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Michael Korstick Ludwig van Beethoven: Klaviersonaten Vol. 7: Sonaten op. 31 Nr. 1–3 OC 620 SACD
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FormatSuper Audio CD
Ordering NumberOC 620
Release date03/11/2009
Players/ContributorsMusicians Composer
  • Beethoven, Ludwig van

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      Klaviersonaten Vol. 7: Sonaten op. 31 Nr. 1–3
      Michael Korstick, Klavier

      These days, Michael Korstick’s celebrated Beethoven cycle needs practically no introduction. This recording of Beethoven’s complete piano works is exemplary for its interpretational approach of tackling the musical text uncompromisingly, a faithfulness to the score which helps express Beethoven’s instructions in all situations.
      Many reviews of the CDs which have already been released for this series and numerous awards from the specialist media confirm that this artistic approach leads to rousing, extremely dynamic interpretations. “I am only barely content with my previous work, from now on I wish to strike a new path,” was Beethoven’s comment shortly before the publication of the sonatas op. 31. Here we see a master who has found his own path and is ready to appropriate and perpetuate traditional forms in his own way.

      New Paths

      „The works I have written until now give me little satisfaction; from now on I shall take a different path.“ According to Czerny, Beethoven made this remark to his close associate Wenzel Krumpholz shortly before the publication of his three Opus 31 Piano Sonatas in 1803. It is often quoted as evidence for the existence of an exact boundary between Beethoven‘s „early“ and „middle“ periods. But it is hardly worth mentioning that this type of oversimplification entirely misses the point – one needs only remember the Sonatas Opp. 26 and 27 that had already opened up completely new perspectives for the sonata form. It is much more likely that Beethoven‘s statement simply reflects the natural self-confidence of a composer who had completely mastered every aspect of his craft and felt ready to depart for new horizons and ensure that his visions would materialize. The op. 31 Sonatas show, however, that he understood this departure as an evolution of and not a break with the past. Beethoven avoided the common mistake of wanting to jettison the apparent „ballast of tradition“ and trying to invent the wheel all over again. On the contrary, he returned, as we see in the Sonata in G Major, to formal designs that hardly differed from the familiar patterns of a Haydn or Mozart.

      The opening Allegro vivace demonstrates from the outset where the journey is going; the clarity and almost academic simplicity of form provides ample ground for Beethoven to play unprecedented games with key relationships and harmonic progressions. The underlying element of biting humor, however, needs no restraint because the movement’s structural unity is never endangered. Taking a closer look, we discover that the entire thematic material is derived from a single nucleus, which may explain the fact that reading the score sometimes produces the impression of a certain cool constructivism on Beethoven’s part. Listening to the music results in quite another experience, provided that the performer takes the tempo and character indications seriously and has the corresponding temperament and technique to match. How carefully Beethoven went about shaping every detail is revealed by his reaction upon receiving the first printed edition of the piece. When he noticed that the publisher Naegeli had added four bars to the beginning of the coda, probably in a wellmeaning attempt to restore symmetry to the phrase structure, the master went into a rage of Olympian dimensions that was not exactly assuaged by a myriad of engraving errors. He ended up condemning this edition altogether and entrusting the publishing firm Simrock with what was called an “Edition très correcte”.

      The second movement, with its absolutely unique tempo indication Adagio grazioso and its richly embellished vocal lines over a pizzicato accompaniment, is one of Beethoven’s most misunderstood pieces. All too often, the difficult-to-shape pianistic layout results in a performance where the tempo is unduly accelerated to an Allegretto and the intricacies of articulation between the voices are either ignored or drowned by an overabundance of pedaling, thus transforming the music into a Biedermeier-style salon piece. And the middle section, an evocation of Rossini, is often taken at a new and even faster speed for the sake of effect, thus robbing it of its structural purpose. But if the music is taken in the appropriate Adagio tempo and its elegant character is established, together with an exact rendition of the meticulously notated fine points of articulation, then the novel aspects of the piece become apparent: its unusually large dimensions are supported by an architecture that is far more complex than usual, thus enabling the composer to speak with greater freedom and fewer restrictions. Such a performance also ensures that the individual sections – like the enormous coda, despite its length and weight – remain in balance with the rest of the movement.

