BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 7. No. 21 in C, op. 53 "Waldstein." Sonata
No. 22 in F, op. 54. Sonata No. 23 in f, op. 57 "Appassionata." Sonata
No. 24 in F#, op. 78 "À Thérèse."
Artur Schnabel (piano).
Pristine Audio PKAM 043 TT: 66:27.
"There is no off position on the
genius switch" -- David Letterman. One of the dangers a masterpiece
runs into is, oddly enough, general acceptance, without question or hesitation,
of its classic status. One easily falls into the trap of taking one's mental
furniture for granted. For example, how many of us have read or seen a
play by Shakespeare or Sophocles in the past year, or watched a Hitchcock
movie, or listened to a Haydn string quartet or Wagner's Ring? We often
tend to say, "Sure, they're great," as we pass by. On the other
hand, when we finally stop and pay attention, these works usually strike
us full force yet again.
Of Beethoven's piano sonatas, I heard the "Waldstein" third,
roughly fifty years ago, after the "Moonlight” and the "Pathétique." My
father had brought home an LP of Schnabel playing Sonatas 21-23. The "Waldstein" grabbed
me immediately, despite the fact that in those days, Beethoven usually
aroused in me total indifference. I was all hot for Renaissance music,
Bach, and Modern music, and the Nineteenth Century seemed largely predictable
and old-hat. When I say "grabbed," I mean its hooks struck deep.
I keep returning to the "Waldstein," far more often than once
a year, and it has never palled. Now, that's a classic.
The "Waldstein" revolutionizes piano writing. From the opening
bars, you hear previously unheard textures. Note especially the string
tremolando effect in the second period of the first movement. As in previous
sonatas, Beethoven uses the different registers -- high, middle, low --
as contrasting "orchestral" sections. Here, however, the contrasts
are even sharper. The repeated eighth-note chords of the first theme foreshadow
those of the Piano Concerto No. 4. In the sonata, they're chunkier. One
of the most brilliant sonatas, it needs a virtuoso technique, more so than
any Beethoven sonata up to that time. Schnabel runs into occasional difficulties
in that regard. Indeed, contemporary pianists aren't always clean. Some
passages are so difficult that Beethoven specifies notes a player can leave
out, and I suspect that some Schnabel's flubs arise from his attempt to
play every note. Overall, the first movement's main idea is to contrast
major and minor thirds, ascending and descending. Furthermore, Beethoven
loads it with harmonic marvels. The first phrase, for example, in C is
followed by its repetition a second lower, in B-flat. This simply doesn't
happen in the music of the time. Furthermore, tonal centers often change
by thirds, rather than by the usual fourths and fifths, as shown by the
appearance of the second subject in E. We see this modulation a lot in
Schubert (practically a fingerprint), and I'd bet dollars to doughnuts
he took it from Beethoven. But aside from this "inside baseball" stuff,
it's Beethoven's sense of easy mastery over the entire composition that
stands out. You feel that at every significant point the composer could
have chosen from any number of "inevitable" continuations and
that he chose the most amazing.
Beethoven originally wrote another slow movement ("Andante favori"),
probably among the first completed pieces of the sonata. This movement
still survives. He played it for his friends, who thought it good, but
unsuitable to the other two movements -- an acute criticism. Thin-skinned,
Beethoven sulked but eventually came up with something extraordinary. The
new slow movement, as far as I can tell, has no precedent, in that it merely
varies short, fragmentary motives, introductory gestures in unsettled harmonies,
rather than sings or dances in full-blown themes. We seem to watch Beethoven
in the process of deciding what to do next. Time hangs and pressure builds
as we wait for something to happen. The movement, it turns out, serves
as a transition to the rondo finale.
The finale comes as a release of tension, like a frozen river thawed
and on the move. Because of this, many pianists jump the gun and begin
fast, but we still have a way to go and a presto coda, to boot. The main
theme has the sound of bells in it, and as the movement proceeds, we
hear all the bells in town going off at once. Overall, it's a super-rondo
that is, a rondo of greater-than-classical-normal proportions and weight
-- whose function it is to ratchet up tension and release. It always
puts me in mind of a roller-coaster car going slowly up and down a series
grades, some steeper than others, until the final monster descent. Again,
new textures help make part of its effect. It begins in Beethoven's favorite
pedal wash, in this case with clashing major and minor thirds.
