Grand Sonatas

​Ludwig van Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 29 in B♭ major, Op. 106.

Frédéric  Chopin Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58.

Franz Liszt Sonata in B minor, S.178.

Johannes Brahms Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5.

Sergei Rachmaninoff ​Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 36 in B-flat minor.

Through this program project I am aiming to discovery and understand the development of the Romantic Sonata as a genre through an examination of the work of different composers. These sonatas represent the highest point of musical thought by each composer; however all of them were very much criticised after publication, and were not accepted in to the piano repertoire straight away.

Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata Op.109 achieved an exceptional place among all the composer’s sonatas not only for reasons of length – it is like a symphony written for the pianoforte – but also because of the new musical ideas expressed in this piece. In addition, this sonata includes the largest slow movement and fuga ever written in the Classical and Romantic era. As a composer and an exceptional pianist, Beethoven took very little care of the performers who might play his music. When a violinist complained about the difficulty of Beethoven’s music, the composer’s answer was ‘What is your little violin when I am talking to God?’

Beethoven was a musical dictator who, as we know from different sources, insisted that his musical ideas must be represented accurately according to his will, no matter what kind of emotional or physical challenges performer might face in his music. The most discussed issue among musicians in this sonata is the metronome markings written by Beethoven. Unfortunately in the twentieth century, through the evolution of ideas of musical aesthetics, we lost understanding of the significance of Beethoven’s metronome markings and how flexible music and tempo markings were at that time. Perhaps for today’s performer and public, accustomed to modern-day pianos, a steady and moderate speed of performance may create a deep and profound sound. However, we should bear in mind that the sound impression created by Beethoven’s music being played on light Viennese nineteenth century pianos, with ‘tempo rubato’ and markings carefully indicated by Beethoven, was totally different; and the time the duration of the sonata was also more compact.

There is some information that has come down to us about Beethoven as a pianist, and about his specific performance style. Additionally, some information about Beethoven as a performer may be traced through his student Carl Czerny, who was closely related to Beethoven, and who played and edited the composer’s sonatas as well as leaving some personal accounts of him.

Beethoven took more care about the public, and understood the problem of duration for the unprepared listener, as well as the impact such considerations may have for the London market or for the popularity of this sonata. Before publishing in London, Beethoven considered the possibility of transposing movements, placing the Adagio before the Scherzo and omitting the Finale, or publishing the first two movements as a whole sonata. In the end the publishers decided to publish the first three movements under the title of Grand Sonata, and the second part as the Introduction and Fugue. The composer allowed his sonata to be performed by movements, although he considered all the movements of this sonata as constituting one united piece.

Chopin’s Piano Sonata Op.58 was composed in 1844, and is among the best examples of Chopin’s musical writing. Its excellence was not recognised immediately after composition, and it was much criticised by Franz Liszt, Friedrich Niecks, Hugo Leichtentritt and Wladyslaw Żeleński. Among the most interesting and unusual characteristics of this sonata is that in its creation Chopin combined different compositional genres, in which he was working throughout his life. The first movement is written in Classical sonata Allegro form, as are the first movements of all his concertos for piano and orchestra; the second movement is the Scherzo with the trio at its centre; and the third movement, the Largo, represents the fusion of the Nocturne overlapped with the dotted rhythm of the March.  This movement always reminds me of the funeral march from his Second Sonata, albeit represented from an absolutely different musical and emotional angle. The Finale movement again represents a fusion, being a Rondo form overlapped with the Ballade metre.

Johannes Brahms was the heir of Beethoven in German music, and drew his inspiration from Beethoven’s music as well as sometimes borrowing his thematic motifs and compositional form structures.

To me the most impressive fact about his Sonata Op.5 is that Brahms was only around twenty years old at the time of its composition, and as a musician he seems to have been, as one might say, ‘born old’. This realisation should have significant impact on the spirit of our interpretation, because through the numerous images of Brahms that have survived we usually imagine him as an old, physically heavy and deep musician with the beard and cigar. However, as we know from a surviving daguerreotype photograph, in 1853 – the year of the sonata’s composition – Brahms was a young, slim, handsome man, a fierily temperamental piano virtuoso, visually somewhat like Liszt and Chopin as they appeared in the 1830s.

