Standing in awe before the Waldstein-Sonata

Monumental. © Charles Thibo

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major (Op. 53) is one of those ambitions of mine. Some day in the future, I will be able to play this overwhelming piece. Overwhelming because it overwhelms me each time I listen to it. Overwhelming because it commands respect to the apprentice I still am. This love affair started with a recording by Alice Sara Ott. I moved on to the release of Emil Gilels’ performance and ended up with Alfred Brendel’s recording, apparently the gold standard when it cones to Beethoven interpretation.

My reverence for Beethoven and this specific piece grew and grew. The three interpretations are so different one from the other. In two, three years perhaps I will feel confident enough to give it a try. At the time I am writing this I struggle with Fanny Mendelssohn’s “July” from the cycle “The Year”. Chords spanning wider than an octave, repeated hands crossing in quick succession, quintuplets like rolling thunder with abrupt, precise stops, the challenge to maintain that slow, very slow tempo… Quite a challenge. Now, the “Waldstein”… oh, boy! Some way to go.

Mozart’s spirit out of Haydn’s hands

Beethoven wrote this sonata in 1803/04. He dedicated it to Count Graf Ferdinand Ernst Joseph Gabriel von Waldstein und Wartenberg, Lieutenant-General of the British Army and Beethoven’s first and most important patron. They had met while von Waldstein lived in Bonn; he made it possible for Beethoven to move to Vienna in 1792. Upon Beethoven’s departure the count wrote: “Through tireless effort you will receive Mozart’s spirit out of Haydn’s hands.” 12 years later Beethoven would compose a sonata that dwarfs anything the Mozart had ever written in terms of audacity. Whether von Waldstein ever played the sonata dedicated to him I could not find out. He was a reasonably good pianist, even an amateur composer, but he and Beethoven had no contact while Beethoven stayed in Vienna.

The German musicologist Walter Werbeck qualifies it as monumental work, mainly because the finale is unusually long: 543 bars. The longest finale Beethoven ever wrote. From its dimension alone, the sonata deserves the label “monumental”. However from a stylistic point of view it inspires awe too. The composer used differences in rhythm and accentuation to mark contrasts between different section, and since he is not bound by thematic ideas, he freely uses tremoli*, trills* and glissandi* to build figures that, taken together, simply sound monumental. To be able to reproduce that… To have the privilege to learnt how this brilliant effects are built, layer upon layer, block after block… I am really looking forward to this challenge even if I know that I am far from ready for this sonata. In two, three years perhaps.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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