Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas #13, #14, #15

Today we'll go over three of Beethoven's piano sonatas, from a Deutsche Grammophon CD of Maurizio Pollini performing Sonatas #13, #14 and #15. These are works composed for solo piano, with a symphony-like structure consisting typically of either three or four movements.
Maurizio Pollini
Beethoven (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas No. 13, No. 14 and No. 15
Deutsche Grammophon, 1992
You don't need to be a piano expert to appreciate these works. But you do need to be a piano expert to play them. Beethoven's piano sonatas are so difficult and so technically demanding that the majority of piano students simply cannot perform them. This is in stark contrast to works by composers like Chopin (who wrote most of his preludes such that intermediate piano players could play them), or Rimsky-Korsakov (whose symphonies are performable by any above-average community band).

In fact, piano players generally find practicing Beethoven's piano sonatas to be exercises in frustration, and most are reduced to playing only the first movement of the famed "Moonlight Sonata" (Sonata #14). As a result, that single movement is widely recognized (and massively overplayed) while the rest of this entire subsegment of Beethoven's work remains relatively unknown.

You might at first find it challenging to listen to these intricate and intense works for solo piano. The music is surprisingly complex. But in the hands of a world-class pianist like Wilhelm Kempff, Maurizio Pollini or Vladimir Horowitz, these works are shockingly original, beautiful and emotional.

Be patient and give each sonata a several close listens, and you'll start to get your bearings. You'll start to recognize specific passages and themes, and you'll find that these sonatas have the same dramatic range and volcanic emotions that we've come to expect from a full Beethoven symphony.

You won't regret spending time getting to learn these amazing works.

Listener notes:
1) The disc I have, of Maurizio Pollini, is quite good, with good performances from both a technical and emotional standpoint (although as a trumpet player and not a piano player, take my work on the technical aspect of his playing with a grain of salt).

2) Who doesn't instantly recognize the opening theme of the so-called Moonlight Sonata? The fact that a work for solo piano (which is, let's face it, a relatively obscure type of classical composition) became as famous as it is some two centuries after it was written, gives you an idea of the genius of Beethoven.

Indeed, Beethoven himself seemed to resent the popularity of his Sonata #14 when he said, "People are constantly talking about the C sharp minor sonata! But I have written much better things." I can sympathize when I see which posts end up being "most popular" on this and my other blogs!

Just keep in mind that there is much more to these works than the first movement of Sonata #14. Don't fall into the trap of "staying familiar" with what you know and not stepping out into equally beautiful movements like the first movement of Sonata #13 or the second movement of Sonata #15.

3) My favorite quote on Sonata #14 actually refers to the less familiar second movement, which pianist and composer Franz Liszt called "a flower poised between two abysses."

4) Listen to the gripping transition from the second movement of Sonata #14 (the "flower") to the third movement (the second "abyss"). Very few of the world's greatest composers, even using an entire symphony orchestra, could come up with something this compelling.

5) Sonata #15: If you want to focus one particularly amazing piece of music, listen closely to track 9, which is the intricate second movement (Andante) of Sonata #15. In my opinion this is the most intricate and interesting work on the entire CD. Notice the initial core theme, which consists of bouncing lower notes played by the left hand underneath a melodic line played by the right hand. This core theme returns repeatedly, with the right hand playing increasingly complex variations on that melody.

I listened to this movement closely some five or six times, and even subjected my wife to repeated listens (which, fortunately, she tolerated). I cannot believe this work was just sitting there in my living room all these years, unlistened to, unloved, and collecting dust! It's yet another example of an enormous blessing I've received since starting this blog.

6) Beethoven doesn't really joke around anywhere here, at least not in the way we've heard lately by Haydn, with his twinkling eye and self-deprecating wit. You get the distinct impression that Beethoven wasn't doing this classical music composition thing just for the fun of it.

7) Notice how not one of these sonatas has the drawn out and overwrought ending typical of Beethoven's symphonies?

8) Note that at various times in the recording (and upon extremely close listening) you can hear Maurizio Pollini mumbling some of the melodies under his breath while he plays. Can you hear him during track 9 of this disk? You'll have to use good headphones and listen very closely, but try the passages at 3:05-3:06, then 3:20-3:26 and then again at 5:11 in track 9. "Muh-muh-muh." Obviously our man Maurizio is really getting into it here, and he's having a bit of a Leonard Bernstein moment.

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