      The Finale uses procedures which Beethoven had developed for the first movement of the preceding Sonata op. 28 and applies them to a Rondo structure, where a single theme provides the material for the entire movement. This theme is spun out in a stream of unbroken “narration” within the framework of an elaborate structure. It avoids the traditional contrasting elements until the end, when the theme appears as a fugato and is subsequently broken down into its elements and slowed to an adagio before the brilliant coda turns it into a ferocious but humorous romp. It has often been said that this movement anticipates Schubert – whether this is true or not, the fact is that Schubert copied the structure of Beethoven’s Rondo down to the last detail when he composed the final movement of his Sonata in A Major D 959.

      The Sonata op. 31 No. 2, the so-called “Tempest”, speaks an entirely different language. Its name – which although not authentic, has helped the piece achieve great popularity – does not give any clue as to the musical content of the work, at least not in respect to Shakespeare’s drama. Beethoven had reacted to Schindler’s request for an explanation of this sonata (as well as of the “Appassionata” op. 57!) by quipping “Read Shakespeare’s Tempest” – not at all with a meteorological interpretation of the term.

      The first movement, with its improvisatory recitatives and explosive outbursts (Beethoven: “The piano must break!”), conveys the impression of a free fantasia; in truth, however, its tightly woven architecture contains the most painstaking thematic work. In terms of form, the Adagio is the most conventional part of the sonata, but Beethoven achieves a maximum of expressive depth in spite of reducing its harmonic vocabulary to the most basic progressions by creating orchestrally conceived simultaneous processes in various registers of the piano. The closing Allegretto is a “perpetuum mobile”, but in spite of its continuous sixteenth notes, it does not have much in common with a classical blockbuster finale. At first glance, the design of the main theme seems to resemble the opening of the famous piece “For Elise”, and indeed, some performances evoke a certain similarity. But again, closer inspection reveals – proven by the complicated notation in the left hand – that this highly emotional finale has very little in common with a harmlessly benign salon piece. This left hand accompaniment consists of groups of four sixteenth notes each, of which the bass note must be played short while the second note is to be sustained throughout the bar while only the two remaining notes are notated “normally” – the result is an unsettling effect. Perhaps it is just a legend that Beethoven was supposedly inspired by the sounds of a horse galloping by, but it is a fact that this effect creates a character of restlessness which is a far cry from any kind of gemütlichkeit, and even the abrupt ending expresses resignation rather than reconciliation.

      Opus 31 marks the last time that Beethoven ever published a group of piano sonatas under one opus number, and in fact, the third sonata of this group is Beethoven’s last classical fourmovement sonata with a sonata-allegro form at the beginning and a Presto finale at the end (if we disregard the “Hammerklavier” Sonata op. 106 and its very different formal design). A special feature of this piece is the absence of a traditional Adagio movement. Instead, Beethoven invents a novel solution that is quite his own. We remember that Beethoven’s first innovation in the piano sonata genre was to increase the number of movements from three to four by inserting either a Scherzo or a Minuet between the Adagio and the finale. In this sonata, Beethoven now juxtaposes these two dance forms, doing so with stunning originality: the Scherzo is written in the “wrong” meter, i.e. two-four-time and carries the unusual tempo marking of Allegretto vivace. The Minuet, the last time that Beethoven ever used this dance in a piano sonata – has a strongly nostalgic character (Moderato e grazioso) and fades away with a touching gesture of farewell. The finale, Presto con fuoco, is a virtuoso showpiece of utmost brilliance whose Tarantella character, with its horn calls and tumult that evokes the hunt, explains why the entire sonata eventually became known as “La Chasse”. Echoes of this music can be found in the final movements both of Schubert’s Sonata in C Minor D 958 and Camille Saint-Saens’ Second Piano Concerto in G Minor op. 22. The latter composer also wrote a brilliant set of Variations on the Trio section of the third movement of our sonata. An interesting point is the striking similarity between the theme of the last movement of the Sonata in E-flat Major and the tune that opens the Finale of the “Waldstein” Sonata op. 53. A mere thirty years later, composers like Berlioz and Liszt would introduce the novel technique of using such relations (same melody, but transformed in tempo, key, rhythm and character) within one and the same piece for the purpose of structural unity. What might Beethoven have said to these “New Paths”?

