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MILESTONE RECORDINGS – Information

>> Composer

Beethoven, Ludvig van

>> B & D

Born: 1770 in Bonn

Died: 1827 in Vienna

>> Title of work

Piano Sonata no.32 in C minor, op.111

>> Dedicatee

Archduke Rudolph

>> Rec Date &

Playlist

Oct 18, 2004

Click the following to listen to the music:

1. Maestoso; Allegro con brio ed appassionato

2. Arietta. Adagio molto semplice e cantabile

 

>> Notes:

When Beethoven sent his final sonata to the young publisher Schlesinger in Paris, he received distress letters enquiring if the score of the Finale (which theoretically should exist) had been left on the careless copyist’s desk. “I didn’t have time to write one” was the composer’s cool and enigmatic reply. In fact, the sonata opus 90 had already set an example of a two-movement sonata structure, however, Beethoven’s revolutionary ideas still managed to surprise the world every time his new works were presented.

This sonata, set in the familiar “C minor mood” of Beethoven, may remind us of the composer’s famous “the-hero-against-Fate” story. However, unlike the Fifth symphony, the story did not end as a victory march but as a sweet slumber which the second movement fittingly portrays. The tense confrontations in the first movement is nowhere to be found in the Arietta as the key changes from minor to major, not unlike the symphony, symbolizing a journey from darkness to light. However, Beethoven projected the “light” in a way different from the symphony that the sweet serenity in the Arietta described his visions of a state of sublimal peacefulness, of the soul aspiring to a higher plane where Fate could no longer interfere. The proudness of victory in the Fifth symphony is transformed into inner strength in this sonata, manifesting as peace and tranquility. Therefore, Schlesinger’s idea of a “grand Finale” is absurd, since such a Finale would crash the soul back to the metaphysical world which it only just left behind.

The first movement opens with ground-shattering, majestic diminished chords, which dissolves into a string of quiet modulating harmonies. A roll of thunder launches the music into an impassioned movement of grand counterpoint. Written in sonata form, the movement is propelled with great drive and energy. The movement ends in a quiet coda, stopping on the chord of C major, which prophesizes the change of key in the ensuing movement, where the tranquility of the coda bridges the first movement to the following Arietta.

The second movement displays Beethoven’s variations technique at its finest and most creatively modern. After four continuous variations of increasing movement, a long coda takes the listener on a spiritual journey of self-reflection that transcends humanity and soars towards divinity. Dubbed a “milky way in tones” by Heinrich Schenker, this Arietta movement is immensely beautiful in its range of tone colours and expressive qualities. Near the end of the sonata, an extremely difficult string of trills in the treble accompanies the final echo of the Arietta theme and here the soul is distilled, and ascends to the heavens.

Beethoven’s opus 111 is the Mount Zeus of sonatas defining spirituality in the piano repertoire. Its innovative concepts and divine artistry are timeless. As one of the most magnificent works in the master composer’s final decade of life, this sonata, as well as the Ninth Symphony and the Missa Solemnis, may well be the definitive final statements to humanity from the greatest composer that ever lived.

 

>> Recordings by other pianists

1.          Kempff, Wilhelm: DG Mono, 1950s ****(*)
Important recording, authentic Germanic, good mono sound, peak Kempff

2.          Kempff, Wilhelm: DG Stereo, 1960s ****
Still peak Kempff, notes are a bit too detached, remastered sound is too sharp though

3.          Backhaus, Wilhelm: Decca, 1961 ****(*)
A celebrated recording, peak Bakhaus with great bass sound, first movement authoritative, second movement too fast and undesirably without repeats

4.          Arrau, Claudio: Philips, 1965 ****
Warm as usual, sound beautiful in middle register but CD sounds compressed. Arrau seemed to get lost in the second movement, lacking flow in the coda after mm 96

5.          Arrau, Claudio: EMI video, mono, 1960s ***(*)
Video is a bonus, but we see Arrau struggling with the technical parts of the sonata. Sound is below par for a 1960 recording. Otherwise,

6.          Solomon (Cutner): EMI, mono, 1951 *****
Probably the greatest op.111 recording. The transparency in the Arietta is unparalleled. Valuable recording before Solomon’s final debilitating stroke.

7.          Pollini, Maurizio: DG, 1976 ****(*)
Fiery recording showing a youth Pollini at 30. Technically near-perfect and approved by the pianist.

8.          Serkin, Rudolf: SONY, 1967 ***(*)
Unconventional Serkin. He played with elegance here. Not terribly exciting though. Sound is stuffy, below par.

9.          Michelangeli, Arturo Benedetti: Decca, 1970s ****(*)
Mixed reviews, but all agree that his tone was incomparable and it excelled in the Arietta. Interpretaion-wise, ABM was never a Beethoven academic anyway. Supposed to be a warm movement, ABM’s Arietta is as icy but as beautiful as the Alps.

10.      Michelangeli, Arturo Benedetti: AURA Live, 1981 **
The lowest rating in the whole list, this serves as an example of how great pianists can play so badly. He was struggling with the technics (!!) and showed fatigue. Plenty of wrong notes, and the Arietta just didn’t come through as an integrated organism.

11.      Baremboim, Daniel: DG ***
Best to be avoided for your first listening, but beautiful chapel sound with plenty of personal spices. Tempermental, not authoritative though.

12.      Barenboim, Daniel: EMI, earlier than the DG set ***
Rumoured to be better than the DG set, though with a more naïve pianist.

13.      Pletnev, Mikhail: DG Live, 2000 ***(*)
Russians are much more respectful to Beethoven than Mozart, and here Pletnev tried to bring out a lot of details. Not a “Germanic” performance of course, but beautifully recorded and a delight to listen to, with a energetic Arietta variation III.

 

 

 

 

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