Something slightly different – a few weeks ago I was approached by Stephen Malinowski, who makes brilliant animations of classical music scores. He watched a few of the Beethoven 32 videos and offered to collaborate on some of the Beethoven scores we were filming. I thought it an awesome idea, and here's the first result – sonata No. 1. I love the sheer musicality of Stephen's approach and the clarity and transparency which his animation brings to the music.
Sonata No. 9 (Op. 14, No. 1)
8th May 2020
“I love all Beethoven sonatas,” I was once told in a conversation. And then my interlocutor added, as if a bit embarrassed by this, “even Op. 14…”
Op. 14 – the utterly lovely, fresh, charming couple of short sonatas, are not just an antithesis but an antidote to the Pathétique, as if Beethoven needed to cleanse his spirit with limpid tones after the extreme dark intensity of the preceding sonata. Both are chamber works in nature, content with a restrained emotional and aural palette, for once not straining against the boundaries of the instrument. Beethoven seems more relaxed here, softer, at times genuinely happy.
And lest it all sound like damning with faint praise, for me these are magnificent examples of Beethoven dedicating the same love, care and thought to all of the sonatas, no matter whether intended as world-altering blockbusters, or as intimate and friendly musical utterances.
This love he must have felt to this music shines through, and the emotion is so heartfelt and genuine – take the beautiful pleading passage at 3:58 for example, or the beginning of the second movement, at 7:06, this gentle lullaby, almost Brahms-like in its earnestness.
The finale (“what a weird little piece!” exclaimed Stewart after our first take) is light-spirited and jovial, full of fun and jokes. To point out just one – the unbelievable seven (!) repeated notes in its theme (11:16) are like Chekhov's proverbial gun, which fires towards the end of the movement, at 14:14, when the left hand, which has obviously had enough, goes amok and hammers out a long string of repeated octaves in fortissimo. And then, after 15 seconds of this explosive but not-too-dangerous rage, all is back to normal, as if nothing's happened.
Sonata No. 8 (Op. 13)
24th April 2020
The Pathétique! One of Beethoven’s most-loved and most popular works, it sent shockwaves throughout the music world of the late 18th century, and its gripping power hasn’t diminished in the 220 years since. The immediacy and intensity of emotion is staggering, right from the opening C minor chord. And just in the first-page introduction we are confronted with pain and pathos, nobility and hope, despair and crushing of said hope – a cry straight out of Beethoven’s heart and soul, hurled at us without any protective barriers. I can barely imagine the impact this music must have had on its first listeners.
The main body of the first movement is full of relentless drive, storm and drama. The dynamics are sharply contrasting, the tempo is very fast, and special effects (like the timpani tremolo imitation at 1:38) add to the turbulent, unsettling atmosphere. Even the second subject—a dialogue between the lower and the upper voices (2:09)—brings no relaxation of energy, as both the unremitting pulse and the sharp, spiky articulation go on. Only the closing section (2:56) adds a lighter colour.
And then—another shock!—the introduction returns (4:51). An unexpected, novel effect, perhaps less to us, who have heard the sonata countless times, but certainly for Beethoven’s contemporaries. The introduction material also comes back right before the end of the first movement (7:33), with hesitant, questioning phrases, before a final return of the fast tempo, and the decisive, defiant last chords. These unexpected throwbacks to the opening’s dark colour and atmosphere show Beethoven a master dramaturge, using structure as a psychological device to elicit a uniquely powerful emotional response.
Then, as a balm for our wounds, Beethoven writes a heavenly second movement (8:22). Tender and gentle, its melody unfolds like a beautiful, unhurried, heartfelt Lied. Beethoven (thankfully!) repeats it multiple times around the slightly more sombre episodes, allowing us (and perhaps himself too, as a performer) to enjoy it to its fullest. An absolute masterpiece in its own right.
After that moment of the respite, the darker C minor colour returns in the finale, crackling with tightly-controlled energy (13:15). The main theme is derived from the second subject of the first movement (a nice way to unify the movements), and its imploring, earnest character is augmented by the wonderful, extra-catchy bit at 13:20. The episodes are brighter, even humorous, which makes each return of the refrain seem that much more impactful, inevitable, even fateful. The final attempt to escape this doom fails, and leads instead into an explosive frenzy of a coda, crashing upon us with almost no build-up. A moment of hesitation just before the end, one final silence, and then the sonata closes with a final plunge into the C minor abyss.
