Beethoven & Rachmaninoff

Release Date: 23 August 2019

Label: Sony Classical

Producer: Avo Kouyoumdjian

Recording place: Schloss Elmau & Liszt Concert Hall, Raiding

Total playing time: CD [54:02]

Copyright: © 2019 Sony Classical


23 August 2019

From the very beginning of his artistic endeavours, Ivo Pogorelich has been fully dedicated to reconsidering the expressional potential of piano literature and its interpretive heritage. Since the early 1980’s, such an approach has secured him a specific place in the world of contemporary pianism, placing him among those rare artists who have enriched both the concert stage and classical music discography with fresh and original interpretative ideas. Concentrating on the masterpieces of European musical inheritance, with his enquiring spirit and unique piano technique, Pogorelich has opened up perspectives on the unfamiliar sound and emotional horizons of piano literature, offering his public the precious chance for a new encounter with it.

Consistently maintaining the continuity of his artistic repertoire, after a period marked by attempts at deepening his personal musical views and performing abilities, in his recent recordings Pogorelich has placed the focus on works which, from a historical perspective, represent manifold and significant ranges of pianistic art. The selection which Pogorelich makes in the form of two of Beethoven’s less famous sonatas, therefore, represents his attempt to cast new light on the works of the maestro of Viennese Classicism, which preserve the revolutionary range of the composer’s attempts at the formation of specific pianistic forms of musical thought which were to exert a strong influence on forthcoming generations of piano composers. The inspired genius and prophetic intuition of this composer transformed the previous creative approach towards the piano medium, preordaining, through conquered possibilities of expression and the enrichment of piano sound, the leading role he was destined to play on the historical musical stage for centuries to come. By following the reflections of Beethoven’s far-reaching influences, Pogorelich has created a lucid historical bridge between some of their distant and transfigured outcomes in the works of Sergei Rachmaninoff, thus providing not only an overview of the development of pianistic art, but also of the links between these two authors from different periods, from another, retrospective point of view.


Sonata in F major, op. 54, in that respect, stands out as one of the pioneering works in Beethoven’s search for new pianistic expression. Created in the summer of 1804, it represents an experimental work in a certain sense and, certainly, one of the composer’s least typical works in this genre. Somewhat overshadowed by the grandiose works which chronologically encompass it – the Waldstein and Appassionata Sonatas, this two-movement composition, nevertheless, boasts sufficient authentic musical spirit and substantive innovation to be worthy of being ranked among the significant piano works by the Vienna master.

There is no doubt that one of the main incentives which pointed Beethoven towards the emancipation of authentic piano style, was the new instrument he received as a gift from the famous French piano manufacturer, Érard, at the end of 1803. This innovative instrument with built-in pedals, more robust in its construction and offering greater tonal variability in comparison with the Viennese pianos on which Beethoven had previously played, opened up the possibility for the elaboration of various composing processes which resulted not only in varied sonorities and significantly more complex virtuosity, but also certain steps forward in the stylistic aspects of his musical language.   

It was through this dynamic interaction with his newly mastered piano that Beethoven succeeded in confronting the initial Classical gallantry of the sonata with the power of the new instrument itself. The energetic octave unisons and the cascade of compact intervals in the second theme of the first movement exceed any association with the orchestral tutti, finding independence as elements of piano virtuosity, while the chordal sequences at the end of the musical flow annul the percussive nature of the piano’s sounds. This musical perpetuum-mobile radiates unconventionality as one of the most liberating breakthroughs in Beethoven’s creative spirit. Through the seductive rhythmic-melodic pulsation, unpredictable changes in harmony and strong gestural approach to the keyboard thus assigning a highly charged dimension to the musical flow, accompanied by the sudden chiaroscuro sound effects, he was to go beyond the classical balance of expression in the anticipation of the forthcoming freedoms of the music of the 19th and 20th centuries. With jagged moves and specific hand coordination within this movement, Beethoven gains mastery over the Érard’s entire extended keyboard of five and a half octaves, creating authentic piano sonority and anticipating methods which would be later noted in the pianistic works of all the renowned composers from Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms to the musical masters from the turn of the century such as Enrique Granados and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

After almost a four year interlude in composing piano sonata cycles which followed the completion of the grandiose Appassionate, Beethoven returned to this genre in 1809 starting with his Sonata in F-sharp Major, op. 78, thus marking a new phase in composing for the piano. This piece, the composer’s second sonata diptych, which was written in what was for that time an extremely unusual key, illustrates Beethoven’s need to distance himself from the formal monumentality and dramatics of a series of previous works, disclosing the other, lyrical side of his creative personality. Although the choice of the “light” F sharp Major best served Beethoven in depicting the emotional state in which he found himself because of his feelings for Countess Therese von Brunswick to whom he dedicated the Sonata, it also shows the composer’s trust in the breadth of expression offered by his new instrument. This sonata, believed by some sources to be the composer’s favourite piano piece, is significant particularly in terms of the affirmation of new pianistic processes achieved in the embodiment of tonal nuance, hence the clarity and multiplicity of piano sounds, which in retrospect, prove to be the anticipation of musical Impressionism. The prelude Andante cantabile of the first movement, consisting of only four bars, sets in motion a chain of fantastical musical imagery which Beethoven brings together by means of sharp changes to the thematic materials, an approach akin to the cadre changes in cinematography. Circumventing more expressive dramatic development, but also more intensive elaboration of the material, the author keeps the musical flow within the sphere of idyllic feelings of romantic effusiveness which, even in moments of elevated tone, do not go beyond the fundamental mood of the movement. Through the attention he pays to the tone refinement and the more frequent use of the pedals which Érard’s piano placed at his disposal, Beethoven managed to establish a completely new model for the poetic expression of piano sound which the forthcoming generation of romantic composers would develop to undreamed-of limits. In contrary to the musical flow of the first, the Allegro vivace of the second movement introduces the composer’s alienation from the previous mood. The fluttering harmonic mischief achieved by his brilliant virtuosity is tinged with his ubiquitous vivacious and humorous spirit.