Despite a clambake of splonks and splats, Schnabel remains the standard
against which I measure all other pianists in this sonata. He has the
surest grasp of tempi and overall rhetorical structure as well as electrifying
rhythm. He knows when to push forward and when to hold back. I've never
heard a better rendering of this sonata.
A good college friend of mine studied piano. A wonderful musician, he
had a touch that would have made Gieseking weep. His tastes ran to Impressionism
and Modernism, and he hated playing Beethoven -- something about the
the music lay under the hands. However, the college required a Beethoven
sonata on the senior recital, so he tried to find the shortest one he
could. He settled on the Sonata No. 22, not all that well known. It tends
hidden between the "Waldstein" and the "Appassionata." In
two movements, it hasn't the scale of the others, but you shouldn't underestimate
it. Beethoven himself thought highly of it, as well he might. The level
of invention soars, and the score rates as one of Beethoven's most experimental.
It comes from a particularly fecund period in Beethoven's career, roughly
contemporary with the "Eroica," the Razumovsky quartets, and
the Fourth Piano Concerto, in addition to the two sonatas. I loved it the
first time I heard it, and, as I say, I felt no special love for Beethoven
at the time.
The first movement -- as Beethoven says, "in the tempo of a minuet," but
not a minuet -- contains rhythmic and phrasing echoes of the second movement
rejected from the "Waldstein" -- the "Andante favori." It's
not a sonata. Instead, it contrasts two ideas, a serene melody (A) with
a rambunctious all-hell-breaking-loose (B). Beethoven varies both ideas
with each appearance, and the form is ABABA with a coda, which features
an incredibly dissonant minor-ninth chord -- again, not something seen
The second movement is a perpetuum mobile in sixteenths. It reminds me
a lot of Scarlatti and Beethoven's own Sonata No. 12, op. 26. It sparkles.
Many pianists take it too fast, as if it were mere fireworks, but there
are reasons why they shouldn't. It certainly moves, no doubt about it,
but equally impressive are the unprecedented harmonic changes. It begins
in F and its first period ends on the dominant C. However, it immediately
takes off to the distant key of A-flat, and from there to tonal Outer
Mongolia. I flatter myself that I have a decent ear, but without a score
tell you all the twists he takes. It's as if you opened a door to your
backyard and suddenly stepped out at the Grand Canyon. It also exhibits
rather odd proportions: a first section of 20 bars, a development and
recapitulation of 140, with a 27-bar coda. As usual in his more radical
puts in tons of expressive markings, trying to control the interpretation
as much as he can. Those marks alone invalidate the "sewing-machine" approach
to this movement, and they guide the shape of phrases and dynamic gradations.
However, it's the coda that nails it – the main theme at warp speed.
If you're already hurtling through, you dull the shock of the contrast.
Schnabel takes the movement a bit fast, although he manages to relax within
it. You do get a faster tempo with the coda, but it's more like a shift
from fourth to overdrive rather than from fourth to what-in-heaven's-name-was-that.
I might as well confess my depravity right away. Although I respect the "Appassionata," I've
never particularly cared for it and really can't tell you why it leaves
me so cold. It definitely counts among Beethoven's hits, and Beethoven,
I think, deliberately set out to write a monument. One can describe the
sonata as two storms surrounding a lull. One feels most of the time a lowering,
menacing atmosphere -- for me, dramatic, perhaps tragic, rather than passionate,
but again, Beethoven didn't know the subtitle, which appeared after the
composer's death on an arrangement for piano 4-hands (believe it or not).
Actually, I can easily believe it. The dynamic and textural extremes in
this work are so violent, they probably couldn't be realized on most pianos
of the day. The "Appassionata" is one of those works that inhabit
a fluid space between piano and orchestra. That is, the composer has conceived
the music on such an epic scale, it cries out for an orchestra, but has
tied its effects so tightly to the sound of a piano that I imagine a successful
orchestration pretty near impossible.
