Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 32, op. 111
(with Galuppi: Sonata No. 5 / Scarlatti: 3 Sonatas)
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, piano
Decca SXL 21109-B
Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32, op. 111 in C minor (1821-1822) has led to more poeticizing and speculation than just about any other piece of art, barring the Mona Lisa, Ulysses and Fellini’s 8 1/2. The sonata, like the later Grosse Fuge op. 133, is a microcosm of past and future musical styles. Fugue, counterpoint, dissonance, minimalism, boogie-woogie, ragtime–the 111 is like some non-chronological trip wending through the history and philosophy of music.
First thing you’ll notice is the absence of a third movement (Beethoven did this before, in the op. 54, 78 & 90) but here the long sweeping set of 4 variations of the Arietta ends not with a heroic bang but with a meditative whimper. Beethoven himself, when asked why there wasn’t a cleaning-up allegretto or presto, replied that he didn’t have the time. But of course there’s so much more to it than that. That third movement is like the missing link between classical/romantic music and modernism. In Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann speculates that the op. 111 Arietta is the only true culmination not just of the piece itself, but of the sonata form in general.
Diminished 7th chords mark the 1st movement’s plunge into tumult and infernal darkness, with quick shifts of tempo and trills that compound the agonized nature. (The beginning of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 is a throwback to the op. 111). It’s like some amped-up subterranean heroism, the composer struggling against corporeality.
But the Arietta quickly dispels any sense of harshness, like some tranquil starship journey to the reaches of an inner cosmos. In a series of 4 variations on a 16-bar theme in 9/16 time, Beethoven seeks the center of a center-less labyrinth located in the manifolds of the self. The 3rd variation has often been analyzed for its passages of 64 notes in heavily syncopated beats which, as Igor Stravinsky said, is remarkably close jazz. Many others, including Mitsuko Uchida and Andras Schiff have pointed out the boogie-woogie rhythms, while Jeremy Denk calls the sonata “proto-jazz”. Without a doubt, the Arietta is one of the single most haunting and ineffable pieces in the canon–a “mystical experience close at hand”, as Alfred Brendel says.
Understandably, pianists interpret the 2nd movement to far extremes, from Glenn Gould’s rambunctious playing time of around 15 minutes to Daniel Barenboim’s attention-stretching 27-plus minutes, with Pollini, Brendel and Uchida coming in at about 20 minutes each. Personally, I like Pogorelich’s performance on DG and Arrau’s on Philips.
And this German pressing of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s Decca recording is another exceptional version. Michelangeli tended to stick to select pieces, with a very small repertoire in comparison to most concert pianists. His Debussy Preludes sparkle and his Ravel Concerto and Rachmaninov 4 on EMI are absolutely peerless. Outside his Haydn concertos and some other wayward releases, he owned every piece he sat down to play. Exquisite phrasing was his specialty, and in the op. 111, that’s what we get. The first movement is performed with drama and ferocity, as you’d expect. His Arietta, clocking in at a bit less than 20 minutes, is plangent and lyrical, with an astounding control of the sonata’s sprawling intimacies.