Pianist Anton Kuerti was born in Austria, grew up in the USA, and has lived in Canada for the last thirty-five years. His teachers included Arthur Loesser, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, and Rudolf Serkin. At [...]
They spoke about it
Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op.109
Few works make such a powerful impact in such a short space of time as the Sonata in E Major, Op.109. Each movement is like a haiku, beautifully formed, not wasting a word, yet making a very significant point. The first movement gives us perhaps the finest integration of formal and improvisatory styles adopted by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), molded into a very tightly compressed, yet smooth sonata form. This results in an uncanny sensation of the utmost freedom superimposed on absolute order and organization—something one fervently wishes could also be achieved in the political sphere. The first theme radiates an easy-going warmth and leads immediately into the second theme, where the tempo abruptly changes. It is here that we witness the Master improvising with very simple materials, mainly arpeggios.
The development is based entirely on the first subject and consists of one glorious crescendo leading to one of the most electrifying transformations in all of Beethoven‘s music: the friendly, unpretentious, smooth main theme is pounded out white-hot, now two octaves higher, each note piercing us with its extraordinary expressive power. As in most of his late works, Beethoven introduces one wisp of a new theme in the coda. It is like a commentary by another voice, sounded from the distance.
The wild and tumultuous “Prestissimo” is a précis of sonata form, with every element reduced to a stark minimum. The stern bass line from the opening theme is the main component of the development section. Here, its original furor dissipated, it is used in a flowing lyrical vein, but still retains a dark and threatening countenance. After this storm, what a beautiful sensation it is as the last movement sings out the heavenly theme for its variations. All turmoil is gone, and we are engulfed by serene yet powerful expression.
The treatment of the variations is quite free, using fragments of the theme’s melody, harmony, and rhythm interchangeably. Of special importance is the descending third which appears twice at the start of the theme, and is then eloquently stretched as the third strain starts, to a fifth. The second variation is really a combination of two distinct variations. First we hear a transparent, delicate skeleton of the theme, atomized and dispersed into tiny mysterious droplets. Instead of repeating this, it alternates with the other part of the variation, which develops the theme’s seminal descending third.
An unexpected lively change of mood ushers in the short third variation, with the descending third so dominant in the theme inverted so that ascending thirds now vault over each other, followed by a hammered, compressed version of the second half of the theme. The flowing lines of the next variation are of incomparable elegance, bubbling gently through each other, entwining themselves gracefully and contentedly. This pure and idyllic flow leaves us unprepared for the delightfully esoteric colours and the ecstatic outburst of passion that rocks the second half. Variation 5 is a vibrant and insistent fugato, relentlessly piling up entries of its motive (also based on the descending third), and storming from one end of the keyboard to the other. It would be hard to find a more stirring and noble moment in all of music than the climax of the final variation. Slowly and inexorably, the volume, the motion, and the tension all increase, heightened by incessant trilling, until the magic moment when all restraints are unleashed in a heaven-storming passage that roars up and down with excruciating poignancy. This could be interpreted either as a cadenza or as a free variation on the second half of the theme, probably both.
The whole meaning of the sonata seems to be brilliantly illuminated during these extraordinary moments; and when the light gradually dims, the meaning remains and even gains in intensity as the theme is repeated. How stunningly different the exact same notes seem when we hear them again after experiencing the variations. It is like the difference between the opening and the closing of a door—a door through which, in the meantime, Beethoven has transported us.
Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op.110
Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op.110 is the most accessible and the most popular of the late sonatas. Its unabashedly melodic opening tenderly sings out two consecutive full-fledged tunes, something almost unique among the Beethoven sonatas, which with rare exceptions start with ideas, motives or patterns, rather than singing melodies. Which of these exquisite tunes is the principal subject? The first sounds so casual and unpretentious and is so very short that one could easily assume it to be merely an introduction to the even more ravishing, soaring shape of its successor.
The question is clarified in the development, which uses the first tune exclusively, adding a flowing bass line and introducing an occasional touch of pathos to it. And it is settled when the same tune initiates the recapitulation. Examining these two themes closely reveals enough points of similarity to contend that the first represents the distilled essence of the second. With the exception of one astounding downward harmonic slide in the recapitulation that feels like a momentary attack of amnesia, all parts of this movement are “normal” (insofar as any accomplishment of genius can be normal). That is, they might have been written much earlier. This may be true of its parts, but looking at the whole, its aristocratic beauty has such refinement, such peaceful maturity, and such a spiritual perspective, that it clearly belongs among the late works.
The “Allegro molto” is a short, highly dramatic movement, serving the function of a scherzo, even though it is in 2/4 time. Its third strain gives a fleeting glimpse of a rollicking street song, but it quickly reverts to its original severity. It is in the trio that we first visit mysterious, other-worldly realms found so often in the late works. A cascading figure with unpredictable chromatic aberrations, crossing through its own pointillistic accompaniment, gives a penetrating sense of anxiety and surrealistic confusion. The uniquely designed finale commences with an improvisatory recitative, clearly introductory in character, its harmonies and tempo wandering freely. Its vocal character is confirmed by Beethoven’s use of the terms “recitative” and “Arioso dolente”. This “plaintive song” sings forth its canticle of woe, heavy with sadness, while still retaining much of the spontaneous, exploratory mood of the opening.
