BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 16 in G Major, Op. 31, No. 1; Piano Sonata No. 17 in D Minor, Op. 31, No. 2 “Tempest”; Piano Sonata No. 18 in E-flat Major, Op. 31, No. 3; 6 Variations in F Major, Op. 34; “Eroica” Variations in E-flat Major, Op. 35 – Andreas Staier, fortepiano – Harmonia Mundi HMM 902327 28 (2 CDs) TT: 1:45:08 (3/13/20) [Distr. by PIAS] *****
While I usually favor the modern keyboard for Beethoven performances, this album by Andreas Staier (rec. 2017-2018) has taken me quite by joyous surprise. A freshness and vitality, as well as pristine clarity, now suffuses these works from 1802, a critical year in Beethoven’s development, artistically and personally. Having been alerted to his oncoming deafness, Beethoven composed his Heiligenstadt Testament,announcing his stoic acceptance of a stern fate. He no less announced to his piano teacher Krumpholz that a “new path” would demonstrate an evolution in his artistic powers, especially since Beethoven felt dissatisfied with his artistic oeuvre thus far.
One of the more potent traits of Beethoven’s “new path” lies in his sense of humor, of which the G Major Sonata abounds and the pianoforte with Staier highlights deliciously. The very opening of Allegro vivacesets the hands a 16thnote apart, The obstinate momentum once set refuses to relent, and we sense that Beethoven mocks inferior virtuosos. The music then sets on a series of scales and arpeggios on various degrees of the scale, as though Beethoven were demanding an etude. The opposition of dynamics, loud and soft no less come into play in the bold modulations to B Major and Minor. The tendency to have the “ending” cadences extend well beyond their customary length would parody the Classical style itself. The first movement has been an opera buffa extravaganza, with characters’ virtually tripping over themselves.
More fustian and ostentatious decoration invades the Adagio grazioso,a C Major parody of the Italian operatic-diva style, with hyperbolic trills and self-congratulatory ornaments that Mozart cherishes in his K. 522, Musical Joke. The music suddenly breaks off from its musings into a more agitated state that, via a series of thespian process of Staier’s dexterity and our musical patience. Staier has a cadenza before the last repeat of the aria, which – like a bad penny or bad actor – will not go away. Some discords near the coda make the music’s departure especially welcome. The Classical style takes more beating in the Rondo: Allegretto, with its audacious jarrings of the musical line. At moments, having exploited a variation principle, Beethoven imparts a fresh melosupon the theme, almost worthy of Schubert. But listen to those grouchy bass harmonies, so clear in Staier’s transparent instrument. Having slowed the progression down to a mere dialogue of individual notes, Beethoven then, teasingly, steps on the after-burners via a manic trill, hurries via a madcap coda to a jolting finale.
The process of experimentation continues into the D Minor Sonata, Op. 31, No. 2, the so-called “Tempest.” Beethoven had already exploited the most simple kind of arpeggio in his “Moonlight” Sonata. Here, in theLargo movement, the broken chord announces the three aspects of the sonata-form: exposition, development, and recapitulation. The tune as such ascends a third in dotted notes and then synthesizing a moif, evoking great power in what we must admit remains a static idea. There appears no “thematic” development as such, just modulation and an instrumental recitative marked con espressione et semplice.Staier’s instrument, through its very absence of aural density, makes the drama powerfully visceral. We feel the moves from D minor and A minor, and the soft ending that “turneth away wrath.”
TheAdagiono less evolves from a dark part of the soul, a song-in-progress, groping to a descent of a third at which the Allegretto, a moto perpetuo, begins. This rich yet austere moment of obsession most likely bears “fateful” implications, with a rhythmic cell akin to the later Fifth Symphony. Despite the light action of Staier’s instrument, the effect remains symphonic.
TheOp. 31, No. 3first came to me by way of Clara Haskil. Beginning on an inversion of the tonic E-flat, the music moves forcefully to a codetta that no less bears a “fate” motif. The secondary tune, in F Major and then B-flat, rather glows in the tempo Staier sets. The constant, jabbing impulses assume more a sinister than a playful character. In his realization of the recapitulation, Staier increases both the momentum and the intensity of the drama. By the end of them movement’s motto and Beethoven’s stoic answer have become a unified idea.
In the unusual tempo of 2/4, the Scherzo gives us eight bars in t he tonic A-flat. Impetuously, the music moves to F minor, But Beethoven wants F Major for his second subject, when most musicians would opt for the dominant, E-flat. In the recapitulation section, Beethoven goes farther afield into G-flat. But the coda, somewhat over-extended, certifies the composer’s saving humor. The Menuettoand Trio proceed in standard ternary form, in E-flat Major. Staier slows down the Trio to emphasize the gruff dialogue of individual phrases and then concedes their brief capacity for sweetness. The coda indulges in some harmonic deception, inviting a plagal cadence that leaves us unresolved. The Presto con fuocoturns in another tour de force for Staier, who gallops on light feet. He virtually whistles his way through the tune, albeit its stomping character. Harmonic games and ploys abound, including Beethoven’s use of Neapolitan chords and subtle imitation and polyphony. The coda itself extends the tension of a dominant seventh chord and comes down in crashing resolve.
The spirit of invention permeates both sets of Beethoven’s variations: the Op. 34 Six Variations on an Original Themethoroughly discards the maintenance of the theme and instead institutes a series of character sketches, a clear model for Schumann. Beethoven moves in a circle of descending thirds, from F Major to C Minor. Each variant moves in a new tempo and a new key. The last of the variants has a cadenza; and, though intricately ornamental in elastic runs and trills, the theme has become rather a dignified folk motif whose very simplicity belies the dazzling inventions preceding it. Staier has made the quarter-hour move blithely, mesmerizing us with the charm of Beethoven’s fertile imagination.
Both a set of contredances and the Op. 43 Creatures of Prometheusballet had already introduced the theme of the Op. 35 Eroica Variations. The theme, first appearing in its bass outline and slowly adding new voices, proceeds in two periods, eight measures each. As in Op. 34, Beethoven will find unexpected treasures in this innocent tune that others might have ignored. A huge E-flat chord announces a period of 128 measures, plenty of room for investigations and permutations. Besides the mix of different note values, Beethoven interject a B-flat in the second half of the period, that had seemed so ordinary in its I-IV-V-I harmonic placement. Despite the constant key and constraints of eight measures, Beethoven succeeds in pulverizing the melodic line in a manner that Webern himself could savor. Some of the markings for the Temainvite comparisons with the much-admired J.S. Bach, like Variation Seven’s Canone all’ottavaand the Finale Alla Fuga. The No. 14, marked Minoreclearly resonates with somber Bach. Both the Largo: Coda espessivo and the daunting Fuga: Allegro con brioenjoy a delicious self-indulgence, from both Beethoven and Staier. They never want either the embellishments or the digressions to end, and maybe that’s how it ought to be: ergo, the Eroica Symphony.