It is a commonplace for musicology to speak of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas as of an extraordinary journal recounting the various stages of their composer’s difficult life, and of his stylistic development. Other major composers, such as Haydn or Mozart, began writing keyboard sonatas in their youth and kept writing them until their last years. And, of course, also in their case a close look on the characterising features of their music reveals how their perspective changed with time, with age, and with experience. Still, in their output one can clearly observe a difference between Sonatas with no particular ambitions, and others conceived for posterity. On the other hand, there have been composers who left only a handful of Piano Sonatas; each of them is carefully crafted, and is intended as a snapshot of their composer’s skill and mastery at a given moment. In perhaps no other case than in Beethoven’s however, we have a steady flow of Sonatas covering almost the entire span of their composer’s creative years, and representing, in virtually all cases, a perfect creation to which the composer dedicated the summit of his artistry and energy.
Beethoven brought the Sonata form to its perfection, and at the same time fatally undermined it. His first Piano Sonatas, and his other first works in the Sonata form, are still rather classical in their structure and outlook. From the expressive viewpoint, they mostly reveal their composer’s youthful character, with a unique mixture of good humour, of (purposeful and ostentatious) clumsiness, and of lyrical élans. Formally, they are clearly indebted to Haydn; spiritually, they are as cheerful as Haydn’s, but also much rougher than those of his teacher. Young Beethoven seemed to be a jovial chap, who did not care to scandalize his aristocratic patrons and the well-mannered bourgeoisie, but yet was cherished by them precisely for his provocations.
Then came the tragedy of Beethoven’s life, his deafness. His earlier irony and his roguish behaviour became much rarer; his mental and spiritual energy became entirely focused on the effort to find a meaning in what was happening to him, and in accomplishing and fulfilling his creative mission, as he wrote in the Heiligenstadt Testament. His music, and particularly his Sonatas, reveal this continuing and exhausting struggle. The Sonata form he had inherited from Classicism displayed its full potential in his hands, and in that particular moment of his life (and of the political life of Europe, with the Napoleonic wars and the ensuing conflicts). The dialectical tension between the Sonata’s first and second theme became paradigmatic for the composer’s own, intimate, personal, and all-encompassing struggle. It was a one-sided war against Fate, and the composer wrestled with the musical matter, attempting to reconcile its opposing principles, embodied by the Sonata’s themes.
In what is conventionally known as Beethoven’s “third period”, something still different surfaces. Gone are the struggles of his thirties; the extremely creative and fecund dialectics between thematic principles began to fade, in favour of a more intimate contemplation and of otherworldly intuitions. Beethoven’s last works in the “Sonata” form (and here the scare quotes are indispensable) do not rely anymore on the principle of contrast laid down by the Classics and brought to perfection by Beethoven himself. Clearly, frequently a Sonata allegro structure is recognizable, and even when it is missing there are other traits of the Classical Sonata which compensate (partly) for it. But it is the very raison d’être of the Sonata which seems to gradually disappear. Beethoven had found a meaning in his life and in his disability; he had reconciled himself with the cross he had to bear; he had found a joy very different from that of the turbulent boy of many years ago, a joy rooted in transcendence.
The five Sonatas recorded in this Da Vinci Classics album cover almost the entire span of Beethoven’s “third period” at the keyboard. This may be said to begin with Sonata op. 90, the only one of the third-period series which is not included here, and it closes with op. 111; later, he would keep writing works in the “Sonata” form, but not for the keyboard.
Yet, without the 32 Piano Sonatas, arguably we would not have his Symphonies and his String Quartets. The piano, his faithful companion since his boyhood, was also the experimental workshop where he could test, try, and elaborate his most innovative solutions. It is so here too: these Sonatas predate and anticipate, realize and foreshadow, all the characterizing traits of the last Beethoven.