The “Arioso” gives way to a fugue, and if the former was vocal, certainly the latter must be choral. With sober austerity its subject rises gradually in an interlocking chain of fourths, its powerful motion absolutely constant. As the emotions swell mightily to a magnificent climax, the subject appears boldly in octaves, deep in the bass, further intensified by extending the chain of fourths beyond the three pairs in the theme to a full six pairs, as though nothing could stop it from swelling on, ever higher. After a second massive climax, the harmony unexpectedly sags down a half-step to G minor, and we find ourselves back in the “Arioso,” exhausted and weakened to borrow Beethoven‘s own terms.
The rhythms are even more indecisive than before, and the section closes with a series of chords, each on the weakest part of the beat. These massive chords break the depressed mood of the “Arioso,” and lead us to a new fugue, whose subject is the inversion of the first fugue’s subject. It has a lighter and more innocent character than the first, because it is in a higher, less vibrant register of the instrument, and because its descending fourths are far more gracious than the more deliberate and formal ascending fourths of the first fugue.
A full-length second fugue would give the movement a static, academic balance, so after each voice has stated the subject, Beethoven immediately pursues a different agenda. The mood becomes restless as the subject is heard in diminution (in this case that means three times faster than before), its faster notes flitting by nervously and rapidly. A curiously ambiguous change of pace slows the pulse but simultaneously doubles the speed of the moving voices. This is an integral part of the plot, which is to gradually transform the accelerated subject into a richly waving accompaniment under which the real subject returns triumphantly. From here to the conclusion, the music swells and strains heroically, its expression disarmingly warm and open, inviting all to rejoice and resonate with its happy fervour.
Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op.111
The contrast between the two movements of the Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op.111 could not be greater. The first is passionate, strident, angular, and complex in its moody key of C minor; the second, in the untroubled key of C major, is smooth, resigned, and transcendentally sweet. Some see here an initial portrayal of the strife and terror of the world which gives way to the peace and spirituality of the hereafter. The short introduction opens with three bolts of lightning, followed by a lengthy ebbing away, still in the same double-dotted rhythm as the opening, but the energy apparently sapped by the three spent bolts.
This introduction serves as an ominous fanfare that sets a dark mood, like the first scene of Macbeth, without introducing any of the main characters. The short and thunderous six-note flourish that opens the “Allegro” is enormously expanded into a theme by a series of extensions. The fact that everything important is proclaimed immediately and the rest of the theme is just an echoing, rambling extension, is what gives it such a powerfully assertive character.
The whole movement is essentially a wrathful working out of this motive; aside the extremely brief, luminously melodic second subject, there is very little other thematic material introduced until the coda, where a single fresh phrase surprises us. The excitement subsequently goes underground, yielding to a chilling C major that produces an even more gloomy tone, in the same way that a single isolated ray of sunshine appears bittersweet and futile in a painting dominated by darkness and desolation. The “Arietta,” which is followed by five variations, is one of the most sublime and simple themes ever created. Its most characteristic feature is the initial descending fourth, which expands to an even more poignant fifth in the second measure, and is then followed by a rising sixth, which ascends with effortless innocence. The first two of these intervals are written as upbeats, but hardly intended to be heard as such.
The effect created is that the opening bar, with its descending fourth, is three beats long, and the next, with its descending fifth, is four beats long—the interval has been expanded, so why not the meter as well? But in Beethoven’s day, changing the meter for one measure would have been unheard of. The first half of the theme is glowing, sweet, and untroubled, while the second, starting in A minor, contains a hint of darkness, as a small cloud temporarily casts a shadow. In each of the first three variations the surface motion virtually doubles, even as the tempo and pulse remain constant. While the basic melody and harmony are unaltered, exquisite chromatic passing notes are added, lending increased opulence to the texture and the expression. The impetuous jazz-like drive of the third variation gives us the impression that Beethoven is battering at the limits of variation form, trying to gather sufficient energy to jump out of the variation and rid himself of its constraints. He passes instead to a calm double variation: rather than repeating each half, he writes two consecutive variations on the first half and two corresponding ones on the second half. The angelic rapid figurations glistening high in the treble are transparent and sparse, but sublimely poetic. We pass on to a free passage that modulates grandly, with an endless trill, to E-flat major. The trill continues in a long chain, desperate to evoke life from the deadest of instruments.
But just when it is most needed, as Beethoven climbs to the highest point and introduces a fragment of the theme, the trill suddenly ceases. It is an unprecedented moment; single notes separated by five octaves sound in both treble and bass, and it seems as though the composer were saying, “There, I leave you to stand on your own.” It sings on briefly with a lonely forcefulness, and then gradually sinks back to earth, in an inspired transition that leads back to C major and a final variation. This final variation brings the theme back, sumptuously orchestrated and imbued with a new forcefulness and grandeur, and is one of the great noble moments in all music.
It is here that we finally escape from variation form, as Beethoven seizes the main motive (now altered to a descending third), and repeating it with ever increasing fire, brings the movement to an unexpectedly passionate climax. Here, finally, he has freed himself from the shackles of variation form, and can spontaneously and joyously pour out his heart. Under an incandescent shower of high trills, the coda states just the first sunny half of the theme, before dissolving into some of the figurations used in the fourth variation. At the end, the bass inverts the principal motive, perhaps symbolizing the traditional inversion of the torch upon death.
© Anton Kuerti
These notes are abridged from the notes in Anton Kuerti’s recording of The Complete Beethoven Sonatas – Diabelli Variations, Analekta.