Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major ("Hammerklavier"), Op. 106

    Description by James Reel

    To English speakers, the term "Hammerklavier" suggests pounding at the keyboard. Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata may have its percussive moments, but this title is simply the German word for pianoforte. In other words, the composer was simply specifying that this work absolutely had to be played on the modern keyboard with hammered strings, and that the old plucked-string harpsichord was not an option. In fact, Beethoven's last five piano sonatas all had this designation, but it became the nickname only for the mighty Op. 106. The first movement, Allegro, bursts in with a heroic proclamation, a series of grand, double-dotted chords in the manner of a Baroque overture. Soon, light cascades of notes attempt a resolution into a pretty music-box figure before the openings chords are evoked again. Beethoven lays out his basic material for this large movement in just the first couple of minutes. Almost immediately he runs through it all again with greater harmonic displacement. What follows is a contrapuntal treatment of the opening theme, prefiguring the massive fugue that will end the sonata. Beethoven's further development of his subjects runs through episodes that are alternately sparkling and pounding, punctuated by an increasingly fearsome motto of those opening chords. Halfway through the recapitulation the harmonic framework melts, and the music lands in the distant key of B minor. The sonata requires another half-hour to recover from this jolt. The ensuing Scherzo is a miniature; starting with a hunting-call figure, it falls into a minor-mode whirlpool of a trio, the effect of which the A section can't quite shake off upon its return. The gargantuan slow movement, Adagio sostenuto, drifts through a haze of harmonic instability. Beethoven marks it Appassionato e con molto sentimento, requiring an intense emotional connection between the pianist and the score. The themes, as in many of Beethoven's late slow movements, suffer from smudged outlines; rather than following a tune, one has the impression of deep stillness, a few moments of flowing but aimless movement, stillness again, and so forth. Beethoven carefully alternates fuller-sounding sections with passages marked una corda, indicating the use of the soft pedal to produce shadowy, distant musical scenes. Although the movement is officially in F sharp minor, the music wanders through the keys, placing the subsidiary idea in D major. This is the key Beethoven generally reserved for religious sentiment, and here it implies the possibility of spiritual enlightenment even in the most confusing circumstances. The last movement grows out of a Largo, a gradual return to life that slowly pulls fragmentary phrases together before erupting into a dramatic three-voice fugue. Earlier generations of pianists dismissed the fugue as unplayable (not just because of the tempo), but that is clearly an unfair assessment. True, the counterpoint is exceedingly complex, but Beethoven's mastery of the texture of supreme. At times, the music is dense and angry, even threatening (twice) to dissolve into wrathful trills. Uneven, the forward motion thins out and slightly relaxes, without, however, really flagging. When the fugue suddenly turns into a quiet, meditative canon, the contrast is tremendous. Nevertheless, it regains the original momentum, and the movement concludes with an imposing series of grand, resounding chords.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Allegro
    2. Scherzo. Assai vivace
    3. Adagio sostenuto - Appassionato e on molto sentimento
    4. Largo -
    5. Fuga. Allegro risoluto

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2018 Signum Classics SIGCD 527
    2018 SWR Klassik SWR 19057CD
    2018 Audite AUD 21451
    2018 Deutsche Grammophon
    2018 Deutsche Grammophon 4798353
    2018 Fontenay Classics FCI 012
    2018 MDG Gold MDG 3072072
    2018 Gramola 99160
    2017 Claudio CB 55792
    2017 Warner Classics 9029586922
    2017 Nonesuch 7559793638
    2017 Albany Records TROY 1661
    2017 Deutsche Grammophon 4797371
    2016 Marquis / Marquis Classics MQS 81523
    2016 Hyperion CDA 68073
    2016 Chandos CHAN 109253
    2016 Alpha Alpha 239
    2016 Warner Classics 0190295975050
    2016 Deutsche Grammophon B002436502
    2016 Deutsche Grammophon
    2016 Deutsche Grammophon 4795426
    2016 Deutsche Grammophon 4796018
    2015 Deutsche Grammophon
    2015 Accentus ACC 303551
    2015 Avie AV 2320
    2015 Piano Classics PCL 0075
    2015 APR (Appian) APR 7701
    2015 Andromeda ANDRCD 9124
    2014 Signum Classics SIGCD 397
    2014 Claves CD 50130413
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    2014 Deutsche Grammophon 4794120
    2014 Stradivarius STR 33989
    2014 Genuin GEN 14331
    2014 Ondine ODE 12482D
    2014 Calliope CAL 9416
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    2014 BIS BIS 2000
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    2014 Sony Classical G010003220357S
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    2014 Telos Music TLS 193
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