Piano Sonata No. 26 in E flat, Op. 81a “Les Adieux” (1809)
1809 was a difficult year in Vienna. The Austrian army lost the war and Napoleon’s French army occupied Vienna. Most of Beethoven’s friends left Vienna, including his student, friend and patron Archduke Rudolph, son of Austria’s Emperor Leopold I whose departure greatly affect Beethoven. Thus, the three movements of the sonata are subtitled “Departure”, “Absence” and “Return”.
The Op. 81a sonata is only one of two of Beethoven’s piano sonatas for which he himself provided a title, the other being the Pathetique. Beethoven was very upset with his publisher for giving the sonata a French title “Les Adieux” – his express wish was for a German title “Das Lebewohl” (Farewell). He actually hand-wrote LE-BE-WOHL over the first three notes (G, F, E-flat) that start the sonata. Still, no one should expect programmed music here in the mode of Berlioz or Liszt. Despite the expression of feelings and emotions, the Les Adieux Sonata is a highly integrated work in a well-structured Classical sonata style.
The “Lebewohl” motif starts a slow introduction that creates a sense on uncertainty and distress but gives way to an energetic Allegro movement in a typical Sonata Form, with occasional return of the “Lebewohl” motif. The “Absence” Second movement has a slow processional character with some Beethoven’s most beautiful, gut-wrenching melody, and leads directly to the final “Return” movement, an exuberant, virtuosic expression of happiness. This is one of Beethoven’s most popular sonatas, often performed and recorded – no pianist would ever dare to leave this work behind.
RACHMANINOFF: Piano Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 28 (1908)
Russia’s pianist, conductor, and composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff serves as an important figure in the late romantic piano repertoire, a bridge of sorts from the 19th century Romanticism to the 20th century Modernism. A product of the Moscow Conservatory, an infinitely more conservative institution than the modernist St. Petersburg Conservatory, the Moscow Conservatory being the domain of Tchaikovsky, Arensky and Taneyev, while St. Petersburg was the domain of Rimsky-Korsakov that produced Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich – all instilled in the young Rachmaninoff the neo-classical values of classical form, richness of tonality, polyphonic treatment of thematic material and rhythmic quirkiness.
This neo-classical tendency should have placed Rachmaninoff as a true descendent of Johannes Brahms, into a world of abstract music, but Rachmaninoff’s leanings were toward Franz Liszt, the great master of programmed music. In fact, Rachmaninoff’s inspiration for this sonata was Liszt’s Faust Symphony. While the programmatic elements are skillfully obscured in the D minor Sonata, the three movements of the sonata are musical portraits of prominent characters from Goethe’s Faust: Faust himself, his lover Gretchen, and the devil Mephistopheles, the three movements of the sonata respectively. Rachmaninoff was hesitant to reveal the programmatic nature of the work, even after its Moscow premiere in October 1908. Only later did he reveal its underlying program.
A work of lyricism and grandeur, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No.1, Op. 28 is cast in a three-movement form, the sonata embodies the traditional Classical structure with two faster paced movements framing a more quiet and lyrical central movement.
The sonata is musically complex and quite intricate in its pianism. It requires a pianist of extraordinary technical skill to unravel a tangle of passages, rhythms, harmonies, and polyphonic twists, as Rachmaninoff innovatively extends the capabilities of the piano and the spirit of improvisation. It requires the pianist to be both the soloist and the “orchestra” accompanying himself – such is the symphonic nature of the work. While not as popular as his other two piano sonatas, nevertheless, the work has been a staple in the repertory of several great pianists and was performed frequently by Rachmaninoff himself.
Notes by Michael Lebovitch