Piano Sonatas Vol. 3:
No. 4 op. 7 “Grande Sonate” · No. 9 op. 14/1 · No. 10 op. 14/2
No. 12 op. 26 “Funeral March”
Michael Korstick, piano
Exciting, wonderfully intimate and surprising elucidation” (Die Zeit); “A stroke of luck!” (Süddeutsche Zeitung); “One of the most interesting Beethoven interpreters today” (Welt am Sonntag); “No question: this is one of the most interesting Beethoven cycles to be released in years” (Wirtschaftswoche).
The first volume of Michael Korstick’s Beethoven cycle was greeted enthusiastically.
Currently, a number of recordings of complete works are vying for fans’ attention. Korstick’s is right at the top, due both to its artistic quality, which has been paid tribute to throughout the media, as well as the added value of its hybrid SACD technology – at an extraordinarily attractive price.
opp. 7, 14 and 26
When Ludwig van Beethoven’s latest work for the piano was published by Artaria in Vienna in October 1797, even the external appearance of this publication
reflected the increase in the 26-year-old composer’s self-confidence. Whereas Beethoven had previously presented his first contributions to the genres of the Piano Trio (op. 1) and the Piano Sonata (op. 2) in groups of three (he was to do the same with his String Trios op. 9 and the Violin Sonatas op. 12), and whereas his first Cello sonatas (op. 5) had still appeared as a pair, the very fact that Beethoven published his newest creation, op. 7, as a separate entity and, in addition, under the title “Grande Sonate”, demonstrates the value which Beethoven placed on this work and would continue to place on it throughout his life.
Indeed, this title is by no means an expression of a young composer’s inflated self-esteem after having taken his first steps on the road to success, it is to be taken quite literally: This sonata was not only to remain the longest in Beethoven’s oeuvre (with the exception of the “Hammerklavier”
Sonata op. 106, monumental in every respect), its sheer length also dwarfed everything the 18th century had produced up to that moment in the way of sonata form. The first movement’s 352 bars alone break all boundaries – in comparison,
Mozart’s KV 533, by far his longest first sonata movement, is content with 239 bars. However, there is no trace of loquacity.
On the contrary, what seems to be an abundance of musical material in the exposition
is in truth the result of an astonishing amount of thematic work, something which by definition is supposed to be reserved for the development section. Thus one might in fact speak of something like a formal experiment, as the actual development section, consisting of only 52 bars, appears almost laconic, dispensing downright demonstratively
with the classical development
techniques. No less orchestral and symphonic is the second movement, its C major not so much shining brightly as glowing from within; it achieves the maximum
degree of depth and expressiveness by using the simplest means, including the famous rests constituting the main subject. Compared to its predecessors in op. 2, the third movement gains in length and significance; for the first time it is labeled neither as a scherzo nor as a minuet, it is much rather a precursor of the genre of the Romantic impromptu. Comparable to the A major Sonata from op. 2, the finale begins in a seemingly classicist vein, but here the contrasting middle section takes on an almost explosive character. After an outburst of such energy, it is almost logical that Beethoven allows himself, after a truly daring harmonic shift in the last appearance
of the main theme (we hear it in the harmonically far remote key of E major!), to let this keyboard symphony fade away pianissimo in a gently glowing coda based on the material of the explosive middle section.
In the case of the two Sonatas op. 14, the seemingly simple texture may blind the superficial listener to the fact that Beethoven is for the first time attempting
to pry open the sonata form which he had taken to new heights and to experiment
with new solutions. The E major Sonata thus dispenses entirely with the traditional slow central movement, replacing
it with an Allegretto in E minor, of which Schindler reports that in Beethoven’s own performance it was “more of an Allegro
furioso”. The central movement of the G major Sonata consists of a theme with a set of variations, Beethoven’s first attempt to introduce variation form into the piano sonata. Mozart had already done this in his sonatas KV 331 and KV 284; there, however, as the first and last movements respectively.
In contrast, Beethoven conceives an entirely different sequence of movements in his Sonata op. 26: he replaces the traditionally
fast first movement with an extended “Andante con variazioni”; for the first time he advances the Scherzo to the second position; instead of the expected lyrical Adagio, he inserts a Funeral March
of orchestral proportions (Beethoven did actually orchestrate the movement later on). The Finale does not build up to the traditional
apotheosis, but fades, almost ebbs away to a single pianissimo bass note. In contrast to the still purely ornamental variations
of the Sonata op. 14 Nr. 2, in op. 26 we already encounter a complex series of character variations which are a foretaste of the heights to which Beethoven would later take variation technique within the frame of sonata form.
All four sonatas on this CD have one thing in common: time and again they have – to varying degree – been underrated. The Sonata op. 7, for example, has frequently been dismissed as “academic” and “dry”; the Sonatas op. 14 have been described as “lightweight” and “less significant”, even as “pieces for beginners”; and due to its “lack of an effective finale”, op. 26 has been disregarded as “a composer’s experiment
in quest of new forms”.
When asked for an explanation, Michael Korstick suggests that the antiquated image of “Beethoven the Titan”could have become so firmly fixed in people’s heads that such subtle works which did not fit in with this cliché could not live up to the corresponding
expectations and were consequently misjudged. Even for the performer, he sees “the danger of falling into the trap of second-
guessing the composer, of trivialising, of smoothing things over.” He points out that Beethoven uses the indication “Allegro molto e con brio” for the first time in the first movement of the Sonata op. 7, or that the first movements of the Sonatas op. 14 are both marked “Allegro”, but that these movements are almost invariably performed as “Allegretto” or even “Moderato”. “Such indications actually keep the performer’s hands tied. If we remove the kinetic energy which Beethoven infused into these movements,
a vacuum is inevitably created related as far as the character of the music is concerned, and if this vacuum is then filled with artificial ingredients such as agogic
distortions, rubati, and arbitrary dynamic effects, as we so often hear, the result usually has precious little to do with the originally intended character of the work.”
One might, of course, ask which possibilities
a performer has of adequately approaching the character of a work nearly 200 years after the composer’s death. For Michael Korstick, two cardinal virtues are the answer: “Passionate devotion to the spirit of the music, humble meticulousness in observing its text!”