Diary entry #4
18th April 2020
(A shorter version of this text was published in The Times on April 8th, 2020)
Even though I had been playing Beethoven since I was a child, I feel I’ve only really started to discover him over the past months, as I embarked on a journey to learn and film all 32 sonatas over the course of 2020.
Before that, it would have been easy for me to write: Beethoven in the isolation of deafness; Beethoven the grimly scowling, defiant as fate comes knocking at the door… Hard to think of another composer whose image would better relate to us at present, when times darken around, and an unseen threat forces us, too, into tightening isolation.
And yet – as I now understand, Beethoven’s core is life. He has known despair beyond any doubt, evident in his writing and some of his music. But time and again he fought and conquered it, and came back overflowing with unstoppable life energy. We hear it in the finale of the Fifth Symphony and in the glowing opening of the ‘Emperor’ concerto, written as Vienna was being bombarded in 1809. We hear it in the ‘Ode to joy’, and perhaps at its most transcendent in the ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’ (Holy song of thanksgiving) from the late A minor string quartet (Op. 132). At the time, Beethoven had just come out of a prolonged illness, and his music captures both the ineffable fragility of life and the profound, but no-less-ineffable joy at life’s resilience and resurgence.
Two weeks ago, in the middle of a US tour, I released the video of sonata No. 5. News from around the world was worrying, and I hoped the music might provide a moment of respite. Things crumbled swiftly afterwards – the remaining tour dates got canceled in quick succession, and so were all other performances for at least six weeks. This week I was supposed to be in Sacile, near Venice, filming the next block of sonatas at the concert hall of Fazioli. Instead, my eyes skip to any mention of Italy in the news, as my heart and thoughts are with them and with that small corner of Italy in particular.
As I was on my way home from the US, my half-formed plans for the weeks ahead revolved around Beethoven: blogging, writing listening guides, and of course practising – there’s so much new material still to come! But then, I saw colleagues live-streaming from home, and the need to reach people with live music at this time, even if through a smartphone, became overwhelming. Once home, I set up a rudimentary broadcast station (phones on tripods!) and have since been streaming 2-3 lunchtime concerts a week. The direct and immediate feedback from the audience, the unusual intimacy of the setting and the acuteness of the situation we all share, make for a concert unlike any I’ve experienced. These are the highest points of my week right now.
In the coming weeks I will release sonatas Nos. 7-11 – those that had been filmed before the lockdown – and will continue filming as soon as the situation allows. And I’ll keep streaming Beethoven sonatas, as Beethoven is an incredible companion for these times: life-affirming, soul-nourishing, full of love of humanity (his legendary grumpiness notwithstanding), and, in his music, optimistic and sure of a bright dawn to come after any darkness.
Sonata No. 7 (Op. 10, No. 3)
10th April 2020
Similar to the trios Op. 1 and the sonatas Op. 2, it's the third work of the sonatas Op. 10 – the sonata No. 7, in D major – which Beethoven intended as the high point of the trilogy. He returns there to the expanded, four-movement structure of his first four sonatas, and abandons – perhaps with the exception of the finale – the concise, sometimes even abrupt manner of composition he used in the fast movements of sonatas Nos. 5 and 6.
If we were to judge this sonata by its fast movements – inventive, fresh, brilliant and imaginative, assured, full of humor and surprises – it would feel as a natural development and intensification of a musical path Beethoven followed in his earlier works. But Beethoven went not a step, but a leap forward in the second movement (6:55) – perhaps the earliest undisputed mature masterpiece in his output.
This movement, a great tragic utterance, shows Beethoven's understanding of the human psyche and soul on an incredibly intuitive level; his fearlessness in presenting emotion so raw, so naked; and the sheer compositional and musical mastery he commanded in capturing this emotion in notes. From the first bar, there is an unadorned sincerity to the music which catches one's breath – I couldn't think of a bigger and less expected contrast to the fun-filled ingenuity of the opening movement. This music for me is both an embodiment of loss, despair and resignation and a show of great empathy from Beethoven to those who have experienced these emotions.
