A minor Beethoven gem

Although I don’t perform classical piano pieces publicly, aside from an occasional one at a filksing or convention, I like to play them for my own enjoyment. Currently I’m returning to Beethoven’s C minor Sonata, Opus 10, No. 1. C minor was a significant key for him; he used it for the later “Pathétique” Sonata, the Third Piano Concerto, and the Fifth Symphony.

The first movement follows a pattern Beethoven liked, with a stern first theme and a lyrical second one. In the recapitulation he does some startling things with keys. After the first theme returns in C minor, the piece jumps straight into G-flat major, the remotest key possible. Then it goes to E-flat minor and finds its way to F minor, and the second theme alternates between F minor and F major instead of going back to C minor or C major the way a traditional sonata movement does. Only in the last 18 measures does it find its way back to C minor.

The second movement is marked “Adagio molto,” and it had better be taken slowly, since there are passages in sixty-fourth-note triplets! I’m convinced Beethoven put those in just to make sure nobody would try to speed it up. That’s a part I’ve had to work a lot on. If I do it right, it sounds like a bit of glitter that isn’t too hard. A good performer would make it sound effortless.

The third movement goes to the other extreme with a tempo marking of “Prestissimo.” I’m still working on that and not even approaching allegro yet. It has some bits with eighth-note triplets in one hand against sixteenths in the other; that’s actually easier to do fast. Just before the main theme returns, there’s a distinct foreshadowing of the Fifth Symphony’s opening theme. At the end there’s one more surprise, as the key slips up from C minor to D-flat major and the tempo slows down to a big arpeggio marked “adagio,” before the original tempo returns and the music fades out.

I could buy and download a much better performance from Classics Online, but I wouldn’t have gotten as much out of the music if that’s all I did.

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