The first movement is unusual in that, contrary to classical practice,
the exposition does not repeat. It begins pianissimo with an idea that
descends and ascends by chord-tones. It then moves up a half-step, into
what's called Neapolitan harmony (in the key of f, a G-flat chord), something
Beethoven resorts to in this period especially as way to provide an expressive
goose or even jolt. The tone of D-flat, especially resolving to C, also
assumes great significance throughout the sonata. The rhythm of this
bit foreshadows the "fate" pattern (short-short-short-long) of the
Fifth Symphony, four years later. The primary idea begins again, softly
at first on the descent, and a fortissimo crash on the ascent, heralding
the storm. A noble second theme in major mode strongly ties back to the
main idea. The movement brims with dramatic thrashing about, with appropriate "breathers," obviously
The second movement is an almost-straightforward variation set. The key
is D-flat. The contrasts here show up mainly in the opposition of left
and right hand, staccato and legato. The first variation moves in eighths,
the second in sixteenths, and the third and final in thirty-seconds,
with the last featuring an Alberti bass. A coda based on theme fragments
to wind down to calm resolution, but Beethoven pulls the rug out from
under. He ends instead on a diminished chord, first softly arpeggiated
hammered. This leads directly to the finale, "Allegro ma non troppo" (fast,
but not too fast) -- a marking often ignored -- a near perpetuum mobile,
like a driving rain, which influenced later composers like Mendelssohn.
Like the Sonata No. 22 finale, it has strange proportions. Again, there's
no exposition repeat, and the development and recapitulation are much,
much longer -- a snippet followed by two large chunks. Toward the end,
Beethoven surprises us with an even faster, more frenetic czardas, presto,
I find Schnabel inconsistent. The reading undoubtedly has its thrilling
moments. The third movement especially will leave you breathless. However,
overall Schnabel takes things either a bit too fast or way too fast.
In the finale, this means that the switch from allegro non troppo to
is imperceptible. Indeed, the general pulse doesn't change, and Schnabel's
attempt to ramp up the tempo even further results in indiscriminate banging.
It takes four years after the "Appassionata" for Beethoven to
write another piano sonata. Some writers speculate that the earlier score
intimidated Beethoven when he contemplated a successor. However, one can
see many other reasons, none of them psychological, for the lull. He wrote
the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies, revisions to Fidelio, the Mass
in C, the overtures Leonore No. 1 and Coriolan, the Triple Concerto, Piano
Concerto No. 4, the piano concerto arrangement of the Violin Concerto,
the Choral Fantasy, the Razumovsky quartets, the Cello Sonata in A, and
the "Archduke" and "Ghost" Piano Trios, all the while
struggling against increasing deafness. And this is just the big stuff.
It's not as though he was dogging it.
The Sonata No. 24, when it finally appears, resembles Sonata No. 22,
rather than its monumental predecessor. Among the most lyrical sonatas
cycle and of modest scope, it became one of Beethoven's favorites. The
composer dedicated it to a student, Countess Therese von Brunsvik, yet
another candidate for the "immortal beloved," and thus in some
quarters the sonata has picked up the nickname "À Thérèse." Because
of its unusual key of F#, so formidable to amateur pianists with its six
sharps (Irving Berlin notwithstanding), Beethoven's publisher initially
worried about sales. Even today, you don't encounter it all that much.
The first movement's introduction consists of a beautiful melody, never
to be heard again, which contains the main thematic seeds of the movement:
a rising third and a dotted rhythm. These get transformed into an even
better melody -- radiant and heartfelt -- which serves as the first subject.
The second movement, a sonata-rondo, is one of Beethoven's wittiest,
full of Haydnesque caprice. The main theme, which leaps about like a
has within it echoes of "Rule Britannia," a tune Beethoven not
only knew but on which he had written a set of variations. It manages to
convey considerable substance, despite its brief length. In the first movement,
Schnabel strikes me as at times too emphatic, too hard, trying to find
drama where there really is none, but in the second, he's perfect, just
stepping up to the line of zany and capturing not only the humor, but the
sanity of Beethoven's humor.
I've raved about the sonic results of Pristine's engineering before.
Here, the results are slightly more mixed, mainly in the "Appassionata," which
often seems muddy. It was muddy on my original LP, too. Apparently there's
only so much you can do (or should do) with a master recording.
S.G.S. (January 2012)