Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat major, Op. 110

    Description by Robert Cummings

    Beethoven's piano sonatas grew in complexity and depth as the cycle of 32 progressed. The last dozen or so could be called absolute masterpieces of piano music, with the latter half of that group rising to a level that often inspires awe and wonderment. This work, though sometimes overshadowed by the mighty "Hammerklavier" Sonata, and the last, the C minor, Op. 111, seems quite as impressive as these better-known works. This unusual work, thematically threadbare at the outset, is a great and deeply profound composition, whose fugal finale achieves the highest keyboard art. This composition opens with a gentle, slow idea of strong spiritual character, the music sounding mesmeric, tranquil, chorale-like, intimate. Its fabric consists of many threads, but on the surface there is little of actual substance, at least from the standpoint of musical analysis. Yet this lovely but seemingly unpromising opening contains the seeds of this movement's rich thematic and harmonic material. The latter half of the first subject is borrowed from the Largo second movement of Haydn's Symphony No. 88, in G major. At the time Beethoven was writing this sonata, he was suffering the first bouts of the illness that would take his life six years later. The serene, rather valedictory mood of the first movement (Moderato cantabile, molto espressivo) may reflect his sense of mortality, of an impending doom. The second subject is lively, but in all its elements seems to be on the descent, expressing, perhaps the end of a journey. The development introduces some tension and subtly disrupts the serenity, without, however, essentially altering the general mood of tranquility.

    The second movement (Allegro molto) is short and jovial. Or is it? It certainly starts off with a happy demeanor, but that temperament is periodically interrupted by a ponderous ritardando, which finally overtakes the direction and character of the piece. The third movement, marked Adagio ma non troppo, is somber, bordering on the funereal. This ponderous, dark music may reflect the composer's deepest doubts and disappointments. The finale begins without pause after the Adagio. Its theme, almost Bach-like in its contentedness and fugal character, sounds serene, expressing, perhaps, the composer's acceptance of his fate. This is a movement of great subtlety and beauty, and its structure is masterful and original. The middle section is quiet and dark, its mood looking back to the darkness of the Adagio. Suddenly the piano unleashes ten fateful chords in a slow crescendo. The main theme then reappears and struggles for a time with the dominant mood of darkness. Eventually it gains strength, transforming the movement into a triumphant, ecstatic, radiant utterance.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Moderato cantabile molto espressivo
    2. Allegro molto
    3. Adagio ma non troppo
    4. Fuga. Allegro ma non troppo

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2018 Fuga Libera FUG 745
    2018 Signum Classics SIGCD 527
    2018 Centaur Records CRC 3627
    2018 Audite AUD 21451
    2018 ABC Classics
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    2018 Erato
    2018 Signum Classics SIGCD 494
    2018 Melodiya MELCD 1002539
    2018 EPR-Classic EPRC 0025
    2018 APR (Appian) APR 7310
    2018 Erato 0190295673901
    2017 Deutsche Grammophon / Eloquence 4827053
    2017 Warner Classics 9029586922
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    2017 Three Oranges Recordings 3OR-23
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    2017 Quartz QTZ 2127
    2017 Profil - Edition Günter Hänssler PH 16030
    2017 Deutsche Grammophon 4797371
    2016 TYX Art TXA 15068
    2016 Ondine ODE 12982D
    2016 Chandos CHAN 109253
    2016 Warner Classics 0190295975050
    2016 Deutsche Grammophon 002894795516
    2016 Doremi / Doremi Records DHR 804446
    2016 Deutsche Grammophon B002436502
    2016 Budapest Music Center BMC 224
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