BEETHOVEN Ludwig van, Piano Sonata No.31 in A flat Op.110
Moderato cantabile molto espressivo
Adagio ma non troppo – Arioso dolente – Fuga: Allegro ma non troppo
During the first few months of 1821, Beethoven was laid low by illness, and was unable to do any composing for weeks on end. It was not until September that he was able to make a serious start on the Piano Sonata Op.110, and even in November he was grumbling to friends that he was still suffering from constant bouts of illness. However, the work was finished on Christmas Day 1821, and quickly sent to Schlesinger. The firm published it in 1822 and unusually, it appeared without dedication, though Thayer speculated that Beethoven intended to dedicate it to Antonie Brentano.
George Bernard Shaw considered Op.110 the most beautiful of all Beethoven’s piano sonatas. The first movement is moderate and elegantly proportioned, leading Charles Rosen to describe it as ‘Haydnesque’. The pithy Scherzo (in F minor) has a slightly folksy roughness – it actually uses a couple of folk tunes – while the Trio is in D flat major and marked by an idea that seems to cascade down the instrument. The reprise of the Scherzo ends in F major and leads straight into the Adagio ma non troppo – initially a recitative that leads to a deeply profoundly expressive Arioso dolente. For many musicians, it is the concluding Fugue (based on a subject built on rising fourths) that places it at or near the summit of Beethoven’s achievements. A sudden interruption of the fugue brings a poignant and tender recollection of the Arioso before the Fugue begins again, the subject now inverted, working towards a climax that is both sublime and majestic. Tovey wrote that ‘this fugue absorbs and transcends the world’, while Stravinsky considered it ‘the climax of this sonata … its great miracle lies in the substance of the counterpoint and it escapes all description.’
© Nigel Simeone