Beethoven Violin Sonata no. 3 in E-flat, op. 12 no. 3

performed by Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich

(cover image by Rodion Kutsaev)

Today’s work is the third and final installment in the op. 12 piano sonatas, completed in 1798 and dedicated to Antonio Salieri, with whom Beethoven studied for a time. The works date from around the time of the composer’s studies under Haydn. If you didn’t read the two posts from earlier this week, go check them out, because we’ve already discussed the first and second of the sonatas in this set.

James Reel at AllMusic says that “What the motifs lack in melodic distinction, they make up for in energy and a demand for clean technique.” I don’t know that I’d be that critical; I think they have plenty of melodic distinction, in that tasteful, understated yet entirely magical way. Forward motion is nice, though. I find the opening flourish far more engaging than the second sonata’s sort of in medias res beginning.

The piano takes a bit of the virtuoso spotlight from the violin in the second theme, not overshadowing, but certainly enhancing the overall tapestry. The dialogue between these two instruments and the independence of the parts is, I’m told, apparently more unique for the time, when the violin took far less of the spotlight. It still seems at one point, though, as if the piano even has a cadenza of its own in this very dramatic development, as brief as it is, but there’s a nice Beethoven-esque coda to round things out. I love the material for the first movement, and with such beautiful building blocks, the development and rest of the movement is sure to be a joy.

The second movement is “almost Italianate in its expressive, forward-moving lyricism,” but the Italians wouldn’t develop that style until the next decade, which was also the next century. The entire movement is essentially one long, unbroken lyrical line, and is very effective. It’s a quality of the middle movements of this opus, it seems, and maybe elsewhere, that these central movements seem to relax the tension of the work, like going off to a quiet room for a lovely afternoon nap. Maybe it’s because of the intimacy and clarity of the two instruments instead of a whole quartet or something, but I think the strength of these movements is in their irresistible beauty and straightforwardness.

If the second movement was the most lyrical and heartfelt, then the third is one of the most charming of the whole set. It embodies Beethoven’s sense of humor, melodic talent, musical intensity, all with some wonderfully contrasting minor-key areas, a fugue, a coda, etc. What more could you want to end this third sonata and the entire set of sonatas in this opus number? Just fantastic. It’s instantly apparent, from the first few bars of the piano’s introductory phrase, that this is just… sheer perfection. The violin echoes the sentiment and the movement is off, closing this opus 12 out with a brilliant final movement that matches the confident opening of the first sonata.

Beethoven’s work, even this early, is clearly of the highest caliber. I say early… he was already pushing 30 at this point, but they are early relative to the other things he would write and the masterpieces he would give us later in his career. We have one more Beethoven piece we’ll discuss before moving on to someone else, but seeing as he’s the inspiration, the real spirit, behind my Editor’s Choice series, we’ll be seeing LOTS of him this year as an example of what I feel to be the consummate composer, so stay tuned for that. Thank you so much for reading.

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