We are very fortunate to have evidence of Brahms’ performance style as a pianist through a number of written documents, reviews and even a couple of minutes of recording of the composer himself playing part of his Hungarian Dance. As in the case of Liszt, Brahms was sometimes accused by critics of not playing his music literally in the way it was published, and for breaking cords too often, at places which were not indicated in the score. One of his favourite instruments was Streicher, and we may still trace the tradition of the performance style common to the era of Brahms through the recordings of Etelka Freund, who played regularly for Brahms during her training years.

The Sonata Op.5 is a big, ambitious composition by the young Brahms, and it is very difficult to criticise this music or to find any weak aspect to its composition. By all considerations it is very well constructed, and it is not possible to add or exclude even a single note.

Around the same time, Franz Liszt completed the final version of his Sonata in B Minor. Unlike Beethoven, Chopin and Brahms, Liszt composed the sonata in a single movement form, which was very much criticised by Clara Schmann, Anton Rubinstein and Eduard Hanslick as being ‘merely a blind noise’.

Beethoven reached the highest point of the traditional classical sonata form (the sonata Allegro form, usually common for first movements of the sonata) in terms of structure, and started to develop romantic spirit in his late sonatas. Brahms used Beethoven’s form structure as a best possible form of composition (the sonata Allegro form), but with absolute romantic spirit and harmonies. Brahms’ form was classical, but his spirit, harmonies and ideas romantic. Liszt, however, introduced certain inventions, including the new one-movement form in sonata (called ‘double-function’), instead of the three to five movements usual for Beethoven and Brahms.  Liszt also introduced certain monothematic music inventions: the music’s tunes were constructed from the same motif or the same theme, for instance example on the letters ABCD, ADBC, ABCC, AABC and so on. Liszt’s inventions in terms of form construction were not accepted fully by some supporters of Beethoven and Brahms, and created antagonism between the ways of composition and compositional schools.

Unlike some of Liszt's salon music, his Sonata in B Minor is highly intellectual and still motivates scholars to research the hidden sense and context of this music. Despite all the antagonism it has encountered, this sonata takes its roots from the classical era, and three music sections of this sonata could be considered as three different movements of the ordinary classical sonata united in one as a double-function form. The fact that Johannes Brahms reputedly fell asleep during this ‘blind noise’ when Liszt performed it in 1853 may bear witness to Brahms’ very human character and the style of his life at that period as a young man, spending his nights in pleasure-seeking, rather than being an indictment of Liszt’s music.

The Rachmaninoff Sonata Op.36 has its roots in nineteenth century sonata compositions and is written as a one movement double-function form, joined by non allegro bridges. The idea of this form composition could be related to Liszt’s B Minor Sonata

If Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms and Liszt were quite satisfied with their published compositions, Rachmaninoff was very critical of his own composition and revised this work in the second edition eighteen years later with the note: ‘The new version, revised and reduced by author.’ It is also interesting to consider that among pianists this sonata is sometimes nicknamed ‘The Music for Elephants’. The richness and abundance of the thematic material was significantly reduced by the composer in the second version, however the logical development of its general structure and voicing was, in my opinion, raised up to new higher level of mastery. Modern-day pianists are still not completely satisfied with the structure of the composition and with the loss of musical themes in the second version. This fact motivated Vladimir Horowitz to seek and alternative, compromise version, which represents a fusion between first and second versions, and according to his words this version was authorised by Rachmaninoff but was never published.

We are very fortunate to know more about Rachmaninoff’s performance style than about that of any other composer, thanks to his recordings and other sources. Rachmaninoff himself described his performance style as dramatic, a tradition inherited from Anton Rubinstein, and strongly influenced by his friend the singer Feodor Chaliapin. The most significant issue about Rachmaninoff as a performer is, in my opinion, the fact that he could record the first half of his musical composition and then, several years later, the second half of the same composition, yet in the final recording both parts would match ideally by tempo, as though they had been recorded at the same time by musical and logical development. For me, this proves that Rachmaninoff always had in his mind very clear, carefully planned and detailed musical ideas.

​©2021 by  Ivan Hovorun  all rights reserved.​