Performing Chopin

Beethoven: Sonata op. 57 ("Appassionata")

Discovering "L'altro Rossini": Young Meyerbeer's Semiramide

40 to the minim - a study of tempo in Puccini's "Turandot"

Revisiting Senta

How fast does the Dutchman fly?

The Descent from Mount Sinai

Slow movement in Rondo-Sonata form?

Beethoven: Sonata op. 2 no. 2

The Interrupted Feast

Beethoven: Sonata op. 2 no. 2

A masterpiece of structure, atmosphere and brilliant pianistic writing, combined with a profound sentiment of poetry, this sonata is unfortunately not one of the most frequently played – to use an understatement. There are probably several reasons for its lack of popularity: first of all, it suffers from its two more easily accessible neighbors – op.2 no. 1 in f-minor, and op.2 no. 3 in C-major. The former is close to Mozart in style, though clearly different in its innovative character and form (being a four-movement piece). The latter is what people generally expect from Beethoven – a technically brilliant and impressive piece, full of sharp contrasts, perfectly and clearly constructed, in concerto style - a forerunner of Opp. 53 & 57 (the "Waldstein" and the "Appassionata"), in this sense.
The A-major sonata from op.2 represents a line of composition which Beethoven will pursue during his entire career, an "alternative" type, which stands along the more "main stream" development of his style. It is essential for every great composer to check and confirm his great pieces by contrasting them with others, different in style and character - usually not less great, but often less well received or understood. Sometimes these pieces do get a respectable or even popular place in the repertoire. Probably the best example is Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nüremberg", along which one could name Verdi's "Simone Boccanegra", Beethoven's own symphonies nos. 4 & 8 and Chopin's "Polonaise-Fantaisie", to mention only few examples. With regard to Beethoven's piano sonatas, a handful belongs to this category – such as the three sonatas in two movements (op. 54, op.78, op.90), the first "Sonata quasi una fantasia" (op. 27 no.1), and the highly experimental sonata in G-major, op.31 no.1. All these works are unjustifiably eclipsed by the justified wide acclaim given to the masterpieces right next to them.
As basic as it may sound, classical pieces which are well constructed and rich in content, but end in piano - especially in the outer movements – usually do not fare very well at the concert hall. This is at least what is generally believed. Personally I think they very often have a much stronger effect than those ending with a clear forte – I recall very clearly a much more overwhelmed reaction of the public to Brahms' op. 118 which ends pianissimo, than to his impressive Sonata in F-minor, op. 5 played by me on the same concert. I still remember having doubts as to which piece should go at the end of each part of the recital, and fortunately taking the risk and chose to end the concert with the later piece. Generally speaking however it seems that many pianists stay away from endings which are not cut and clear – especially when it comes to the classical repertoire, where one expects it more.
Another reason for which this beautiful sonata is probably neglected – as mentioned by Andras Schiff in his conference on the piece (to be found on YOUTUBE) - is its extreme difficulty. Technically it is actually much more virtuosic than the following one, though it may not sound so, and musically it is definitely – in my opinion – the most difficult of the three, and one of the most difficult in the whole cycle.