While Beethoven made a significant contribution to the establishment of authentic idiomatic expression on the piano, almost a whole century later, Sergei Rachmaninoff was to craft some of its final embellishments. Located at two ends of the evolutionary chain of the development of piano literature, the two composers historically collaborate on surprisingly close creative intentions directed at a shared instrument – discovering new spaces of pianistic expression and the achievement of an organic unity through vertical, horizontal, but also diagonal stratums of musical materials. Such a creative, experimental approach to the piano was, however, for both artists essentially predestined by their practices and experiences of performers. For Rachmaninoff himself, whose piano opus represents the final outcome of the pianistic canon which starts with Beethoven, the great predecessor’s opus took on the significance of the foundations. His contact with Beethoven’s opus was as a performer whose repertoire included the Vienna master, but also as a composer for whom Beethoven’s process of linking thematic materials and principles of developing musical drama by pianist means was an inexhaustible source of ideas and directions, particularly within the domain of sonata forms.

A prominent place among the works which marked the historical reaffirmation of the piano sonata genre at the beginning of the 20th century is taken by Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Sonata in B-flat Minor, op. 36. This masterpiece, written at the end of 1913, radiates with the extraordinary monumentality of expression inspired by Rachmaninoff’s impressions of the magnificent remains of Imperial Rome gained during the time he began work on this piece. Composed at the peak of the composer’s creative power, this grandiose triptych combines all the characteristics of his mature style – a heterogeneous piano texture brimming with counterpoint and consolidated elements of folklore, the chromatisation of chord successions and melodic lines as well as rhythmic flexibility. Rachmaninoff wrote the second, final version of the Sonata in 1931, almost two decades after composing the first one, in the period when his focus was on the sophistication of his personal style, subliming original technical demands and condensing the form, without any essential intervention in the field of the music content itself.

Created on the eve of the Great War, the sonata encapsulates the anxious spirit of the time defined by turmoil and turbulence which Rachmaninoff musically embodies with expressionistic means. The external movements of cycle are manifest in the sharpness of the expressionist charge, where the central Lento gains the function of an evocative retrospect of the world of Romanticism which Rachmaninoff leaves to gently fade away. From within the disconcerting musical flow of the Sonata powerful collisions of massive sound blocks, dissonant consonances and sharp harmonic encounters come to the fore. Amid the echoes of ’Munch’s Scream’, Romanticism makes sporadic attempts to regain its voice, but to no avail. Even when it seems to have succeeded, Rachmaninoff provides an indicative symbolic melody threading motives derived from the medieval choral chant Dies Irae through the lyrical second theme of the first movement and onwards through the entire piece.

The beginning of the first movement already opens with the sudden collapse of the decomposed B minor into the abyss of the bass, taking on the significance of a prophetic declaration. The monumentality of expression united with Rachmaninoff’s tragic thoughts permeates the entire musical flow of the movement at the end of which the daunting codetta serves more to preserve the mood than to resolve it in any way. Protected from the intrigues of the surrounding world by interludes, the second movement seems like as oasis from the other side of time. By means of the variational gradation of melancholic musical sighs, Rachmaninoff elevates the power of suppressed subjective feelings through it. Not allowing them, however, to fully predominate, using strong bass accents he thrusts an agonizing wedge of horror into the very centre of this lyrical tissue which, in the whirlwind of entering passages, removes the entire romantic pathos forever, leaving just a fading memory of it at the end of the movement. Finally, the polystylistic profile of the sonata compliments the finale which, realised on the margins of demonic fervour, humour and the grotesque by means of the percussive treatment of the keyboard, anticipates Sergei Prokofiev’s spirit,
thus creating a subtle correspondence with the emerging spirit of 20th century music.

Composed at the same time as Rachmaninoff’s ambitious symphonic work, The Bells, the Second Sonata abounds with the idiomatic ringing of those “instruments”, which for the composer, carry equal degrees of content, emotional and coloristic significance throughout the whole opus. The evocation of the church bells from Rachmaninoff’s birthplace of Semyonovo, those representing idyllic and melancholic recollections, the bells from Russian national festivals, but also alarm bells and bells of warning, peal throughout the entire flow of the sonata thanks to the wealth of the piano’s onomatopoeic abilities. They ring prophetically thorough Rachmaninoff’s score with hidden premonitions. They ring farewell before they are finally silenced by the October Revolution and Rachmaninoff’s departure from Russia.

© Stefan Cvetković / Sony Classical