LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Two Sonatas for Pianoforte
Sonata No. 21 in C Major, Op. 53 "Waldstein"
Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110
Harris Goldsmith, piano
I elected a semester of German in my last year of high school and, as was my wont in those wretched times, performed miserably. However, when I first encountered Beethoven's "Waldstein" sonata not long thereafter, I remembered enough to know that Waldstein meant "forest stone," and to this day the piece still conjures up for me Romantic nature images (some great forbidding boulder lonely in a Caspar David Friedrich woods). Of course, in this connection, the term has no such application; it is nothing more than the name (or part of it) of the dedicatee, Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel, Graf von Waldstein.
Waldstein was the youngest son of a house linked to half the important nobility in Austria. When he was twenty-five, he came to the Electoral Court at Bonn. his family having determined that it would befit his station to join the Teutonic Order, of which the Elector Max Franz of Cologne, Archbishop of Munster, brother to the Emperor Joseph II and to Queen Marie-Antoinette. and employer to young Beethoven, was Grand Master. The Teutonic Order was an association of Good Knights that went back to the Crusades, and though it was on its last legs as a functioning entity, one still did not go gentle into it. Hence Waldstein was obligated to stay for a year to serve out his novitiate. In that time he became friends not only with Elector, who was eight years older than he, but with the Court Organist, who was eight years his junior. A good deal has been written about how the Count, through diplomatic ruses, helped support Beethoven through hard times ("Here is some back salary we overlooked in 1784," signed "Max Franz"), and how he opened doors for the composer when he moved to Vienna, but history does not strongly support either story. Still, Beethoven felt sufficiently warmly toward him to dedicate Op. 53 to him.
Beethoven wrote Op. 53 in Vienna in 1805. It was originally in three movements, the explosive opening and the brilliant finale separated by an andante in the subdominant key of F major. An acquaintance, on hearing it played, told him it was too long. After flying into a rage. Beethoven. realizing the judgment to be right, excised the middle movement and added a slow introduction leading into the finale ("about trees and fisherman" ventures Alan Rich, showing that I'm not the only one to hear nature-painting here!).
What has Sonata No. 21 to do with No. 31, except numerologically? Well, they are both in two movements (No. 31 is a pair of introductions-and-allegros, unless one wants to view it as a throwback to the old slow-fast-slow-fast pattern of the "church" sonata of Corelli's day); and both are the products of Big Years (1805 produced the first version of Fidelio, 1821 produced the Missa Solemnis.) The last two sonatas and the Mass were all taking shape at the same time, and the notebooks show themes tried out interchangeably among them. By now Beethoven was, musically speaking, tasting a liquor never brewed; at the same time, he never loses sight of the tradition to which he belongs. and there is as much of Sebastian Bach in this sonata as in anything he ever wrote. (Beethoven did too know Bach's music! So did most other serious musicians of the day. It was the public that was ignorant.)
The last three sonatas were published by Schlesinger, and thereby hangs a tale, as the Clown says in Romeo and Juliet. Moritz Schlesinger, son of the Berlin publisher, had opened a branch in Paris. In 1819 he came to the Vienna suburb of Modling to meet the now stone-deaf composer, arriving just in time to see him in a towering fury. cross the square from the local inn to his home. Nothing daunted, Schlesinger knocked, was admitted by the housekeeper, and won Beethoven over by writing out his greeting. In the course of the conversation Beethoven explained that he had had a sudden craving for roast veal and that the damned innkeeper had sworn he had none. That evening Schlesinger had a big plate of roast veal driven out from Vienna, and as a result got publication rights to the sonatas and two of the last quartets.
Musicians say (or should if they don't), "Those who can, play, those who can't become reviewers." Not true of Harris Goldsmith. Readers of High Fidelity are familiar with his initials. but perhaps do not know that he is a superb international pianist with sensitivity and technique to spare. He has previously recorded Mozart (MHS 910) and Brahms (MHS 1496) for the Society, and Schumann for RCA.