BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 8. Sonata No. 25 in G, op. 79. Sonata No. 26 in E-flat, op. 81a "Lebewohl." Sonata No. 27 in e, op. 90. Sonata No. 28 in A, op. 101.
Artur Schnabel (piano).
Pristine Audio PKAM 045 TT: 56:09.

Singing and dancing. After completing the monumental "Appassionata" Sonata No. 23, Beethoven left off writing piano sonatas for a few years. When he returned to the genre, he moved in another direction. The next few sonatas are primarily lyrical, rather than epic.

Sonata No. 25 breathes the air of a jeu d'esprit. The first movement as a whole rests on a German dance, a Teutscher, basically a fast waltz, for its foundation.. It lies within the ability of intermediate players, but you shouldn't underestimate it. It may be Beethoven in a more easy-going mood, but it's still Beethoven, full of zany humor. The first theme leaps about like lambs in Spring. Some refer to the sonata as the "Cuckoo," because of cuckoo calls in the development. Its harmony also interests me -- many enharmonic modulations of the kind characteristic of the later Schubert. The second movement moves like a Venetian gondolier song, a genre that would have great currency through much of the 19th Century with composers, both serious and salon, like Mendelssohn, Fauré, and Hahn.

For a guy who talked a lot of Oedipal smack about his teacher, Beethoven certainly took a good deal from Haydn. You could be forgiven for thinking the final rondo by Haydn, at least at first, for it has that same witty caprice practically invented by the older man. The main theme uses a harmonic sequence later taken up in Beethoven's Sonata No. 30, op. 109.

Although providing a lot of visceral excitement, Schnabel plays the first movement much too fast, obliterating much of the counterpoint and sliding over many of the jokes. On the other hand, the slow movement sings with an elegant lyricism, a quality Schnabel doesn't get enough props for. In the third movement, Schnabel again races through. However, it seems to matter less and stresses the madcap twitches of the music.

This sonata was followed relatively quickly by the Sonata No. 26 (1809-10), the nicknamed "Lebewohl" ("Les adieux," farewell). Of the Beethoven piano sonatas, this is the most programmatic, in the way of Bach's Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother. The French under Napoleon were about to invade Vienna, and the aristocracy bugged out, including Beethoven's patron and pupil, the Archduke Ferdinand, to whom the composer had dedicated at least three masterpieces: the "Archduke" Trio and the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos. The sonata has three movements, all subtitled: "Lebewohl" (farewell), "Abwesenheit" (absence), and "Wiedersehen" (return). The titles provide all the program Beethoven needs. As in the Pastoral Symphony, he's really interested in moods, rather than in pictures.

The first movement actually has the syllables "Le-be-wohl" written under the first three notes of the slow introduction. Accordingly, this cell is called the "Lebewohl" motif. The first two sounds remind me of two horns, with a B'/G' and A'/D'. You would expect the third notes to be G'/B, but Beethoven pulls off what's known as a deceptive cadence -- essentially an e-minor rather than a G-major tonality. The minor gives unexpected poignance to the phrase. The introduction contains most of the ideas of the movement, but the workhorse is the "Lebewohl" -- a scalar descent through a third. The following allegro sounds like a complete break with the intro, as if it takes a completely new track, but one soon hears the "Lebewohl" all over the place -- in the bass, in the soprano, and at points in between. Beethoven varies the idea -- inverted, in the minor, and inversion in the soprano over original in the bass in a kind of "mirror writing." Toward the end, "Lebewohl" gets a "clipping" -- first to two notes, then to one. The movement represents Beethoven at his clearest and most compact.

The second movement opens with a startling phrase -- Wagner before the fact, although of course within a classical context, nearly operatic. There's an unsettling chromaticism here and an obsessiveness, as the days apart tend to run into each other. Again, it's not really a full-fledged movement. For one thing, it's pretty brief for a slow movement. Instead, it functions as a transition to the third movement, à la the "Waldstein," although not as radically conceived. The third movement follows directly and athletically, with the sound of pealing bells. Hooray! It's almost too much joy at the Archduke's return, a little in mood like the finale to the "Emperor" concerto. Incidentally, a lot of the piano writing seems to come from the "Emperor," as well as the shapes of some of the themes. As I noted, Beethoven dedicated that concerto to Rudolf. Was this a private message? However, Beethoven shades the jubilation in the development, marked very softly (pianissimo) throughout.

Schnabel stands out in this sonata, with one of the finest renditions of the first movement I've heard. In the second movement, he suggests not only Wagner, but the Baroque and Classical aria and stresses the vocal quality of the musical line. The finale -- usually extremely tricky -- comes close to hysteria without giving way. One of the best entries in this touchstone set.

