First programme notes, with some personal reflections.
The sonatas; opus 110
(I will write about them in the order in which I learnt them)
1) Moderato cantabile molto espressivo
2) Allegro molto
3) Arioso Adagio ma non troppo;
Fuga, Allegro ma non troppo;
L’istesso tempo di Arioso, Perdendo le forze, dolente;
L’istesso tempo della Fuga, poi a poi di nuovo vivente
In other words, the third movement is in 4 parts, Aria, Fugue, Aria, fugue.
The first movement is radiant, warm and poignant, with a spacious introduction to a figure that is repeated and ingeniously varied throughout. At first the melody sings in the right hand to the eager accompaniment of the left, but quickly dissolves into feather-light demisemiquavers, which cover the keyboard. This is Beethoven being so delicate!
These rise to an octave figure and then the hands part company, with the left trilling it’s way downwards, while the right heads upwards. This gesture would have been understood as signifying the space between heaven and earthly realms. Indeed, the player can feel the outstretching arms as an intense opening. It is also the gesture of Christ on the cross.
After an energetic passage, we are then brought to rest momentarily by a beautiful descending chromatic scale in the right hand.
There is now a dramatic shift in mood and the opening theme now comes to us in the minor, with accompanying left hand scale passages. Each of these is utterly different and so gives a new flavour to each phrase as well as leading us back into familiar ground. This time it is the left hand that takes the delicate demisemiquavers, until we are truly back to the opening melody. We are treated to the whole picture again, but instead of being in A flat, we briefly enter first the key of D flat and then, surprisingly the key of E major before finally settling back into A flat and coming to a tranquil end.
The second movement is a great example of Beethoven’s erratic nature. Short sentences are almost immediately contradicted with a blasting reply, as though there is an argument taking place and there are some exciting syncopated, off beat ‘punches’.
A middle section sandwiched between these outer arguments is a gymnastic tumbling rush of right hand notes, while the left hand leaps around and then crosses the right hand in off beat points.
The first section is repeated, closing with grand off beat chords before dissolving quietly in a rising broken chord.
The first aria is immediately sorrowful, serious and tinged with tradgedy. The slow introduction leads us to a repeated note which is almost like a death nell (Beethoven had been dreadfully ill around the time of writing, not once, but just as he was recovering, he was struck down again) and then we enter the mournful aria proper. The left hand chords in triplets throb while the right hand sings most beautifully. Poignancy comes through wonderful lingering syncopation and the aria closes with a frail ‘do ti me la’ in sparse octaves.
Arising like a Phoenix the majestic fugue is Beethoven reviving with all his vigour and might. It would appear that triumph is near but this is thwarted by a desolate minor descending arpeggio which throws us back into a second even more plaintive aria, which Beethoven marks ‘ermattet, klagend’ … (Exhausted and weeping). Tiny 2 note slurs give an chilling sense of gasping for breath and it would seem as though it can only end in annihilation.
This is where Beethoven’s extraordinary will and courage flood in. From darkly minor, he shifts into the major, and the mood is instantly changed, as huge chords grow and punch their way out on the off beat.
With a limping ascending arpeggio he quietly feels his way back into the second fugue. First we hear it pale, frail and upside down but with such genius, he turns it around, first at half speed and then ever more quickly and powerfully ‘poi a poi di nuovo vivente’ (little by little regaining life) until in full glory it escalates and spirals out in a triumphant clamour.
My wonderful teacher John Railton ( who has just been decorated on this year’s honours list for services to Music!) suggested I should learn this sonata way back in 1996.
I remember feeling absolutely wrung out after my first performance, as though there might be nothing left to do…. ever again! it is so utterly complete!
Over the last few months of traveling, the first few bars of the first movement are what come to me whenever I have reached a pivotal point in the journey, and gratitude is uppermost.
A lovely moment in Sweden came as a result of the power of this music. I was about to play this sonata for a couple of friends in a beautiful little church on the island of Adelsö, near Stockholm. 2 lovely young people came in with their aged grandmother, so we invited them to stay. The elderly lady was very bent, pale and fragile.
‘Poi a poi di nuovo vivente’ seemed to transfer directly to her, for at the end she jumped up with rosy flushed cheeks and clapped her hands together, her eyes now sparkling and her voice shook with emotion as she cried ” beautiful, beautiful, magnificent!”
During my father’s appalling illness with cancer, his indomitable spirit rose time and again, and for me, was living practice of the arias and fugues.
Someone on his ward was no longer there one visiting time. I asked if he had gone home or ‘gone home’? My father smiled and said “all the way”.
Death need not be a submission, but with enough faith, can be a true victory.
The profound restorative, healing power of this music and sharing it in all kinds of situations brings my vision for the journey to life, and reminds me why I set out in the first place…. to take an inner journey with the music and combine it with the outer journey through all kinds of personal and outer landscapes and then share it with whoever is happy to hear.
There are few things that can be more fulfilling.