BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 9. Sonata No. 29 in B-flat, op. 106 "Hammerklavier." Sonata No. 30 in E, op. 109.
Artur Schnabel (piano).
Pristine Audio PKAM 046 TT: 60:59

Basics. A truly original idea or work comes along very rarely. By truly original, I mean something that changes the intellectual or cultural landscape. For example, the Jaccard loom, which allowed people to program machines to make different elaborate textile patterns, not only helped to foster the Industrial Revolution but also laid the groundwork for the Computer Age. John von Neumann's architecture for the programmable computer hasn't really been altered since the Forties, no matter how much faster and fancier computers have become. But von Neumann depended on Jacquard, and Jacquard himself stood on the shoulders of his predecessors. Even so, after Jacquard and von Neumann, the world changed considerably. In music, no one discovered more basic musical materia than Beethoven, just in his piano sonatas alone. With the exception of the Bach cantatas and Well-Tempered Clavier, I can't think of a set of works that shows more variety, more ways of looking at a musical process. The word protean comes to mind.

After the Sonata No. 15 (1801), Beethoven, dissatisfied with what he had done so far, consciously decided to up his game in the piano-sonata department. Keep in mind, he had already composed masterpieces of the genre. Something similar happened around 1818. With works like the ”Waldstein" and the "Appassionata" under his belt, he suddenly got a whole lot better in a whole new way. I experienced another example of this when I read the complete Yeats in chronological order. You would think him settled into a particular style, when suddenly you'd come across a poem unprecedented in its depth and mode of expression.

What "The Circus Animals' Desertion" is to Yeats, the "Hammerklavier" (1819) is to Beethoven -- the same power surge that startles because not quite expected. In the Sonata No. 29, Beethoven knew he had written something extraordinary, commenting to the effect that it would give pianists "something to think about for the next fifty years." If anything, he understated the case. Pianists still have fits over this work. The most pianistically brilliant and virtuosic of Beethoven's piano sonatas, the "Hammerklavier" almost cannot be played, especially at the tempos Beethoven indicates. Furthermore, this is the only piano sonata that Beethoven actually provided metronome marks for. Some pianists claim that Beethoven had a faulty metronome, but people who've actually examined the thing report it's just a regular functioning metronome. Some very fine players slow the music down, just to make sure of the notes, but I think they make a mistake. To me, the conception of impossible difficulty and struggle belongs to this sonata like wet in water, and if Beethoven went to the trouble to put these marks down, a performer is obligated to do his best with them. Furthermore, whereas many of the 20-something sonatas are somewhat exploratory in their structure, the "Hammerklavier" reverts to more formal procedures.

The entire sonata is built mainly on the interval of the third (also its cognate, the tenth -- an octave plus a third) and on a rhythmic figure heard at the opening. Bold modulations abound -- B-flat to B, for instance, in the first movement. There's even a fugal passage that looks across the intervening movements to the finale. The second-movement scherzo acts as a breather between the treks. It's a "wrong-footed" scherzo, main theme based on the third, since the accent occurs on the upbeat and it proceeds largely in 7-bar phrases (as opposed to some multiple of 4), so that you always seem to be "behind time." The trio is quasi-canonic and ends with a czardás. Beethoven casts the huge slow movement (based on thirds) not in ABA song form, but as a sonata without repeats. It moves from darkness and the low registers gradually into light.

Beethoven early on knew Bach. Indeed, he had played Bach publically and had read the first Bach biography, by Forkel. Beethoven's early fugues -- found in such works as the Mass in C and Christus am Ölberg -- belong to the Classical tradition of Albrechtsberger, Haydn, and Mozart. I have to admit that I find them a bit predictable and mechanically worked. However, in his late period, Beethoven reinvents the fugue, reconciling it with the dramatic impulse of his sonata form and the careening waywardness of Beethoven's late music in general. Bach's fugues, like Mozart's, seem massively stable and balanced. Beethoven's fugues threaten to fly apart into smithereens, but never do, despite what seems like an inexorable rush to chaos. The finale is in the shape of an introduction and fugue. The introduction, like similar segue passages in the rest of the composer's output, begins with scraps, atoms of ideas -- single notes and chords. Then we get a series of Bach-like themes, from serenity to storms, as if Beethoven is trying out one approach after another, rejecting and moving on, building piece by piece. It's as if you're watching a History of Earth, from a bubbling chaotic soup to an ordered creation. We return to random fragments once again, against repeated B-flats and long "shakes," and we wind up with an incredible fugue, one of the strictest of musical forms, whose very long subject begins with a jump of a tenth and an angry trill, followed by essentially by the shake. The length of the subject leads us to expect something grand, and Beethoven doesn't disappoint. Indeed, along with the fugues of the Missa Solemnis, the Sonata No. 31, as well as the Grosse Fuge, this is one of Beethoven's mightiest. He stuffs it with "learned" counterpoint and accompanies almost every nifty by modulating by a third away. We get the theme, its inversion, the theme against its inversion, a lyrical second subject against the theme, the subject against its inversion separated by a single beat in a very tight stretto, and (perhaps its most written-about feature) the theme backwards -- a passage I'm never able to hear without a score in front of me, and not always then. At the fugue's climax, the trill pops through all the registers on the piano like fireworks erupting in various parts of the night sky.

