Last evening's recital of Beethoven's final three piano sonatas was part of Mannes' yearlong festival, Sounds of Change: Music in Transition. Before the performance began, the festival's artistic director, Pavlina Dokovska, gave an informative introduction discussing the nature of change in Beethoven's work as well as in his own life. Her remarks could be summarized as follows: The composer, born in 1770, was a true heir to the upheavals that swept through Europe in the wake of the French Revolution whose tenets he eagerly embraced, most especially its insistence on individual freedom. In so doing, he created compositions that became a cornerstone of the Romantic movement. At the same time he overcame the crippling disability of his deafness to achieve serenity and even joy in the last years of his life. Nowhere are these experiences documented so well as in his final three piano sonatas.
As Ms. Dokovska pointed out, the three sonatas taken together form a single cohesive work. Their importance lies in the revolutionary nature of their composition that redefined the very concept of the sonata form. As Wikipedia notes:
"The pianistic means are reduced to leaner, chamber music-like voice leading, as in the first movement of Opus 110, or dissolved into recitative-like passages, as in the third movement of the same work. These procedures contrast with a heightened virtuosity, a broadening of the form and an increase in overall length, as for example in the Hammerklavier sonata, Op. 106. In Op. 109, reminiscences of the straightforward style of the early, Haydn-influenced sonatas contrast with harmony that is sometimes harsh, anticipating the music of the 20th century. This gives special importance to the principles of polyphonic variation, as in the second movement of Op. 109, and consequently the use of baroque forms, especially fugue and fugato. Very wide intervals between the outer voices, a process of breaking the music into ever shorter note values (as in the sixth variation in Op. 109), use of trills to resolve the music into layers of sound (the same variation in Op. 109 and again in Op. 111), arpeggios, ostinati and tremolos gain increased significance."
Yesterday evening, Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109, was performed by Yekwon Sunwoo; Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major, Op. 110, was performed by Iryna Arbatska; and Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, was performed by Catalin Dima. Although all three students were giving their first performances of the sonatas, each played with a skill and confidence that suggested much longer acquaintance with these works.