Release Date: 1982

Label: Deutsche Grammophon

Producers: Hanno Rinke / Wolfgang Mitlehner

Recording place: Herkulessaal, Residenz, Munich

Total playing time: CD [64:04]

Copyright: © 1982 Deutsche Grammophon



Beethoven was in his 52nd year and already deeply immersed in his Missa Solemnis and Ninth Symphony when completing his last sonata in C minor. Like its four immediate predecessors it reaches out into realms of experience never previ­ously approached at the keyboard, achieved through a synthesis of fugue, variation and sonata form, while also drawing great new wealth of ex­pression from the wider compass and colour range of the fast evolving pianoforte itself .

Always acutely sensitive to implications of key, Beethoven rarely used C minor unless motivated by strong conflict. The maestoso introduction at once flings out an imperious challenge, intensified by sharp dynamic contrasts, double-dotted rhythms and chromaticism. Mysterious searchings eventually yield to the more turbulent drama of the main allegro section, its C minor first subject no less defiant than the movement’s introductory challenge. Though a second subject in major ton­ality brings a brief vision of calm, it is the first which monopolizes the concentrated, predominantly fug­al development as well as dominating the move­ment as a whole – until the sudden quiet of the coda. The Arietta is a set of variations on a C major theme whose sublime simplic ity (as the sketch-books show) cost Beethoven much effort to achieve. Though each variation brings new texture or rhythmic patterning, increasingly they merge into a continuous flow. There are moments of grandeur, others of intimate poignancy, while at times curiously static albeit trickling figuration and ethereal trills in rarefied upper reaches of the keyboard carry the music beyond the human world into mystical regions of stellar space. The homecoming is like a benediction.

When his adored pianist-wife-to-be, Clara Wieck, was still barely 15, and Schumann himself only 24, he was briefly engaged to Ernestine van Fricken, also studying the piano with Clara’s father. Though only an ephemeral romance, it has nevertheless passed into the annals of music his­tory through two works in Schumann ‘s remarkable first decade of composition devoted exclusively to the keyboard: Carnaval (1835), based on the let­ters of Ernestine ‘s birthplace, ASCH, translated into notes, and the Etudes symphoniques, a set of variations on a nobly expressive C sharp minor theme by her father, Baron van Fricken, a keen amateur musician.

On first encountering the theme in 1834 Schumann envisaged it as a “Tema quasi marcia funebre “, and set out to write “pathetic” variations on it. But his intention changed. What eventually emerged in print in 1837 was a sequence of pieces as much études as variations, their bravura underpinned by symphonic reasoning as well as hints of orchestral colour. The theme’s opening chordal descent is a strong seminal force through­ out. Subsidiary motifs open up startling new vis­tas, such as the initial falling fourth which gener­ ates the fugato of Elude I and later the richly romantic G sharp minor duet of Elude XI. The triumphant finale in D flat major is based on an entirely new phrase to the words “Du stolzes England, freue dich” (“Proud England, rejoice”) from Marschner’s Ivanhoe opera, Der Templer und die Judin – a characteristically cryptic greet­ing from Schumann to his English friend, Stern­dale Bennett, to whom the work is dedicated.

Bewitched as a teenager by Moscheles and others of the dazzling, note-spinning virtuoso school, Schumann first planned his Toccata in 1829 as an Etude fantastique en doubles-sons in D major for Clara. But always a tireless reviser, he eventually recast it in C major, with certain small modifications of the phenomenal difficulties contained within its succinct sonata-form argument, publishing it in 1834 with a dedication to his close friend Ludwig Schunke.


© Joan Chissell / Deutsche Grammophon