Allegro vivace 

This is one of those occasions where Beethoven is reaching out to opera in his sonatas – here obviously to the Buffo style. As always he remains completely himself, and I actually think that basically the language of opera was completely alien to his nature. This does not prevent him from getting inspiration from this other magnificent realm of classical music and to create extraordinary pieces as a consequence. Two related examples are the opening movement of the c-sharp minor sonata ("Moonlight"), which according to Beethoven's sketches is derived directly from the Commendatore's death trio at the beginning of Mozart's Don Giovanni, and the recitative in the first movement of the d-minor sonata ("Tempest"). Many others could be cited.
The tempo indication Allegro vivace and the opening theme give a clear indication for this connection. Opera Buffa style is translated by Beethoven's genius into his own world, applying it to his necessities and using it for his favorite mechanisms: sudden changes of dynamics (the most striking of which is at the recapitulation of the first theme, b.231), "misplaced" accents (such as in the transitional second theme b. 60 etc.), prominence of the left hand – representing the basso buffo (b. 22 etc.) – which results in polyphonic writing, rapid virtuoso passages (b. 32) and quasi-operatic lyrical pathos proved to be much less serious than it may seem (b.55 – 84).
As Tovey warns, the risk of this movement is to be played too fast. I feel it is mainly the staccato eighth notes all along the movement, and especially in forte, which present the risk of hurrying up the tempo. I also firmly believe the tempo should be firm and strict with a strong rhythmical sense during the whole first page. The tendency to play the first eight bars with some kind of light rubato is totally out of place and makes it lose both grace and humor. The upbeat triplets of the second motif (b. 9) will also benefit from an unhurried tempo and should throughout the movement occupy the space of an eighth note and never be played quickly as if they were an appoggiatura.
An often overlooked feature is the precise length of the note in the opening bars. Beethoven makes a clear difference between three categories: staccato eight-notes, staccato quarter-notes and full-length quarter-notes. The opening theme could be represented as: "TIM-PA, PI-GE-DA-GE-DAH", where TIM, PA and DAH are of different length moving from the shorter to the longer. The two most common mistakes made here are playing the full quarter-note of the second bar too short – thus making it equal to the staccato quarter-note, and not playing the series of staccato quarter-notes – including the last one - in bars 5-8 at the same length. This cannot be justified be any kind of personal interpretation, since Beethoven's notation is very detailed and clear, and indeed produces an excellent effect – when respected.
The famous octaves passage in bars 84-89 allegedly caused Rudolf Serkin to renounce the playing of the sonata altogether. I agree that sometimes it does matter how you play things, in terms of dividing the material between the two hands. The opening skip in the left hand of the sonata op. 106 ("Hammerklavier") is a good example. On the other hand, most pianists do not play the bridge theme of the first movement in the d-minor sonata cited above the way Beethoven wrote it, and play the answer to the bass motif by crossing the left hand over the right hand. Personally I prefer to stick to Beethoven's writing in this case, but I suspect no one ever thought this to be a reason not to play this sonata. In the present case it seems to me totally unnecessary to spend hours of practice and take a serious risk in concert and try to play the octaves in one hand. One should also keep in mind that Beethoven's piano had narrower keys. The two hands division produces an excellent effect and there is no intention of effort or strain in the musical expression which could justify insisting on playing the passage with the right hand alone (cfr. Rosen). Playing it with two hands makes it enjoyable to the player and allows to produce a brilliant articulation and the joyful release of the tension accumulated before, as if indeed a buffo character emerged from behind the scene and announced "it was all a joke". This seems to me much more important than pedantic insistence on Beethoven's fingering.
Technically the trickiest place in the movement is the fugato in the middle of the development section (bbs. 181-199). I believe the best way to get full control of this kind of passages is to work it in a moderate speed playing one voice forte and the other two piano, going through all the combinations, then repeating the same thing speeding up to the real tempo. When getting there in performance, one should be able to think slower without slowing down the tempo. In the end the difficulty here is in the mind rather than in the fingers, though a big hand definitely makes one's life easier here. 

Largo appassionato

This is an early miracle of piano writing produced by Beethoven's mind, obviously visualizing a string quartet. When Chopin writes for the piano, he writes for the piano as no other composer does. He never thinks of another instrument or of a singer. It is for the soul of the piano that he writes and this is the reason that his music can never be successfully orchestrated. With Beethoven something different happens. I would venture say he almost never writes for the piano, or indeed to any group of instruments for which he is writing at that moment. He writes "music". He has an idea, and everything that is physical should step back and yield to its realization. At times – when he wants and finds it necessary – he can write in the most beautiful and idiomatic way for the piano, as in the slow movement of the fifth piano concerto, or the opening movement of the fourth. But many times he achieves the most extraordinary effect by actually not writing idiomatically – as in the case of the present movement. The power of it is in its suggestion of something different than what we actually hear. It reminds me of the Aeschylus (and consequently all ancient Greek theatre), who prefers his audience to hear Agamemnon crying for help when he is murdered in the bath, rather than showing it. He knows that the power of suggestion which makes the public's imagination work will actually produce the strongest effect.
Beethoven is very clearly aware of what he is doing. At the end of third bar, for instance, he writes a long d for the viola part and the same note pizzicato for the 'cello – if we orchestrate it for a quartet. This is impossible to produce on the piano. One should choose either to play the note short or long. Either way the rest is left for the imagination. And that is exactly the secret of the beauty of this movement. When one plays it, one should exist in the tension between the spiritual dimension of the imaginary sound of a string quartet and the physical reality of the piano. Tension and conflict – very often with no solution – is maybe the most essential element in Beethoven.
The question of tempo here is quite tricky. Basically, Largo is a slow tempo, and one should beware of taking this as an Andante. Of course the tempo applies to the quarter beat, but the character of an Andante is to be strictly avoided. The basic pace should have something solemn in it, almost religious. On the other hand, once the bass pizzicato is over, it is more difficult to sustain convincingly a really slow tempo. The answer is to be found in a pace which has a flow in the opening bars while keeping them slow, and a sense of sostenuto in the legato moments such as bars 9 or 20 etc., while keeping them flowing. Here again the notion of tension – this time in the question of tempo – is a major protagonist in the experience of Beethoven's music.
Something in the harmonies and the key in bars 23 etc. has the flavor of the slow movement of Mozart's piano concerto K. 488, which – in my opinion – will later serve as the inspiration for the slow movement of op. 106. Passages of Mozart's piano concertos keep coming up at the background of many Beethoven's sonatas and it is deeply inspiring to remember it on such moments.
At the same time, the D-major of this movement in some moments already sounds like Brahms (especially in bar 18 going from fortissimo to piano). Again, this two-headed Janus quality of Beethoven arises – this time reaching out to the past and to the future. Orchestration, tempo, even style – Beethoven keeps us constantly suspended between two worlds in every aspect of his music. It is one of his greatest secrets of power and tension and should be always kept in the mind and the soul of those who get involved with his work. 

