Friday, September 25, 2020

Beethoven 250: Piano Sonatas Numbers 19 and 20 "Leichte Sonaten" (Stephen Kovacevich, 1999)


Sviatoslav Richter (1915–1997) recorded almost all of Beethoven's piano sonatas and struck gold even with the "leichte Sonaten" Opus 49.

Beethoven: The Complete Works (80 CD). Warner Classics / © 2019 Parlophone Records Limited. Also available on Spotify etc. I bought my box set from Fuga at Helsinki Music Centre.
    Ludwig van Beethoven 1770–1827.
    Beethoven 250 / corona lockdown listening.

From: CD 21/80  Piano Sonatas Nos. 16–20
Stephen Kovacevich, 1994 (Nos. 16–18) and 1999 (Nos. 19–20)

Opus 49 Nr. 1: Klaviersonate Nr. 19 in g-Moll (composed in 1792–1798), published in 1805
    1. Satz: Andante, 2/4
    2. Satz: Rondo, Allegro, 6/8
Opus 49 Nr. 2: Klaviersonate Nr. 20 in G-Dur (composed in 1792–1796), published in 1805
    1. Satz: Allegro, ma non troppo, Allabreve
    2. Satz: Tempo di Minuetto, 3/4
    "Leichte Sonaten", easy ones for students, friends and their children. In Anton Kuerti's opinion, these sonatas were composed earlier than Beethoven's first published piano sonatas and should not be included in the opus. For some, they should be called "sonatinas".

AA: The two short sonatas of Opus 49 are uncomplicated and delightful exercise pieces, refreshing and relaxing after the three pathbreaking sonatas of Opus 31. Composed around 1795, Ludwig van Beethoven had set them aside, but his brother Kaspar sent them to the publisher without his permission. For Charles Rosen, however, Sonata No. 19 was "deeply affecting and distinguished". No. 20 is considered the easiest of Beethoven's piano sonatas.

"From the heart... to the heart" is the motto of the Ludwig van Beethoven, The Magnificent Master site, with an introduction by Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu titled "Classical Music – Pastime for the Elite or Vital Source of Strength for All?". The site was kept in 1998–2015 by Raptus Association for Music Appreciation and can now be accessed via the Wayback Machine.

From that site I quote: "When Joachim Kaiser, in his description of these Sonatas, points out that pianists, in their playing these "easy sonatas" might compare themselves to Einstein being faced with the task of performing simple multiplications, then he might be referring to the fact that, perhaps, also these sonatas would deserve careful attention."

András Schiff in his Guardian Lectures (Nr. 19, Nr. 20) emphasizes the pedagogical purpose and introduces these sonatas as wonderful piano lessons, comparing them with Bach's inventions, Mozart's compositions of childhood and Schumann's album for the young. He champions the view that one must teach immediately very good music, just the very best music.

In Number 19, he compares Beethoven with Haydn and creates a dialogue by alternating Beethoven with Haydn's keyboard sonata in G minor. Striking in Beethoven is his
cantabile approach, and also, in contrast to Mozart and Haydn, "a more horizontal style" with long legato phrases. Mozart and Haydn are pragmatic composers, but Beethoven is not pragmatic at all, always striving for the impossible.

Schiff praises the sonata form, the narrative construction principle of coming home. "Sonata form is one of the great inventions of mankind"; it expresses so much in so little time. "All human beings need a sense of coming home, something I very sadly miss in today's music. I don't feel any sense of coming home. There is no tonal system, and to me, it is like a foreign language".

"In a light sonata Beethoven takes very daring chromatic steps". Beethoven does not prepare dynamics. From crescendo, he likes to move to subito piano. Number 19 may be difficult for children, unless they have played a lot of Bach. "And they should".

To Schiff, Number 20 is even more modest, but in comparison with the "silly sonatinas of Clementi or Haslinger, this is pure gold". Because of the missing instructions about dynamics or articulation, each performer can become a second composer. A clue concerning Beethoven's decision not to publish Number 20 is that he recycled a theme in the third movement of the Septet in E-flat major, Opus 20. For Schiff, the approach is that of a village band, rustic and lively. Schiff does not hesitate to add ornaments to the Minuetto. He would refuse to add ornaments to any late Beethoven piece but not in an occasional piece such as this. Improvisation was a very important part of Beethoven's playing
. (End of my resume of the Schiff lectures of Op. 49)

Listening to Number 19, I sense an immediate connection with a Bachian point of serenity, an opening to eternity and infinity. These works are like a playful journey through Bach, Haydn and Mozart towards selfhood. There might be at least a poetic truth in Anton Kuerti's argument that the compositions of Opus 49 might precede all other piano sonatas. Listening to them after Piano Sonata Number 18 is like a return to the sources.

Perhaps we might remember here what Artur Schnabel said: “The sonatas of Mozart are unique; they are too easy for children, and too difficult for artists.”

Besides Stephen Kovacevich, I listened to Igor Levit, András Schiff, Daniel Barenboim, and a special favourite, Sviatoslav Richter. I love all these interpretations, but the subtle nobility of Richter pleases me most.



The Beethoven Experience (BBC 2005)

Ludwig van Beethoven: Magnificent Master (2015)

Beethoven's Piano Sonatas (2015)

András Schiff's Guardian Lectures on Beethoven's piano sonatas,,1943867,00.html

Per Tengstrand

Bryce Morrison in Gramophone, February 2004

Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 3 July 2020 Beethoven

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