      Sascha Selke

      Four Questions for Michael Korstick

      What should a musician strive for in a performance?
      To be the advocate of the composer, even though this does not go far enough, actually. To feel that he has a “mission”. While I don’t really like this term either, it somehow describes things better: to feel at that moment that his sole purpose on earth is to breathe life into a piece and to share the thrill with his listeners.

      Is it at all possible to give an “authentic” performance of Beethoven, or is it simply impossible to reconstruct many conventions from the performance practices of his day?
      You only get simple yes-or-no-answers to this question from people who engage in ideological trench warfare. When it comes to the performance practices of bygone eras, no matter how much or how little solid information there is, all one can do is speculate. In Beethoven’s case we have an entirely different situation, anyway. We do know that Beethoven had already abandoned the performance practices prevailing in his time, for example by expressly forbidding any and all of the still customary addition of embellishments and by adding articulation, dynamic and tempo markings to his scores with an accuracy that bordered on paranoia. But back to your question. If you translate “authentic” as “genuine” or “unadulterated” then you can’t go entirely wrong by painstakingly following these instructions, but you must never forget that the actual interpretation begins after this stage.

      How “faithful to the text” are your interpretations?
      This always depends on whether such “faithfulness” was important to the composer or not. Take Liszt, for instance. For him, the poetic idea itself was the deciding factor – not the way it was formulated. In his case, not only did he sanction touchups and textual changes by the performer, he actually expected them. But with Beethoven, we already see during the compositional process how vigorously he fought for the utmost perfection of every minute detail, and the same is true for his performance indications. This is the reason I do my best to read the musical text meticulously and to take things from there. But this is nothing more than the foundation upon which an entire edifice consisting of sounds still remains to be erected. To “only” convey the text faithfully has no value in itself. It accounts for maybe ten percent of the whole thing, but, as I like to say, fidelity to the text is by far not everything, but without it, everything is in vain!

      Where do you see yourself in the tradition of Beethoven interpretation, and do you consider yourself to be a “modern” performer?
      To me the most important aspect of Beethoven’s music is its timeless validity. The truly great Beethoven performers of the past have been those pianists whose playing was free from any kind of “fashion”, something I admire a lot. In my eyes, today’s zeitgeist has an almost anachronistic touch, when you see the degree to which some performers self-indulgently focus on their own moods, especially when approaching Beethoven. This reminds me of the Dark Ages when performers who thought of themselves as geniuses invoked their “inspiration” as the ultimate authority, the way medieval princes would exercise their privilege of answering for their actions only to the Almighty. In that respect, I am a child of the Enlightenment and prefer to have my interpretations judged against somewhat more secular standards in terms of whether they meet the exigencies of a given piece or not – as well as if they live up to the interpretations of our great predecessors. This should not be mistaken for pseudo-tolerance, according to which all opinions are equal. One must have a clear standpoint, even if it is uncomfortable to others. Art cannot be neutral. In this respect, I admire Arturo Toscanini for the courage to choose as his battle-cry: “In life, democracy; in art, aristocracy.”

      Translation: Elizabeth Gahbler

      Tracklist hide

      SACD 1
      • Sonata No. 16 in G major op. 31/1
        • 1.Allegro vivace06:05
        • 2.Adagio grazioso12:16
        • 3.Rondo. Allegretto06:53
      • Sonata No. 17 in D minor op. 31/2 “Tempest”
        • 4.Largo – Allegro07:58
        • 5.Adagio10:07
        • 6.Allegretto06:10
      • Sonata No. 18 in E-flat major op. 31/3
        • 7.Allegro07:49
        • 8.Scherzo. Allegretto vivace04:56
        • 9.Menuetto. Moderato e grazioso04:20
        • 10.Presto con fuoco04:21
      • Total:01:10:55