SCHERZO – Allegretto 

Back to the Buffo sphere, Beethoven introduces us to his first Scherzo in the piano sonatas. In his four-movement sonatas it is always the slow movement that stands out as different. It is therefore not only natural but indispensible, considering the general character of the work, to have a real Scherzo as its third movement. Its effect is especially stronger because of the solemn character of the preceding slow movement.
For those who are tempted to play this piece in a brilliant fast tempo, the tempo marking Allegretto should serve as a warning. It should be graceful and moderate, rhythmical and full of humor, but in no way an opportunity for a display of technique. Here too – as in the opening of the first movement – Beethoven makes a distinction between full and staccato quarter notes. Considering the character of a Scherzo and the tempo, the full quarter should of course not be sustained as it would be in a first movement, but it should be clearly longer than the staccato ones in bar three. If it were all meant to be played in the same length, Beethoven could either put staccato marks on all the notes or leave them without any. These longer quarter notes – provided the tempo is indeed not too fast – give the main motif a lyrical touch, both in the right hand and in the left hand chords which follow immediately. To give an idea of the difference between these and the staccato notes in bar 3, I would say the longer ones should be thought of as ending with a short vowel (TA and not TAH), where as the short ones would end with a consonant (TAM). This works well here because of the relatively fast tempo. In another context - e.g. in a first movement Allegro - a different method should be applied, as I showed earlier on.
The second part of the Maggiore part employs again the Basso Buffo in the left hand and I actually find Beethoven's fingering very useful.
The Minore has the same kind of false pathos typical for parody of Opera Seria in Opera Buffa, which was found in the first movement (b. 56 etc). It is notated by Beethoven as a duet in the right hand, which may bring to mind a whole series of comic characters and situations. It should not be taken too seriously simply because it is in a minor key! 

RONDO – Grazioso

The beautiful finale serves in a way as a synthesis of all the preceding elements employed in the other movements of the sonata. This is done in an extremely discreet manner by Beethoven, but shows the path to his gradual change of concept of form, from a series of separate movements to an "arrow shaped" architecture in which the finale is the center of gravity. Here we find all the characteristics of the first movement: the operatic lyricism, the prominence of the left hand as an individual character, the lively spirit in the passages in both the right hand and the left hand in bars 16-40. From the second movement we find here again the sound of the string quartet emerging each time at the second part of the presentation of the theme (e.g. bb. 8-12). The a-minor section in the middle of the movement, which serves as its "development" – being in rondo-sonata form, should be in my opinion viewed in relation to the minore of the Scherzo. Of course it has a different character – dramatic and not lyrical – and obviously the means employed by Beethoven both musically and pianistically are much richer and more complex. However I would say that the two passages share an important feature in common: they should not be taken "seriously" for the mere fact that they are in minor. Actually the whole minor section of the finale, referred to by Tovey as a"thunderstorm" will gain immensely in expression if viewed through the eyes of the Opera Buffa, where a comic character – probably some kind of Pantalone – would have an angry outburst. This is more of a psychological than of a strictly musical observation, but I believe it contains the key to achieve unity of expression in the whole sonata – a highly original classical masterpiece inspired by a genre which Beethoven explores in his own way.

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