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Beethoven and his mentors

Ludwig van Beethoven  1770-1827
Sonata Quasi una fantasia, Op.27 no.2 (‘Moonlight’)
Adagio sostenuto;
Allegretto e Trio;
Presto agitato

Arguably Beethoven’s most famous piano sonata is the so-called ‘Moonlight’, composed in 1801. The title has nothing to do with Beethoven (nor, presumably, with moonlight). He described it as a ‘sonata quasi una fantasia’, and its treatment of thematic content and procedure, texture, and indeed, broad aspects of musical structure (including the relationships of the successive movements) is unorthodox, destabilising the normal expectations of a fast-slow-fast three-movement pattern. The opening dreamlike succession of ideas does, in fact, conform closely to sonata procedures, though our attention is skilfully deflected away from this by its foregrounding of the texture and register. Beethoven even requires the first movement to be played with the dampers raised throughout – a difficult feat on the modern piano, though easier to obtain on a Viennese fortepiano).

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart  1756-91
Adagio in B minor, K.540

Mozart’s Adagio in B minor dates from 1788. He entered it in his Thematic Catalogue on 19 March that year, and it was published soon afterwards by the Viennese firm, Hoffmeister. Mozart’s autograph manuscript, which survives in a private collection in Stockholm, is unusually free of slips, and incorporates a large number

of very precisely-placed dynamics, suggesting that this is the copy Mozart prepared for the engraver of Hoffmeister’s edition. It is a curiously chromatic piece, ranging widely through the keys and displaying an extraordinary intensity of rhetorical expression. The D minor Fantasia, K.397, is thought to date from 1782; Mozart’s autograph is sadly lost – the earliest source is a Viennese print from 1804, in which the work is left incomplete. Mozart probably intended it as an introduction to a larger work (indeed, the Viennese print describes it as ‘Fantaisie d’Introduction’). No obvious solo piano work survives by Mozart, but it proves to be a particularly apt introduction to Beethoven’s ‘Tempest’ Sonata!

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in C minor, Op.13 (‘Pathétique’)
Allegro di molto e con brio;
Adagio cantabile;

The Sonata ‘Pathétique’ is a notably early example of Beethoven’s exploitation of the tempestuous qualities associated with the key of C minor (other early examples include the Piano Trio Op.1 no.3, and the Piano Sonata Op.10 no.1 and the 32 variations, WoO 80, which, despite its ‘Werk ohne Opuszahl’classification, probably dates from 1806). Before long, C minor was ultimately to become the ‘fateful’ key of his Symphony no.5. Unlike the other two sonatas in this programme, the ‘Pathétique’ nickname is thought to derive from Beethoven himself as an attempt to convey the perhaps emergent romantic associations. Its first movement begins with an extended Graveintroduction reminiscent in scale and mood of Haydn’s late symphonies (and indeed of Beethoven’s own first two symphonies), and the subsequent Allegro features frequent interruption of the driving, forward momentum by references back to the Grave motive, as if the movement were a struggle of opposing forces.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Fantasia in D minor, K.397

Mozart’s D minor Fantasia, is thought to date from 1782. Mozart’s autograph is sadly lost – the earliest source is a Viennese print from
1804, in which the work is left incomplete. Mozart probably intended it as an introduction to a larger work (indeed, the Viennese print describes it as ‘Fantaisie d’Introduction’). No obvious solo piano work survives by Mozart, but it proves to be a particularly apt introduction to Beethoven’s ‘Tempest’Sonata!

Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata in D minor, Op.31 no.2 (‘Tempest’)
Largo – Allegro;

“Read Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest’” Beethoven is supposed to have said to his biographer Anton Schindler, in response to a question about the meaning of the D minor Sonata. Like much of Schindler’s writing about Beethoven, this is, sadly, fake news. Nevertheless, the title has stuck.

The opening arpeggio, is a device that recurs frequently in the first movement, often in tonally unexpected locations and creating something of a sense of foreboding. It certainly breathes an air of mystery into the piece (why does it keep interrupting the surging force of the Allegro proper?), though, on closer inspection, the main motive of the Allegro is derived from it. Without the ‘quasi una fantasia’tag, this time, Beethoven shows another unorthodox way of laying out the sonata form. In fact, all three movements of this sonata are in ‘sonata form’, each radically different in character and scale.

While the Adagio at first suggests a mood of deep stillness, this is soon threatened by the emergence of distant allusions to a drum beat in the bass – a figure which becomes menacingly more prominent until it temporarily takes over the entire texture.

The finale is an anxious 399-bar moto perpetuo whose tension scarcely ever falters. At times it whips itself up into a kind demonic fury (one that, a generation later, Berlioz would make his own), though Beethoven resists the temptation to conclude with a triumphant climax – instead the turbulence vanishes unexpectedly out of sight, like a storm passing.


John Irving

Recently described as ‘One of the foremost exponents of the period piano in the UK’, is an established performer on early keyboards (notably fortepiano, harpsichord and clavichord), specializing in music of the later 18thcentury.’ International Pianohas described his Beethoven playing as ‘Excellent…played with historical awareness and humour’. The Observerpraised his ‘outstanding’performances of Mozart. John’s performances on fortepiano challenge traditional expectations of the piano repertoire of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, going beyond the notated texts into an improvisatory mode of creative engagement with the score that recaptures performance expectations in the 18thcentury. By turns virtuosic and extemporary, John’s performances are noted for their accessible engagement with audiences, offering fresh insights into this repertoire.

John plays a 1988 Paul McNulty fortepiano: a copy of a 1795 Viennese original by Anton Walter. He has also performed and recorded on historical originals, including Rossini’s piano in Pesaro.

John’s most recent solo CDs are Josef Haydn Piano Sonatas (Devine Music, 2015) and John Irving Plays Mozart on the Hass Clavichord(sfzmusic, 2013). His chamber music discs, Mozart Chamber Music Vols.1 & 2 (Devine Music), and Beethoven and the art of Arrangementwith Ensemble DeNOTE (Omnibus Classics, 2015) gained 4* and 5* reviews in The Observer,The Guardianand Early Music Review– the Mozart playing praised for its lyricism, inventive ornamentation and ‘gorgeously subtle colouring.’ Recent and forthcoming appearances include St.John’s Smith Square; King’s Place; Milton Court, Barbican Centre; Greenwich International Early Music Festival; LSO St. Lukes; Brighton Early Music Festival; North York Moors Chamber Music Festival; St Cecilia’s Hall, Edinburgh; the Holywell Music Room, Oxford; Royal Irish Academy of Music, Dublin; Conservatorio della Svizzera Italiana, Lugano; ORPHEUS Instituut, Gent; Fondazione Cini, Venice; the Geelvinck Festival, Amsterdam and the Valletta International Baroque Festival.

John is Professor of Performance Practice at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, London. He also teaches at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, and is Professor of Fortepiano at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire of Music. Previously he was Professor of Music at Bristol University, Director of The Institute of Musical Research at London University, and Vice President of the Royal Musical Association.An internationally recognized Mozart scholar, he has published six books on Mozart, includingan international best-selling biography, The Treasures of Mozart(André Deutsch, 2010) and contributions to the internationally-acclaimed The Mozart Project(a digital book for iPad). In 2016 he was appointed Honorary President of University College London’s Chamber Concerts Society.

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