Sonata No. 6 (Op. 10, No. 2)
27th March 2020
The F major sonata, Op. 10 No. 2, is the short, bright, fun-infused interlude between the dark passion and enchanted lyricism of the C minor sonata, Op. 10 No. 1, on one side and the mature masterpiece which is the D major sonata, Op. 10 No. 3, on the other.
The first movement presents a potpourri of short motifs, differing in mood, filled with drastic contrasts and bits of pseudo-anger, all wonderfully employed for comic effect. The development (2:54) takes on a more serious tone, though even there Beethoven conceals a joke – probably not lost on the connoisseurs, at whom the sonatas in general were aimed – this development doesn't develop any of the main themes of the exposition! Instead, Beethoven takes the last three notes – the musical equivalent of "that is all" – and builds an entire extended (and even somewhat dramatic) narrative around it. This could also have been a small way of showing off: look, I can take something utterly inconsequential, as far as musical motifs go, and create good music out of it.
A final tongue-in-cheek moment occurs at the end of the development, when everything signals the impeding return of the opening motif (4:01). Beethoven does bring it back – but in the wrong key of D major. (You might well think here – what interesting jokes Beethoven had! But any kind of upset expectation can be humorous, if the expectation is widely shared – as this one probably was at the time among the connoisseurs). The D major material goes on for a good several phrases. Then Beethoven stops (4:16), reconsiders (4:18) and finally continues in the right key of F major (4:27).
The second movement (5:57) changes the mood completely – no jokes or fun-making here. Instead: a hushed, heartfelt narrative, growing at times to outbursts of raw emotion. The middle section (7:30) with its reserved D-flat major chords feels more like a containment of strong emotion than a point of relaxed calm. Only at the very end (9:55) does Beethoven allow the emotion to take over, finishing the movement in forte.
The finale (10:08) brings us sheer fun, a precisely controlled mayhem spun out of a pecking motif based on repeating notes. Beethoven starts out as if it were a fugue – first one voice, then two, then three – but like in the first movement, it's all wrong, at least according to the academic rules: he mixes the order of the entries, putting the third voice before the second. The music merrily rolls from there, generating its own incessant energy, wave after wave. The big climax comes at the point of reprise (11:32), which continues the fugal character, though in fortissimo, and with keyboard-spanning passages in alternating hands. It's tremendously fun to play.
Sonata No. 5 (Op. 10, No. 1)
13th March 2020
C minor: by far the most iconic Beethoven key. It's the key of the Fifth Symphony, the Third Piano Concerto, the Coriolan Overture, the Pathétique, etc., etc. – so much, in fact, that 'C minor mood' became a semi-official term in Beethoven literature. It's temptingly easy for us to connect the brooding scowl on Beethoven's portraits and busts to the dramatic, stormy, high-intensity music he wrote in this key: works full of deep pathos and possessed by a relentless, sometimes demonic drive.
It's also temptingly easy to compare the C minor sonata, Op. 10 No. 1, with its younger sister, the Pathétique, Op. 13. The two are but a year or two apart and have a similar structure: a lyrical slow movement in A-flat major surrounded by an energetic first movement and finale. Perhaps, though, dubbing Op. 10 No. 1 'the small Pathétique' isn't that helpful. The earlier sonata may not possess the same catchiness or plumb the depths of human emotion to the same degree as Op. 13, but surely it has more than enough individuality to be loved for what it is, and not just as a precursor to a later work.
The heart of the sonata for me is its middle movement (6:20): a slowly unfolding soliloquy, gently glowing, suspended in a timeless world. There is a dreamily loving quality to the static opening, which Beethoven animates with ornaments or injects with short outbursts of passion, only to bring it back time and again to a magical standstill (try 7:57!). A development would upset this idyllic world, and Beethoven reduces it to a single chord (9:21) linking back to the reprise. A third repeat of the theme (12:36) turns into a coda, closing the movement (and perhaps one's eyes) with a a contented weariness of limb.