Schnabel's performance is a mixed bag. He was never known for his finger-technique. In the cruel first movement, one hears one clam after another, beginning with the opening chords. Many of the splats arise from the fact that Schnabel follows Beethoven's metronome markings. Still, it's not as bad as you might expect, and Schnabel's drive is exciting. You definitely get, however, a sense of struggle. He plays the second movement beautifully. Even though I know it's an illusion, he gives me the impression that Beethoven himself heard it this way. The third movement seems the hardest interpretively. For one thing, it's very long, and some pianists, under the mistaken impression that they deliver Profundity, stretch it out even further. I've heard it over 19 minutes and as short as 15 or so. Schnabel, at nearly 18 minutes, definitely pushes the listener, but his approach is very interesting. He plays it almost as an operatic scena, with arias and ornamented arias, duets and ensembles emerging from the piano texture. He once gets mired, I think, but recovers quickly. The intro to the third movement is masterly. You can see the thoughts flying through Beethoven's mind. However, the fugue runs faster than Schnabel can play it. The smears obscure the counterpoint. The very first entry of the subject, for example, loses its initial note. A lot of detail gets buried. Schnabel gives us an undeniably exciting wind-up, but it really is a flyover of the last movement.

Beethoven worked on his last three sonatas more or less simultaneously, although he did not release them together as different numbers of a single opus. He also sits deep in the late string quartets and in the Missa Solemnis. Coming after the "Hammerklavier," the Sonata No. 30 invites you to underestimate it, particularly because of its relatively modest opening movement. But it really is in its quiet way quite remarkable and harder to play than it sounds. The calm first theme itself ravishes you with its wildflower freshness, very Schubertian, even Mendelssohnian, before the fact. It's one of those oddly-shaped movements we've previously encountered in Beethoven, with a very short exposition and a very long development, as in both Sonata No. 22 and the "Appassionata" finales. A second subject does appear, but the development belongs exclusively to the first theme.

The second movement, a furious scherzo, shocks in its contrast. It runs even shorter than the first movement, but in both cases, their impact far exceeds their duration. The scherzo wrings you out, despite its brevity. You don't wish it any longer. One interesting feature is the opening bass line, which gets developed along with the treble theme. Beethoven begins to trot out a few contrapuntal tricks: inverting the bass line against the theme and putting the inversion against the original bass line.

I've spoken of odd proportions. Actually, the entire sonata illustrates this. The last movement, a theme with six variations, is at least twice as long as the other two movements put together. It is also an homage to the Baroque, and not just in general, but specifically to Bach. We've spoken of Beethoven's study of Bach, and this is actually a Big Deal, if only because Bach's music was not readily available, other than in private libraries. Yet clearly Beethoven knew at least some of Bach and profited from it in his own works. The theme itself is a sarabande, a slow triple-time dance with the accent on the second beat, just like the theme to the Goldberg Variations, although I have no idea whether Beethoven knew this work. The variations are mainly melodic, with a constant harmonic substrate, again like the Goldberg Variations. In the first variation, Beethoven ornaments the melody in an Italian manner. In the second, notes, like points of light, flit by. The repeat is itself a variation. In variation three, a moto perpetuo, descending 3rds in the treble compete against ascending 3rds in the bass. The fourth variation, marked piacevole ("pleasantly"), is very similar to a Bach allemande (see the English Suite No. 4, for example). Andras Schiff has pointed out the similarities of the fifth variation, a vigorous fugato, to the "Et vitam venturi" fugue in the Missa Solemnis. In variation six, we initially hear the theme in the middle of the texture. The note values get progressively smaller -- from quarters to eighths to triplets to sixteenths to thirty-seconds to a rapid trill. At the end, the theme sounds at the extreme upper end of the piano (ie, as it was in Beethoven's day) against a bass at the extreme lower end. Essentially, the pianist contemporary with Beethoven would have hands as far apart as they could go. Then the theme returns, straight, just like in the Goldbergs. This wasn't at all usual in variation sets at the time. The idea was to end on a rouser. Beethoven cuts off the rouser, and it's just one more piece of evidence for Beethoven knowing something of Bach's monumental variations.

Schnabel gives an excellent performance, although I can (and do) split hairs. In the first movement, he and Beethoven melt your heart. In the second, he achieves real power without banging. I think him a hair too slow in the early part of the third movement, which results in losing the vocal quality of variation 1 and a slight drag in variation 2. I want gossamer here in the "firefly" sections. Schnabel's account of variations 3 and 4 is as good as you can hear. In variation 5, I admire Schnabel's beautifully subtle handling of hemiola (switches between three groups of two and two groups of three). He plays vigorously without obscuring the counterpoint. Variation 7 shows the reasons for Schnabel's reputation as an "architectural" player. The structure becomes wondrously clear, even toward the end (where the music deliberately loosens up) without sacrificing warmth, and Schnabel manages the tricky transition to the return of the theme as if it's the most natural thing in the world. In that return, he makes you feel a sense of almost-cosmic wholeness.

We have almost completed Schnabel's traversal of the Beethoven cycle. One more disc ought to do it, and the best is yet to come.

S.G.S. (February 2012)