-note question mark, we have ‘something like a cadenza’, played slightly out of tempo, followed by a raising of the eyebrow in a deceptive cadence. The finale is in sonata-rondo form, and once the tempo picks up, we are officially on our way. The music that follows is slightly more showy; Schiff says “this is banal, but deliberately so,” before that three-note question mark returns, showing us the sonata-rondo structure. We have many of Beethoven’s favorite tricks, with modulations, some ‘rhetorical’ unison passages, and the appearances of ‘wrong’ keys, before we do, as always, satisfyingly, find ourselves back in the home key, and the recapitulation, and another subdominant coda with “a very unusual ending for this sonata…”
that’s why it never has any success, although success is not important, especially not for Beethoven, and that shows that sometimes the greatest pieces are the most misunderstood ones, because after this I will come to the pathetique sonata, which is a very great piece, but I think this is much greater…. Beethoven also never understood the popularity of his moonlight sonata…
Schiff asks the audience for a nickname for this work, as it seems the works with labels get more attention. In any case, despite some buzzing excitement and virtuosity in the coda, it cools down abruptly to give us a subtle, almost unsatisfactory, or rather just unassuming, close to what was a truly epic, deep sonata. Schiff says that it “evaporates into nothingness.”
And here we are, then, having discussed, or rather, my having sort of tried to convey my favorite bits about Schiff’s discussions of these works. And seriously, if you love music, or if you think you don’t like Beethoven, or even if you do, or really anything, you should give some attention to these lectures, because they’re not boring and pedantic. They breathe life into these masterpieces and give us an intimate understanding of what Beethoven accomplished, even in these earliest works in the sonata genre.
And look at what he accomplished across these three works as a whole, such a variety of expression and ideas, such profound beauty, a vivid palette of colors and methods and ideas, and we’re only at the very earliest of his works, before any of the symphonies, piano concertos or string quartets were ever written, so there is indeed so much more to enjoy from Beethoven.
Stay tuned, though, because we’ll be moving on from his piano sonatas here to some other stuff of his on the weekend and into next week, and I am very excited about it. Thank you so much for reading.