When the compelling need for a musical structure capable of conveying man’s struggle against Fate seemed to recede into the background, the underlying principle of the Sonata form had to be replaced by something else. Beethoven found that “something else” principally in two elements: polyphony (i.e. counterpoint, fugato sections, and fugues proper), and variations. These elements are clearly represented in these five Sonatas, and clearly embody the shift in attitude he had been living. In a Fugue, there are doubtlessly conflicting elements (typically, the subject and countersubject), but they coexist simultaneously from the very beginning (different from a Sonata Allegro’s two themes). In a Variation set, the dynamic element comes from the changes undergone by the theme, but, as dramatic as they can be, they never entirely destroy the underlying reminiscence of the theme’s generative identity.
Sonata op. 101, in A major, was written in 1816, but sketched already in 1813; its direct antecedent is the exquisitely poetic op. 90. It was dedicated to Baroness Dorothea von Ertmann, a very gifted amateur who could evidently master the imposing demands of this Sonata. The first movement of op. 101 seems to continue whence the second movement of op. 90 had left: on a melody which Wagner rightfully called “infinite”. It is a melody which neither begins nor – seemingly – ends; the performer must simply “enter” the flow of song which seems to float from eternity and for eternity in a transcendent peace. Here, already, we observe the virtual absence of conflict of this “Sonata” form: there is no opposing principle with which this otherworldly tune must compete.
Still, some kind of opposition comes with the second movement, a robust, heroic, and also slightly ironic march, in the positive tonality of F major. At its heart, however, we find a moment of exquisite peace and tenderness, where contrapuntal element features prominently: a delightful canon full of magic and delicacy. The short slow movement, an Adagio, is woven in a pre-Romantic nostalgia, whilst the Finale, to be played “resolutely”, seems to embody the composer’s decision to leave back the dreams of the first movement (recalled in the fourth movement’s opening) and to face his fate. A majestic fugue enlivens this movement, anticipating what will become a major feature of the later works.
Indeed, already in the following Sonata, op. 106, in B-flat major, the Fugue is perhaps the true protagonist of the work. Certainly, if one has heard even once this Sonata’s powerful, thundering, fanfare-like opening, it is impossible to forget it. It remains carved in the listener’s memory. The “hammers” of the Hammerklavier, the “new” piano whose name Beethoven wanted to appear on the titlepage, seem also to be the “hammers” sculpting this Sonata’s opening theme in our recollections. Still, if this is memorable, the fugue is “more” memorable. It is preceded by the disquieting and daemonic elusiveness of the Scherzo, with its powerful dynamic energy, and by the extreme expressive intensity of the broad, long, and sustained Adagio. But all this seems to step back when the immense Fugue appears. The composer’s technical skill is modestly revealed in his specification that this fugue has “some licences”; in spite of them, few other musicians managed to sustain such a monstruous construction, which defies the techniques of both composer and performer.
After this Sonata, the last three were conceived as a unity, even though they were completed and published individually. Op. 109, in E major, seems to revert to the tenderness and childlike purity of op. 90 and op. 101. It was dedicated to Maximiliane Brentano, the teenage daughter of one of Beethoven’s most faithful and generous patrons. This Sonata is purposefully disbalanced: the first two movements are two precious gems, but almost in a miniature format, whilst the main focus is on the Theme with Variations constituting the third movement. In the first movement, the traditional opposition between the two themes reappears: indeed, the second thematic element is even granted a tempo of its own. Yet, the limited size of this movement does not correspond to the great thematic struggles of Beethoven’s earlier output. The Theme with Variations is one of the most touching of Beethoven’s melodic creations, but the composer seems to pulverize it progressively, up to the sixth variation where one of the key traits of the last Beethoven appears: the trill, as a transcendent, otherworldly element which suggests Kant’s “firmament”.
In op. 110, in A-flat major, Beethoven’s most intimate thoughts are revealed even more tenderly. Singing is the true protagonist of this work, and its centrality prevents the conflict between the Sonata’s themes from becoming evident. Singing is also found in the second movement, but here it has rather the quality of folksong, with the actual quote of an Austrian popular tune. The Sonata closes with a sorrowful Arioso, which has the traits of a Passion music, and with a “redeemed”, luminous Fugue.