Five years pass before Beethoven returns to the sonata form. With hindsight, we can say that the new sonata represents something transitional. An air of experimentation inhabits the work, from its two-movement form, inherited from Haydn, to its compactness, to its modes of expression. Many use this sonata to mark the composer's late period, although I would again argue for it as transitional. Beethoven reportedly described the first movement as a "battle between head and heart." The first movement begins with an angry stamping gesture, kin to a motive in the Egmont Overture, followed by softer, yielding phrases. Rhythm and the falling minor third bind the movement together. That falling third we have encountered many times before in Beethoven (see, for example, the "Lebewohl" sonata or even the Fifth Symphony). However, Beethoven amazes with the variety of music and expression he can wring from it. The second movement Beethoven described as a "conversation with the beloved." It ties back to the lyricism of other twenty-something sonatas. It has features of both a rondo and a sonata, in that the first idea returns several times throughout but that all ideas undergo development. The movement begins with a beautiful flowing theme, "water music," echoing the "By the Brook" movement of the Sixth Symphony and foreshadowing something like Schubert's "Wohin" from Die schöne Müllerin. Again, Schnabel earns his laurels as a Beethoven interpreter. In the first movement, you feel as if he channels the composer. In the second, he fully realizes the expressive marking, "Nicht zu geschwind und sehr singbar vorgetragen" (not too fast and played with great singing), especially the "singing" part.

With the Sonata No. 28, two years later, we begin enter the world of late Beethoven. This was Wagner's favorite Beethoven piano sonata, and you can hear why. The first movement continues the fluid mood of the No. 27 finale, but in a new way. It seldom finds a resting point (few full cadences to mark the end of a section), and, while not especially chromatic, it manages to keep the key in doubt or even hidden. In other words, Beethoven gives us the prototype of Wagner's "endless melody." One also notes Beethoven working the extreme highs and lows of the instrument, sometimes simultaneously with nothing in the middle. Schnabel shines here as a lyrical player.

With the second-movement, a scherzo-march, you feel you've time-traveled ahead to Schumann and his Davidsbündler, and Schnabel electrifies. Beethoven lades the march with a lot of counterpoint, including a lot of canonic writing and at least one super-stretto (a line repeating in one voice before it has finished in another). Other non-standard counterpoint as well moves things along. Instead of the usual imitative counterpoint (canon, stretto, and so on), we get lines moving along independent paths, rather than the same path at different times -- a strikingly modern conception of counterpoint. The movement also features Beethoven's favorite pedal "wash" effects. The scherzo has a trio, and thus the movement has an ABA form, with B as the trio. The trio itself is tripartite, and thus the movement is really an unusual ABCBA.

The slow third movement is another "Waldstein"-like intro to the finale, as if the composer were feeling his way toward resolution. Here, Beethoven experiments not only with form, but with the una corda pedal of the piano. Each piano key normally strikes three strings. The una corda shifts the keyboard action so that the hammer hits only one of those strings. The contemporary Beethoven piano also had a pedal whereby the player could strike two strings, an ability lacking in the standard modern piano. The theme resembles part of Bach's Musikalisches Opfer, not necessarily a coincidence. Beethoven knew Bach's music. Indeed, in his early days, he played parts of The Well-Tempered Clavier in public, and his notebooks, especially as he grew older, display Bach themes scribbled in the margins. Beethoven's late period shows a renewed interest in complex counterpoint, and it seems to me that he returned to Bach with renewed, studious vigor, all the while absorbing and transforming, rather than imitating. One startling feature of the section occurs at the very end, where we hear the very first theme of the sonata, and it makes sense. It marks a culmination of an expedition. As in the "Waldstein," Schnabel seems to suspend time, without becoming bogged down. His playing emphasizes the audacity of Beethoven's conception -- a written-out improvisatory exploration (as opposed to a genuine improvisation) within a formalized genre.

The finale crashes in -- a theme in stretto. Here, Beethoven goes on a contrapuntal spree, pursuing stretto, canon, and even fugue. However, he juxtaposes this with passages highly evocative of German country dances. So the rural and naïve stand side-by-side with the courtly and learned. Schnabel succumbs to his chief temptation -- playing it faster than his fingers can fly -- and makes a hash of much of the counterpoint. He also resorts to occasional banging, mostly because, at the tempo he chooses, he can't play clearly. He's trying to hang on by his fingertips. But for this movement, it would have been yet another gem in the set.

As with all the previous Pristine releases, the fine, clear sound often astonishes. Where the results disappoint, it's probably due to the currently-insurmountable limitation of the masters themselves.

S.G.S. (February 2012)