Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas and Concerti

With the help of The Teaching Company, I have surveyed all thirty-two piano sonatas composed by Beethoven. I've also been listening to his five piano concerti, with performances by Alfred Brendel, Leon Fleisher, and Martha Argerich. I've accumulated enough of Argerich's CD's so that I will have to collect them together and review them as I go through them. That will mean backtracking a bit, but she is such a fantastic pianist that I don't mind.

But, let's start with the piano sonatas. I listened to the entire set as performed by Claude Frank in a CD reissue of a twelve LP collection from 1971. These are the same performances Greenberg used in his Teaching Company course.

Like a lot of the finer things in life, I find the piano sonata an acquired taste. I have yet to really acquire a taste for solo instrument music in general. A problem with listening to all thirty-two works is that they begin to sound alike, even though there is a lot of variety in the sonatas which track with Beethoven's growth as a composer. My favorite of the set is No. 15 in D, Op. 28, nicknamed the "Pastoral." I also like the "Hammerklavier" sonata (No. 29 in B-flat, Op. 106). One of the best-known works is No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27 No. 2, named the "Moonlight" sonata. I have heard this work a lot over the years on radio and on collection CD's. I've never liked it. Even after a in-depth study of the work, I still just don't care for it.

Other than that, I don't have much to say about the sonatas; there are so many of them (which has given me a taste for what's to come when I survey all of Mozart's symphonies) that you'd think I'd come up with more to write about. But, that's the way it is. I'm sure that as I listen to more solo piano I'll want to come back and listen to them again. To be honest, I'm not totally opposed to solo piano works; examples of composers I've liked include Chopin, Rachmaninov, and Marsha Webb (who is even now writing more works).

Beethoven wrote five piano concerti, and you have to be careful about the relative ages of each work. This is because the concerto numbered 1 was actually composed after number 2. However, since the numbers reflect the order in which they are published, and number 2 was the first one he composed, you can't always rely on the the numbers (or even the opus numbers, as they are, too, enumerated in order of publication) to determine composition age or order. I have two collections of all five concerti, one featuring Leon Fleisher, and the other Alfred Brendel. I can't say I prefer one over the other - they are both excellent performers. The Fleisher collection includes the so-called "Triple Concerto" (in C, Op. 56), while the Brendel set includes the "Choral Fantasy" (in C Minor, Op. 80). These extras were included, I guess, because there was a lot of space on the CD with the fifth concerto, which suits me fine.

The first three concerti were composed during his "early" period (i.e. before his "Heroic" period began with his third symphony). They are closer in style to the classical sound he inherited from Mozart. Nothing about them particularly sticks out about them (and this includes the performances of Nos. 2 & 3 by Argerich), but they are really nice works, and I've enjoyed my time with them.

The last two concerti are big works from his "Heroic" period. The fifth concerto, nicknamed the "Emperor," has some orchestral dance parts to it which makes a lot of the work memorable after just one hearing. It is the longest work, dating from the years 1808 to 1810. (If you include an unpublished concerto from his youth, this is actually his sixth piano concerto.) The name is misleading, as some have thought it refers to Napoleon, but in fact at the time of composition Austria was at war with France. What sounds to me like dance is actually inspired by military marches, and trumpet fanfares.

I'm coming to the end of Beethoven works in my collection; there are a few choral works (which I'm saving for last) as well as violin works (which I'm studying next), which include a pair of Romances and a violin concerto.