Fugato elements also feature prominently in the first movement of Beethoven’s last Sonata, op. 111 in C minor. They derive from the Baroque-like introduction, with its menacing and threatening diminished sevenths; here too there is an almost absolute centrality of the first theme, imparting total unity to the musical material. The Arietta which follows, in this two-movement Sonata, is another of the absolute summits of Beethoven’s art and of music history in general. Its utter simplicity, similar to that of Bach’s Aria from the Goldberg Variations, gives life to a series of variations, at times increasingly energetic, but later progressively transcendent. The closing, hyperborean trills, on which the Arietta’s miniature theme reappears, are one of the most efficacious and touching representations of the divine in music ever written.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2022
Paciariello, Maurizio (Fortepianist) attended Giuseppe Scotese’s classes at the “S. Cecilia” Conservatoire in Rome, where he got his diploma with top marks and distinction. Later, he took a higher studies course under Aldo Ciccolini. Then he completed further studies in chamber music with P. Badura-Skoda at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena, and with N. Brainin at the “Scuola di Musica di Fiesole“. He received a prize at the 47th ARD International Competition in Munich in 1998, and debuted at the Carnegie Hall, New York, in 2003. His focus is the solo and ensemble repertoire, with special interest in performing on period instruments; in fact he currently has access to a small but representative selection of period instruments, including a copy of a late 18th century clavichord, an early 19th century Viennese Haselmann fortepiano, a Boisselot French piano from ca. 1840, and a 1885 Bosendorfer. His attention to early performance techniques has led to the realization of ambitious projects, such as a performance of Beethoven’s complete sonatas for violin and pianoforte on a 1804 Broadwood piano (Museum of the American Piano, New York), and his successful performance at the Cappella Paolina at the Quirinale in Rome. His recording debut came with the Concertos for pianoforte and orchestra by F. Kuhlau and F. Berwald with the Sassari Symphonic Orchestra, for Inedita. Also for Inedita he recorded Beethoven’s Concerto in E-flat major WoO 4 (1784), winning acclaim among critics in Italy and internationally. He followed up on his research into Beethoven’s youthful concertos with the Rondo in B-flat major and the Concerto in D op.61a, both greeted enthusiastically by international musicologists and a candidate for the Prix International du Disque, Cannes. The seventh volume of “Beethoven Rarities” (INEDITA), dedicated to a revision of Concerto op.58 in the 1808 manuscript version, and Concerto op.19 with the handwritten cadenza taken from the Kafka Skizzenbuch, earning 5 stars from Rivista Musica. He produced a CD dedicated to music for violin and pianoforte by the Norwegian composer C. Sinding (ASV), which won praise from Fanfare, BBC News, Guardian, Daily Telegraph. He has recorded the Sonatas of Lino Liviabella and Nino Rota for viola and Pianoforte with Luca Sanzò, and the complete works for violin and pianoforte by Ottorino Respighi, with Marco Rogliano (TACTUS). The CD (BRILLIANT) with Luca Sanzò of Viola and Piano sonatas by Paul Hindemith has received important recognition from Gramophone, Fanfare, MusicWeb International, Musica, Opusklassiek. In his review on Fanfare of the Three Hindemith’s Piano Sonatas (BRILLIANT) James H. North so describes Paciariello’s features: “a Gustav Leonhardt turned into a Van Cliburn”.
Ludwig van Beethoven: (b Bonn, bap. 17 Dec 1770; d Vienna, 26 March 1827). German composer. His early achievements, as composer and performer, show him to be extending the Viennese Classical tradition that he had inherited from Mozart and Haydn. As personal affliction – deafness, and the inability to enter into happy personal relationships – loomed larger, he began to compose in an increasingly individual musical style, and at the end of his life he wrote his most sublime and profound works. From his success at combining tradition and exploration and personal expression, he came to be regarded as the dominant musical figure of the 19th century, and scarcely any significant composer since his time has escaped his influence or failed to acknowledge it. For the respect his works have commanded of musicians, and the popularity they have enjoyed among wider audiences, he is probably the most admired composer in the history of Western music.