To counterbalance this immense tranquility, Beethoven infuses the outer movements with heaps of energy. The jagged, nervous impetus of the first movement's opening belies the lyrical, heartfelt or light-spirited music which makes up most of it. Only towards the end (from 5:25) do darkness and passion prevail. The finale (14:06) – one of the few 'prestissimo' movements Beethoven wrote – starts as a tautly wound spring, soon to explode with thundering passages. Everything is intense, yet small-scale, with abrupt mood shifts between the sharply defined sections. The second theme is unexpectedly humorous, and just as unexpected are the premonition of the famous fate motif in the super-short development (16:19 – the 5th Symphony for a moment!) and the ending, which includes a visit to the relatively distant key of D-flat major (17:37), a spooky atmospheric arpeggio (17:55), and which finally evaporates in a curious C major, leaving an ambiguous, unnerving afterimage.
Sonata No. 4 (Op. 7)
28th February 2020
In 1796, a year after the successful publication of the three sonatas Op. 2, Beethoven composed the Grande Sonata for Pianoforte, Op. 7. By the 'Grande' designation, Beethoven wanted to single it out as a special work, which didn't need other sonatas to be published as an opus. Later, he would give the same epithet to the Pathétique, the Waldstein and the Hammerklavier
And the grandness totally applies to the music. It is a tangible evolution from the earlier three works, with extra richness in its textures and timbres (the E-flat major key lending itself to glowing brilliance – think the 'Emperor' concerto years later!), and a more organic integration of virtuosity and music. But perhaps the biggest shift is in Beethoven's imagination – the very concept of what a sonata could be seems expanded; it is as if a previously two-dimensional painting began to acquire depth. A bravura first movement, overflowing with effervescent energy and good-natured humour, presents an abundance of melodies and motives. Beethoven's writing is almost orchestral – one could easily hear horns in the opening, jolly oboes and bassoons in the bridge section and multi-layered string tremolos in the codetta. The exposition is so chock-full of material that Beethoven keeps the development to a minimum: just a short dramatic episode. To balance it, an even more virtuoso coda finishes the movement.
The second movement is the dramatic core of the piece: an unfolding narrative, its opening an early embodiment of 'Innigkeit', this elusive word, part heartfelt, part hushed and awed, part personal and treasured. Replete with poetry, it reaches a purely orchestral climax, in which Beethoven demands a crescendo on a single note – an unplayable effect on any keyboard instrument, but one so easily done with string or woodwinds. The ending achieves even greater heights of lyricism – surely among the most beautiful pages written by Beethoven.
A simple, sincere elegance permeates both the third movement and the finale. Both contain a middle section in minor – hushed and shadowy in the third movement (in the deep-flat key of E-flat minor), stormy and dramatic in the finale. But it is the charm which prevails in the end, bringing this grand sonata to a surprisingly serene, low-key end.
Diary entry #3
18th February 2020
Last week I played all 5 Beethoven concerti in Brussels, for the first time in my life as a concentrated series. This week I’m in the UK, playing Shostakovich and Dvorak with the PHQ, Rachmaninov 2 with the Halle, studying and filming new Beethoven sonatas, the whirlwind goes on – but I’d love to stop time for five minutes, and talk about the concerti.
I’ve been playing all 5 quite regularly since I was a teenager, and I’ve recorded four of them last year. But none of this prepared me to the white-hot intensity of those three nights. With a bright spotlight shining (literally and figuratively) on nothing but these 5 concerti, every musical phrase, every cadenza, every slow movement, every coda became somehow more – more lyrical, more fiery, more personal, more fulfilling and more demanding. My old preparation, my fallbacks, my useful comments in the scores weren’t enough – the first rehearsal results were predictable, okay, and absolutely unsatisfying. Then things progressed during the second and general rehearsals of each concerto, but it was only during the concerts themselves that I felt that I got anywhere near touching whatever musical truth lies behind the scores. Beethoven revealed himself, as happened several times over the past months, as more poetic, more searing, more desperately human than I had ever imagined him.
The high point for me was No. 4, during which I experienced something which until now I’ve only felt while playing Russian music: a kind of floating, when your brain disengages or splits in two. One (small) part is alert and following the performance, and perhaps directs the musical flow a little bit, the other (much larger) part is completely sunk into the music, experiencing it in a kind of visceral, instinctive way which precludes logical thinking and seems wired directly to your deepest feelings, without any buffers or defenses. After that concerto I was drained, bewildered, exhilarated – a complete mess. But what an unforgettable night.
