Beethoven Piano Sonata no. 20 in G, op. 49 no. 2

performed by Rudolf Buchbinder, or below by Alfred Brendel

(cover image by Rodion Kutsaev)

Each performer has the freedom here to create something different…

Sir Andras Schiff

(cover image by Rodion Kutsaev)

As discussed in the article from earlier this week regarding the first of the two sonatas in this opus number, it’s deceiving. The opus number 49 would seemingly put them at around the time of the third piano concerto, third symphony, or the Waldstein sonata, but no. In listening to these works, it should be apparent that they don’t date from this period.

Beethoven’s op. 49 sonatas were published in 1805, but composed a full decade earlier, in 1795-96, around the time he composed the op. 7 or 10 sonatas. The pieces were presented to the publisher by Beethoven’s brother Kaspar, against the composer’s wishes. They are sometimes referred to as the “Leichte sonaten” or ‘light sonatas,’ and were written as simpler works for friends or relatives.

The second of the two op. 49 sonatas is in G major, in two movements, as follows:

  1. Allegro ma non troppo
  2. Tempo di menuetto

As with op. 49 no. 1, we have only two movements, and this work is really even simpler than its counterpart “featuring less sophistication” with no dynamic indications at all, and is thus considered to be the easiest of all of Beethoven’s sonatas. Both movements are in G.

As is standard practice for our discussion of the Beethoven piano sonatas, I’ll draw your attention to Sir Andras Schiff’s superb (and slightly shorter) lecture on the work:

You could really just listen to that.

As mentioned earlier in the week, neither of these works bear a dedication, and Schiff says they must have “a certain pedagogical purpose,” as we saw with no. 19. As Schiff emphasized in the previous lecture, while it’s important from an educational standpoint to make sure students develop technique and skill, developing a talent and aesthetic for interpretation is equally as important, as is maintaining interest. Schiff tells us that while this may be the most diminutive of all 32 sonatas, ‘compared to Clementi… this is pure gold.’

The first movement has a development section that drifts through D minor, A minor, E minor, and B minor, which may strike even the most amateur musician as being clearly related to the circle of fifths (B, E, A, D). The exposition is repeated here, as is common, but Schiff reminds us, as later in the second movement, that matters of interpretation become significant here, with the performer having to make their own aesthetic decisions here rather than just follow what’s on the page.

The second movement is interestingly marked as being ‘in the tempo of a minuet’ but is structured as a rondo. While the previous sonata straight up did away with the standard middle movements of a sonata, this work sort of hybridizes a minuet and rondo. Schiff tells us that this minuet theme comes straight from the composer’s op. 20, but is just in a different key.

Schiff says that this movement is often played legato, but it is not so marked, and Buchbinder plays it as Schiff discusses, with a crisp cleanness, lending it what he calls a “village band character.” One can possibly hear the separate episodes ‘scored’ for different instruments if this were a symphonic work, but the minuet theme is played many times, and Schiff says he adds ornamentations to this because he “[doesn’t] believe [Beethoven] would have played this minuet theme six times the same… Improvisation is a very important part of all music, and of the classical style.”

You can hear the minuet-ness of the piece, but also the rondo structure of the work. While this isn’t a grand piece with lots of complexity (in fact quite the opposite), there’s still a lot that a skilled teacher could draw out and share with a willing, competent student. With the lack of any dynamic markings and all the rest, it’s a bit of a blank slate on which the student can draw and/or find their own interpretation.

The work, after only two movements and a mere eight-ish minutes, closes quietly. As Schiff says, “It’s not a big deal, really.”

Again, I’d love to be a fly on the wall and hear Beethoven in a quiet personal setting, and what kind of lessons he would draw from these compositions that we wouldn’t have had were it not for his disobedient brother. They may not be the grandest, most artistic efforts, but as pedagogical works go, there’s much to enjoy.

There’s also much more Beethoven on the way, five more pieces to come in short order, before we move on to a few other things, and then a big series, the first of the year, so please do stay tuned for that. Thanks so much for reading.



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