Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Sonatas Nos. 11, 18, 28
Angela Hewitt (pn)
HYPERION 67974 (72: 29)
Angela Hewitt is building her Beethoven cycle circumspectly and slowly. This is only the fourth volume to appear in seven years, and the tally of sonatas covered so far is 13. In the interim, she gave us a set of Beethoven’s cello sonatas with Daniel Müller-Schott.
With the exception of Volume 3 of the piano sonatas, reviewed by Scott Noriega in 34:2, I had the pleasure of reviewing
the first two volumes in 30:5 and 31:2, respectively, as well as the two volumes of cello sonatas, released separately, in 32:4 and 33:6, respectively.
When it comes to Bach and Beethoven in particular, Hewitt is a pianist who, for me, can do no wrong. She applies her mastery of linear layering learned from Bach’s contrapuntal methods to Beethoven’s harmonic processes, exposing in the latter an independence and plasticity of voices often unrealized in more rigidly vertical approaches by other artists.
Of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas for solo piano, only half-a-dozen have fallen short of at least 100 recordings, and the Sonata No. 11 in B? Major, op. 22, which opens this program, is one of them. I’ll grant you that it may not be one of the composer’s most memorable sonatas, and it has no nickname to add to its distinction. Moreover, there’s nothing unusual or pioneering to report on in this particular work.
Robert Silverman, author of notes on the sonatas at audiohigh.org/upcoming-events/beethoven-notes/sonata-11-in-b-flat-major-opus-22, states, “This is the first sonata where, instead of breaking new ground and probing the limits of every precept and process he can, Beethoven appears satisfied to rest on his laurels. Op. 22 is the most ‘normal’ sonata he wrote, the one that most closely adheres to textbook descriptions of the form. Furthermore, it does not portray him in any of his most characteristic moments; it is not especially defiant, tragic, humorous, or brilliant. Nevertheless, he was particularly proud of it, according to a letter that he wrote to his publisher, and his pride is fully justified. Beethoven’s accomplishments to date in this genre are fully summed up in this work.”
The idea of summing up all that had gone before was expressed even earlier by musicologist and composer Donald Francis Tovey, who called op. 22 “the crowning achievement and culmination of Beethoven’s early ‘grand’ piano sonatas.” Going forward, Beethoven would embark on a path of radical experimentation, a course exemplified by the next sonata on the disc.
The Sonata No. 18 in E? Major, op. 31/3 is as irregular and unorthodox as the op. 22 Sonata is regular and conventional. No. 18 has no slow movement, but instead, has both a scherzo and a minuet, as if Beethoven couldn’t decide which movement form he preferred in a sonata. Equally unusual is that the Scherzo, almost always a movement in Beethoven’s works in a very fast triple time—so fast, in fact, that it’s generally beat in one—is here in 2/4. And, to further furrow the brows of the academic analysts, the movement doesn’t conform to the expected scherzo-trio-scherzo format. Instead it’s a miniaturized, though full-blown, sonata form, complete with exposition repeat. This, surely, is one of Beethoven’s most atypical sonatas; yet it, too, like op. 22, is one of those half-dozen sonatas referred to above that has fallen just short of the 100-recordings mark. No doubt this can be attributed to the fact that it bears no nickname and that it shares an opus number with the set of three sonatas that contains the hugely popular “Tempest,” op. 31/2. The same sad fate has befallen the Sonata No. 13 in E? Major, op. 27/1, which has no pet name and shares the same opus number with its vastly more popular companion, the “Moonlight” Sonata, op. 27/2.
The final sonata on this disc, No. 28 in A Major, op. 101, is generally regarded as the kickoff to Beethoven’s last group of five piano sonatas, though not all commentators view this Sonata and the one that follows it—the “Hammerklavier” (No. 29)—as part of a pentalogy, preferring to regard only the last three sonatas, opp. 109–111, as a trilogy. The fact of the matter is that none of these sonatas is actually related, nor are the last three a true trilogy in the sense that Beethoven’s string quartets, opp. 130–132 are, all three of which are derived from the same motivic material.
The A-Major Sonata would seem to be the work in which Beethoven has “transited” to the other side, if you will. The writing is now not only more contrapuntal than ever before—witness the madcap fugue in the last movement—but intentionally unmindful of traditional harmonic practices. As has been pointed out in a number of sources, the first movement stubbornly resists confirming the key of A Major by refusing to come to rest on a single tonic cadence throughout the entire exposition and development sections. Not until the recapitulation does Beethoven gives us a tonic chord in root position. This lends an indeterminate sense to the tonality of the piece, causing it to sound in a state of flux.
The score is also one of shocking emotional contrasts. The vague, floating, introspective first movement is followed by a spiky scherzo resembling a march. Or, is it a mordant march posing as a scherzo? In either case, the tenor of the piece is ambiguous. One isn’t sure whether it’s meant to be comic or deadly serious.
, like the “Introduzione” in the “Waldstein” Sonata, is more of a prologue to the Finale than it is an independent, self-sustaining movement.
As I said in reviewing a prior release in Hewitt’s on-going Beethoven cycle, “The care and attention Hewitt pays to the subtlest of details yield rich dividends.” Each of three sonatas on this disc poses its own set of technical difficulties, and all are surmounted with seemingly effortless technique that makes them sound natural, spontaneous, and easy.
In her self-authored album note, Hewitt quotes an anecdote about the pianist to whom Beethoven dedicated the A-Major Sonata, his student and later close friend, Dorothea von Ertmann. Describing her playing, a contemporary, Johann Reichardt, wrote, “I have never seen, even in the greatest virtuosi, such power allied to the most tender delicacy; there is a singing soul in each fingertip.” If Reichardt were alive today, he would speak thusly of Angela Hewitt.
I will conclude by urging Hewitt to hurry up and finish her Beethoven cycle while I’m still around to hear it. I’m not sure I can wait another seven years. Meanwhile, this is most strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Sonata for Piano no 28 in A major, Op. 101 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Angela Hewitt (Piano)
Written: 1816; Vienna, Austria
Sonata for Piano no 18 in E flat major, Op. 31 no 3 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Angela Hewitt (Piano)
Written: 1802; Vienna, Austria
Sonata for Piano no 11 in B flat major, Op. 22 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Angela Hewitt (Piano)
Written: 1800; Vienna, Austria
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