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Uchida Piano Sonatas


Mitsuko Uchida
Piano Sonatas Opp. 109, 110 & 111




Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major, op. l09

1. I - Vivace, ma non troppo - Adagio espressivo - Tempo I (3:50)
2. II - Prestissimo (2:11)
3. III - Andante molto cantabile e espressivo (11:51)
               (Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung)

                Var I: Molto espressivo
                Var II: Leggiermente
                Var III: Allegro vivace
                Var IV: Un poco meno andante, cio e un poco piu adagio come il tema
             (Etwas langsamer, als das Thema)

                Var V: Allegro, ma non troppo
                Var VI: Tempo I del tema

Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat major, op. ll0

4. I - Moderato cantabile, molto espressivo (6:40)
5. II - Allegro molto (2:11)
6. III - Adagio ma non troppo - Arioso dolente – (3:55)
7. IV - Fuga: Allegro ma non troppo – l’istesso tempo di Arioso – (8.00)
               L’istesso tempo della Fuga (Nach und nach wieder auflebend) -
           Meno allegro


Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, op. lll

8. I - Maestoso - Allegro con brio ed appassionato (9:21)
9. II - Arietta: Adagio molto, semplice e cantabile – L’istesso tempo (18:35)


The last three piano sonatas

Beethoven composed his Op. l06, the so called "Hammerklavier" Sonata, in the difficult years of 1817-18. This work is a landmark in the history of the piano sonata for its grandeur, strength, depth and breadth of vision. Thereafter he composed three more sonatas, closing the cycle of thirty-two piano sonatas started in 1795.

These three last piano sonatas, Opp. l09, 110 and 111, are built upon interrelated motivic units of the intervals of the third and the fourth. One is tempted to treat them as an entity. But are they?

The story of these compositions begins with a request from the Berlin publisher Schlesinger in April 1820. Anton Schindler's report that "Beethoven on his return in late autumn 1821 from his sojourn in Modling … sat down at his desk and wrote the three pianoforte sonatas Opp. l09, 110 & 111 'at one stretch'" is not to be taken literally. Op. 109 was ready by the autumn of 1820, Op. ll0 in 1821 and the last sonata, Op. lll, was ready only by the spring of 1822. Beethoven was working on the Missa solemnis at the same time.

The basic thematic units are as follows:

There are many links between the pieces. It is as if Beethoven used Op. 109 as a source of inspiration for the other two. The Arioso dolente of Op. 110 is a quote from the development section of the first movement of Op. 109, but transformed utterly:

The opening subject of Op. 110 can be found in Variation Five of Op. l09, viewed, as it were, through tinted spectacles:

Hidden far deeper is the opening jump of a diminished seventh in Op. 111; this is to be found in the first left-hand chord of the second subject of the first movement of Op. 109. The second jump is from the equivalent place in the recapitulation. Only the third jump is a totally new step in a new direction, making a forward stride. Thereafter Op. 111 takes flight into a different sphere.

The character and flow of each piece is quite different, but all three have a first movement in a sonata form. Both Op. 109 and Op. 110 share a short first movement, a very short, brisk second movement, and a long last movement - much longer than the first two movements added together. Op. l11 has only two movements, which caused some concern at the time; but for me this gives it one of the most definitive and complete endings imaginable.

The first movement of Op. 109 has an unusual sonata form. It starts with a Vivace, intimate and almost carefree. It is interrupted after only eight bars by a slow second subject in minor mode. Within the following eight-bar section Beethoven makes a foray into D sharp major (enharmonically equivalent to E flat major), only to recede into B major to flow into the development. This in turn flows into the recapitulation; there is a relatively long coda reminding us of the opening - with a hint of nostalgia. The next movement follows without break (to make quite sure of this, Beethoven instructs the player to hold the sustaining pedal into the first note of the second movement) by a Prestissimo of great drama and relentlessness in E minor. The last movement is a set of variations on a 3/4 Andante. Beethoven creates a variety of contrasting variations of changing tempos, moods and textures. After the contrapuntally intense fifth variation, the sixth variation returns to the original theme, but develops through rhythmic diminution into an ecstatic climax of never-ending trills on the dominant combined with breathless thirty-second-note (demisemiquaver) figures. The movement closes with a return to the opening theme, unnoticeably changed and lasting just long enough to settle into a serene ending.

The hallmark of Op. 110 in A flat major is the constant duality between strict contrapuntal thinking and the lyricism at the heart of the piece. Beethoven even adds the word "sanft" (soft) as if to make sure that there was no misunderstanding.

Op. ll0 starts with an unbalanced "period" form, four bars plus seven bars. The richness of this movement and its beauty is remarkable. After a brief development of only sixteen bars the recapitulation heads to the remote key of E major, as if forging a link to Op. 109; but it soon finds its way back to A flat.

The second-movement Allegro molto is totally out of character with the other two movements. It is at once strange and even funny; there is a constant shift in harmonic location and Beethoven quotes a song "Ich bin ludderlich" (I am a slob)*. The trio is full of fortissimo and sforzando jabs, after which the return to seriousness is a shock. The last movement starts with a recitative, which is followed by an "Arioso dolente" in A flat minor - a "Klagender Gesang” (lament) from the bottom of the heart. A fugue of the utmost transparency follows. The same pattern (Arioso and fugue) is repeated now in G. Beethoven marks the Arioso "ermattet" (tired of life) and the fugue is translucent. An affirmative coda erupts to conclude triumphantly.

Op. 111 in C minor is darkly dramatic, in a total contrast to the lyricism of the preceding sonatas. The opening jump signals the tragedy and the drama to follow. The fierce, dark energy of the first movement finds a brief respite in a second subject of intense luminosity. When the drama dies down, there is just one more movement to follow, a set of variations on an Arietta (calm of mind all passion spent).

Beethoven may have found the inspiration for this arietta in the Andante theme of Op. l09, but there is also an uncanny resemblance to the waltz by Diabelli that formed the basis for his own Variations of 1823 - though here it is totally transformed and transcended. The first three variations of the final movement of Op. l11 are a study in rhythmic diminution, culminating in the third, which is difficult to hear today without thinking of jazz or even boogie-woogie. But this is the result of concentrated rhythmic diminution of the motives (though one cannot deny its swing and extraordinary energy). Then suddenly, as in the last variation of Op. l09, the next variation brings us back to the opening arietta, accompanied by murmuring triplet thirty-second-notes which develop  into a celestial arabesque in high register.

A suspended interlude with a pedal-point leading to a wild trill moving towards E flat major subsides and descends, until the fifth variation rises from darkness; this variation is fulfilling the place of recapitulation. The ethereal coda is carried by the trill on G, and all the memory of preceding struggle is resolved in the last three bars into silence.

Perhaps these three sonatas should not be thought of as a single unit - but when you perform them in one sweep something extraordinary and mysterious happens to the music. Together they represent a long journey Ending in silence.

© 2006 Mitsuko Uchida

* For this information I am indebted to William Kinderman.

Producer: Everett Porter
Recording engineer: Sebastien Stein
Recording and editing facilities by Polyhymnia International BV on behalf of Emil Berliner Studios
Recording editor: Everett Porter
Piano technician: Georges Ammann
Recording location: Concert Hall, Snape Maltings, 12-20 May 2005
Production co-ordinator: Joanne Baines
Photos: Copyright The Estate of Richard Avedon (booklet cover, page 2)
Art direction: Matt Mayes for WLP Limited

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