An unforgettable week, to be honest. And none of it would have been possible without Thierry Fischer and the Brussels Philharmonic, who were incredible partners. Their energy, attentiveness, transparency were the best musical and emotional support I could have wished for, and the trigger for everything I did on stage. And of course, the amazingly warm audience in Brussels, at Flagey… I love you guys. It was extra special that this project took place precisely in Brussels.
Now life continues, and with intensity, but I will be digesting last week for a while, I’m sure. And I’m also sure that this ‘extra more’ Beethoven I experienced last week will remain a guiding light for me as to how Beethoven can and should feel onstage.
Sonata No. 3 (Op. 2, No. 3)
14th February 2020
As with the 3 Trios Op. 1, also among the 3 Sonatas Op. 2, it was the final, third work which was to be the culmination of the opus. After the passion and darkness of the F minor sonata, and the easy, warm eloquence of the A major sonata, Beethoven turned to C major for a work of explosive brilliance. Virtuosity is the core trait of the music, whether serious or humorous, thundering or quick-fingered. One can imagine Beethoven proclaiming with happy self-assuredness: "look what I can do at the piano, no holds barred!" And yet there's nothing empty or ostentatious here: the technical brilliance rests upon a glowing musical foundation, and there's so much atmosphere, colour and narrative throughout to complement the passagework. The slow movement, too, stands out in its emotional maturity and often exquisite beauty – its deep musicality wonderfully balancing the fireworks of the fast movements.
Sonata No. 2 (Op. 2, No. 2)
31st January 2020
If the first sonata of Op. 2 showed us a laconic, tense and passionate Beethoven, here in the A major sonata he is charming, good natured, outgoing, eloquent. The form, too, is gradually becoming larger, the textures more generous, the writing more pianistic. The first movement, energetic and at places blazingly virtuosic, contains an unexpected and inspired second subject in the minor key, lending a personal, urgent note to the music. (It also contains a fiendishly difficult canon-like section in the development…) The second movement is a stately procedure, with a very slow, yet steady pulse. There’s a feeling of great depth and awe there, but also of elegance and beauty. The third movement is a lovely minuet, gentle and, apart from the more animated trio, carefree. The rondo finale contrasts a wonderfully flowing refrain with more ebullient episodes as well as a highly dramatic middle section. The repeats of the refrain (five in number!) become increasingly varied and ornamented, showing Beethoven’s easy ingenuity and delight in exploring the material in an improvisatory way.
Sonata No. 1 (Op. 2, No. 1)
17th January 2020
Beethoven's sonatas Op. 2 were his calling card in Vienna as a composer. At that point – 1795 – he was already famous as a keyboard virtuoso, but the transition to fame as a composer was not obvious, and he took great care with the first works he published, a set of three trios (Op. 1) and three sonatas (Op. 2).
The F minor sonata, opening the opus, is laconic in its musical language and form, but highly expressive in its emotional content. The first movement sets the tone: very personal and sincere; but reserved, its emotional outbursts never overpowering. It is followed by a serene second movement showing Beethoven already on a quest for lyrical, poetic beauty. The third movement is a hybrid minuet and scherzo, starting off as a melancholy, somewhat stylized dance, which changes its character drastically towards the end. And it is the finale which is perhaps the most striking movement of the four. Beethoven takes the closing chords of the first movement and puts them above a stormy whirlwind of sound, at times furious, at times impassioned, at times haunted and driven. A beautiful middle section, repeated twice, serves as a point of calm, but can only delay the inevitable return of the storm and the final collapse.
Diary entry #2
15th January 2020
In two days’ time, the first sonata video will be released on Apple Music and YouTube – the actual launch of the project! – and I thought today will be a good moment to write a bit about where things stand.
On the factual side, we have filmed the first seven sonatas over the last 6 weeks. All seven were completely new for me, and I very excitedly learned the first four in the empty bits of time between concerts in October and November, and even more excitedly learned Nos. 5-7 over nine consecutive days over the New Year holidays. It felt like stuffing your mouth with a delicious dessert (think the musical equivalent of a hot chocolate souffle with a molten core and ice cream), and I couldn’t be happier.
