The Sonatas; Opus 111 in C minor Beethoven
( dedicated to the Archduke Rudolph)
“Come, come, take me away to the transfiguration” LVB
Beethoven wrote this last piano sonata not very long before he died, and with the last quartets, brought us some of the most spiritually profound music of its time. The key of C minor and its antagonist, C major, were hugely important and significant keys, loaded with symbolism of dark and light.
Maestoso: Allegro con brio ed appassionato
Arietta: Adagio molto semplice e cantabile ( theme and variations )
Maestoso: Allegro con brio ed apassionato
Heralding the modern piano at a turning point in its evolution, Beethoven uses a huge range of pianistic devices to create such a foreboding and darkly spectacular opening. Tightly dotted rhythmic phrases, sudden dynamic contrasts and equally sudden silences produce a classic scene of apocalypse. This type of demand on the instrument of the day was a huge novelty and would have had the audience bolt upright in their seats!
[A brief word about the early forte-piano (literally translated as ‘loud-soft’)
Being of a wooden frame, the stringing was considerably lighter and so the overall sound was crisper and more sparkling, with especial clarity in the bass. On a modern instrument, perhaps with the exception of the Fazioli Piano, fast runs and trills in the deep bass notes tend to become rather submerged, with a blurry boom.
This sonata has a wealth of vital bass parts so it is imperative to try to bring as much clarity to them as possible.]
We are brought to a pitch of anticipation by deep rumbling in the bass as it closes the maestoso introduction to become the entry to the allegro.
Now we swing into a brutal 3 note punched phrase from which feverish runs mount upwards into the threatening counterpoint theme proper. The storm seems relentless until suddenly there comes a moment’s respite and time appears to stand still in the most beautiful of melodic and poignant phrases.
Beethoven struggled with intense mood swings, at once in a rage and then in great remorse before yet more storming.
We are flung out of this tenderness straight back into the fray with a massive diminished descending broken chord and the theme continues to be savagely stated. The pianist must observe the ‘Sf’ ‘sforzando’ ( sudden jabs of sound) markings to achieve the desired effects.
After the repeat of this turbulent first section there is a wonderful piece of stealthy counterpoint, a bit like cat and mouse before a huge climax and more of the same.
Beethoven had asked Broadwood (his favourite piano builders) to add more notes to the keyboard, so there was now a range of 5 and a half octaves to play with. A bottom F and top C , played one after the other with the right hand, come within just one bar, stretching both piano and pianist to the limit before another spacious and sorrowful moment of such enormous contrast.
This time it is extended by a mournful and subdued version of the theme which gradually picks itself up again until there is a roaring final burst of energy. Bold off-beat chords which ease away take us into the most remarkable last few bars…… beautiful left hand passage work (anyone who knows the Chopin etudes will recognize Chopin’s tribute to this passage in the famous ‘Revolutionary Study’) with transformative right hand chords which radiate light and warmth as they move from minor to major for the last 2 bars.
This miraculous ending now prepares us for the sublime theme and variations of the next movement.
Arietta; Adagio molto semplice e cantabile.
Too many words and I can only fail to adequately describe this heavenly, passionate and ecstatic journey.
It seems to me that in the aftermath of the joyous, almost jazzy climax, the cycle of the night through to dawn shimmers in expectation of the sunrise and in the final chorale we are bathed in rapture. A glimpse of the perfection beyond the earthly horizon.
A personal reflection.
Each of these sonatas stands alone as a magnificent and complete work of art. In their day, in middle Europe they were considered the most spiritually profound masterpieces of the time. Anyone who played all three, would have been awarded the equivalent of a knighthood.
Taken as a threesome, they represent a very special kind of journey; landscapes, if you like, with Opus 109 as the outer, natural world, Opus 110, the inner personal dimension, and lastly, with Opus 111, the spiritual plane.
It takes both arrogance and humility to even think of performing these works and I feel it is an ongoing privilege to have Beethoven at my side as my companion, friend and teacher.
I hope and believe that bringing this music into domestic and unusual situations is just what he would have wanted, and that his desire to be of service to his beloved mankind is alive and real today.
I am very touched by the brave little pianos I come across, each with their own unique sounds and abilities. Every time, these differences bring the music alive in new ways, and the musical landscape is as varied as the countryside and cities I pass through.
I realise that these notes are rather dense, but maybe if you are listening to the sonatas, they will help to give a bit of a ‘map’
Other performances that I relish.
I recommend Daniel Barenboim for his spaciousness; Alfred Brendel for his exquisite humanity and Bernard Roberts for his objectivity. Steven Bishop-Kovasovich on video is a perfect example of being in the present moment for EVERY SINGLE NOTE!
Let me know how you get on!