Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sunday Classics: A vision for the future in Beethoven's last piano sonata


Beethoven's last piano sonata, No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111

In this May 1936 Electrola recording of Op. 111, that great Beethovenian Elly Ney (1882-1968) plays the Maestoso introduction and the exposition of the main Allegro (which is marked for a repeat that we're not hearing).

by Ken

Angry? Defiant? Just powerfully assertive? And yet there's something else going on at the same time, almost at war with those violent outbursts. I tried to find an earlier stopping point, and just couldn't -- I took it right up to the repeat marking. (It's only the Allegro section that gets repeated.)

In Friday night's preview we heard what I think are extraordinary -- as well as extraordinarily different -- performances of Beethoven's first piano sonata, the F minor, Op. 2, No. 1 (a set of three sonatas, like the set of three piano trios that makes up Beethoven's Op. 1), by Artur Schnabel and Glenn Gould. That was in preparation for today's look at the last of the 32 sonatas -- again one of three sonatas written consecutively, and probably overlappingly: Beethoven's Opp. 109, 110, and 111, astonishingly different musical visions that are almost textbook specimens of the composer's haunted and visionary "late" period.

It came about because I was thinking ahead to a recital I eventually attended Thursday night at which a young Korean pianist played Op. 111 and all four of Chopin's ballades. I wasn't sure how the two would go together. It's not a huge amount of music quantity-wise -- figure something under 30 minutes for the Beethoven sonata and maybe 35-40 for the combined Chopin ballades -- but golly, if you want to talk quality! (In the event, after all our talk about piano encores, there weren't any!)

I didn't know going in whether we would be hearing the Beethoven or Chopin first, and was sort of thinking if it was me, maybe I would start with the Chopin. So I thought we might listen to the second of the Chopin ballades, first a lovely performance by Agustin Anievas, then a more searching performance by Sviatoslav Richter (from the same Prague broadcast from which we recently heard the First Ballade).

CHOPIN: Ballade No. 2 in F, Op. 38

Agustin Anievas, piano. EMI, recorded in London, June 1975

Sviatoslav Richter, piano. Praga, recorded live in Prague, Feb. 21, 1960


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