Piano Sonata No.29 in B flat major Op.106, ‘Hammerklavier’

Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven (b. 1770 - d. 1827)
Share :


Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven (b. 1770 - d. 1827)

Performance date: 29/06/2019

Venue: Bantry Library

Composition Year: 1818

Duration: 00:44:32

Recording Engineer: Ciaran Cullen, RTÉ

Instrumentation: pf

Instrumentation Category:Solo

Artists: Dénes Várjon - [piano]

Piano Sonata No.29 in B flat major Op.106, ‘Hammerklavier’ [1818]

1. Allegro

2. Scherzo

3. Adagio sostenuto

4. Largo – Allegro risoluto

When Beethoven moved into a new style of composition, the immediate distinguishing feature of the new direction was an increase in scale. So in 1803 he began his so-called middle period with the Eroica and the Waldstein, both much bigger works than anything he had written before. The same process took place in 1818, when the scale was enlarged again, resulting in a series of works of unprecedented proportions – the Hammerklavier, the Ninth Symphony, the Diabelli Variations and the Missa solemnis. In 1816-7 Beethoven had been seriously ill and more or less unable to compose, so when he finally recovered, he determined to extend the scope and scale of his new creations. The Hammerklavier was designed to be grander, more elaborate and more imposing than any previous sonata, bar none.  Its unprecedented length is combined with extraordinary power and complexity and a vast tonal range in which practically every key signature from six flats to six sharps is used.

The power is evident from the start, where the first three sounds combine to form a gigantic fortissimo chord spanning over four octaves. This sonata is one of his many works to abandon the traditional harmonic procedure of descending in fourths or fifths in favour of progressions in descending thirds. This provides much of the underlying melodic and harmonic structure of each movement. Beethoven’s metronome marks have always been a cause of much musical dispute, his mark for this movement was 138 making it clear he wanted a fast tempo even though revisions as low as 80 have been suggested! More than anything, this movement celebrates his recovery with an explosion of energy.

This sonata was also his first four-movement piano sonata since Op.31/3. The second movement is a brief scherzo and trio. It is brief by necessity as the Adagio lasts the best part of twenty minutes – a huge sonata form with extended coda. The Adagio is marked Appassionato e con molto sentimento and its deeply anguished lyricism springs from the same world as the Cavatina from the late B flat Quartet Op.130. The first subject is a regular sixteen-bar structure with the second half repeated and extended before being broken off by a sudden rest. What follows is a page of the greatest passion, expressed almost entirely through elaborate ornamentation over a detached accompaniment, culminating in a second subject of heart-searing beauty, which reappears overwhelmingly in the coda. The movement alternates between restrained passages of una corda and those where the theme sings out with the full resonance of the new instrument.

The almost equally massive finale begins attacca with a slow introduction in which metre is temporarily abandoned, evoking a sense of timelessness. After what seems like a hopeless search, as in the Ninth Symphony, for the new movement’s subject, the way into the finale is finally discovered. This turns out to be a fugue of an unequalled contrapuntal richness and extraordinary violence. It is a frighteningly rigorous movement and the overwhelming impression for the listener is the intensity of the conflict as Beethoven struggles with his material and the pianist with his instrument. Paradoxically, although this fugue seems modern to our ears, it includes almost every traditional academic device of fugue: augmentation, retrograde, inversion, combination with a second theme, and stretto with the theme and its inversion. Beethoven was trying in a time of revolution to reclaim tradition by making it radically new.

Francis Humphrys