This isn’t to say there are no challenges; in a way it’s one big, ongoing challenge. Sonata No. 1 was perhaps the biggest challenge of all, as it’s No. 1 (hence, expectations! first impressions are so important…), also as we were still refining our filming workflow, and musically as No. 1 is the most laconic in its material; in a way the more extrovert Nos. 2, 3 and 4 were easier to imagine and to construct.
Those three came with their set of challenges though – though musically very clear, all three are virtuosic and increasingly expansive in scope and ambition (No. 4 felt surprisingly close to the 5th piano concerto in its richness and breadth, though a lot more driven and quirky in the first movement). In a word – increasingly hard. 😀
And the three sonatas Op. 10 which we filmed last week – to be honest, to move from absolute zero to filming in 9 days is crazy… But I loved it so much: utter intensity, utter focus, the music occupying your brain morning till night, evolving before your eyes – it’s exhilarating, and with the music being SO good, the challenges recede before an overwhelming desire to make the music justice and to make it as vibrant, captivating and alive as you can. Can’t wait to share it all with you.
See you in two days! I will post the link to the video on Friday morning. And over the weekend I will post a listening guide to the 1st sonata, and write about that first filming session.
Diary entry #1
17th December 2019
(On this day 249 years ago Ludwig van Beethoven was baptised. I thought it would be a good point to start the blog.)
This year I will be intensely living through Beethoven’s 32 sonatas. I don’t mean this as a florid exaggeration; I say it based on the experience of learning the early sonatas over the past weeks, of having filmed sonata No. 1 two weeks ago, and of being about to film Nos. 2, 3 and 4 later this week. What started as a cool idea has quickly become a… – I honestly don’t know how to describe it in a word; it’s passionate, engaging, sleep- and thought-consuming, stimulating, surprising, sometimes infuriating – love? life? (Sigh inwardly all you want at such over-the-top-ness.)
And with this intensity of feeling, comes an overwhelming desire to share. Not just the final results (though I know with a clear certainty there can be nothing final about these results – years of repeated exploration await), nor a list of listening guides or analyses, but that very intensity of feeling. To try to capture and share those fleeting changes of emotion, of falling in love with the music, of discovering a grand architectural plan to a movement or a tiny detail in one bar; of grappling for days with a section as you feel you can’t make it work yet, can’t yet make the music justice; and then, sometimes, the happiness of finally finding it, whatever ‘it’ is.
I realize now that what I’d love to emerge from this year is a kind of a dreamscape, shaped around the pillar of the sonatas cycle, born of an interaction of sound, word, emotion and thought. Why dreamscape: Hesse wrote that music scores are frozen tone-dreams; but so are interpretations, since what we imagine, what we hear inside our heads while looking at a piece of music, can often be miles away from what our fingers are actually producing. And so, each performance is but a frozen (though fluid) snapshot of that dreamed-of interpretation, and much of the daily practising struggle is trying to bridge the divide between the two. And the dream-interpretation changes and morphs as well, as you yourself change with time and experience.
I’m typing these paragraphs, and inside there’s a whole bubbling fountain of other things I’m eager to write about: experiences from the past weeks, thoughts, impressions and questions about each of the first four sonatas, the recent filming session, etc etc. But I’ll leave it to the next posts.
I will end with a technical announcement – I’m very happy to say that the complete cycle will be available on Apple Music, simultaneously with the YouTube releases. This necessitated a change in the original schedule, and the first sonata video will be released on January the 17th. From that point on, a new sonata will follow every one or two weeks, always on a Friday. The end point remains the same – if all goes to plan, Op. 111 will be released on New Year’s day 2021.
About the project
To celebrate Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year, I will be learning and filming all 32 of his sonatas over the course of 2020. This is a massive undertaking – I have played 9 of them so far, so 23 will be completely new, including some of the most challenging.
I’ll be releasing a new sonata every few weeks starting on the 17th of January, and I’ll be writing about my experience throughout the year. You can follow the entire project here on beethoven32.com