Piano Sonata No.31 in A flat Op.110

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

Performance date: 26/06/2023

Venue: Bantry House

Duration: 00:18:42

Recording Engineer: Tom Norton, RTÉ

Instrumentation: pf

Instrumentation Category:Solo

Artists: Jérémie Moreau - [piano]

Piano Sonata No.31 in A flat Op.110

  1. Moderato cantabile molto espressivo
  2. Allegro molto
  3. Adagio, ma non troppo – Fuga. Allegro, ma non troppo

The year 1821 was a dreadful one for Beethoven. He was terribly ill during the winter 1820-21, confined to bed for at least six weeks and his conversation books are frighteningly empty. Beethoven was now so deaf he needed these books for friends to write down their side of a conversation with him. He began using them in 1818 and the long gap from September 1820 to May 1822 paints a bleak picture of his social life. There are also very few letters in this period. The only major work he completed in 1821 was this sonata.

He planned to dedicate the Sonata to Ferdinand Ries, who had been his student and now helped promote his music in England. But it seems Ries wrote a Concerto entitled Farewell to London, which so offended Beethoven that he not only withdrew the offer of the dedications, but was with difficulty prevented from publicly denouncing Ries as plagiarising him. Schuppanzigh said that Ries steals too much from Beethoven. All steal, but Ries by handfuls. Beethoven then planned to dedicate the last to sonatas to Antoine Brentano, whom modern scholars have identified as the Immortal Beloved. But that plan was changed as well and the A flat Sonata ended up with no dedicatee and the C minor was offered to the Archduke Rudolph.

As Beethoven got increasingly deaf, he grew more and more explicit in his tempo and expressive instructions. In the first movement he not only asks for Moderato cantabile, molto espressivo but also con amabilatà, and he gives us a movement of piercing beauty and sensuous gentleness. It is hard to really know how Beethoven felt as his world closed in on him, but this movement feels like a backward glimpse to a time when he could still believe the world might offer him some happiness. The sonata form in this movement has its outlines blurred and softened, so that its divisions melt into each other. At the end Beethoven is surely reluctant to part with his ethereal theme.

The Scherzo is terse, witty, sharp-tempered and just a little uncouth. To hear it is like reading one of his letters with their rough and tumble humour, never being quite sure of the dividing line between fun and abuse. The music of the Scherzo alternates between sharply stabbing accents and a wisp of a theme driven forward by a relentless rhythm. The Trio is kept melodically quite featureless, disintegrating into rapid figuration with passing chromatics, like the wind in an empty street.

The last movement is like no other he ever wrote. It begins with an operatic scena, three bars of an orchestral introduction Adagio, ma non troppo and a recitative più Adagio followed by several temp changes before the soprano enters with her lamenting Arioso dolente over a throbbing accompaniment. The arioso is heartbreakingly sad; you feel all of Beethoven’s loneliness spilling over into this passionate long-drawn melody. But this is only the beginning of his amazing self-overcoming for now he breaks into a long and elaborate fugue, which for all its intellectual rigour has a core of sensuousness that doubles its effect. Unlike some of his other late fugues there is not so much a sense of struggle as one of triumph at his complete mastery of both himself and his medium. Even now the surprises have not ended, for the soprano returns with her Arioso dolente, with the added injunction Ermattet, klagend, that is exhausted and sorrowing. The glorious theme sounds broken, as though it has gone through a shattering emotional experience. And of course the fugue has to return to resolve everything. This time the theme is inverted and the score clearly states that little by little new life is returning. The upside-down theme is first heard in the middle voice, then the treble and finally the bass and then it is compressed to make it seem three times as fast. Then the pace slackens and slowly Beethoven abandons his fugue and allows the theme to ring out in harmony over a running accompaniment. The final page is a triumphant masterpiece. 

Francis Humphrys