Sonata No. 10 in G, Op. 96
Ludwig van Beethoven
The G-major Sonata, the composer’s last for this combination, was completed in December of 1812, just after the Eighth Symphony. It has less in common stylistically and emotionally with the bubbly Symphony than with other works of that period, the "Archduke" Trio, the E-flat Piano Sonata [No. 26] ("Lebewohl"), and perhaps the more reflective portions of the "Emperor" Concerto, all suggesting a certain relaxed mastery, rather than revolutionary fervor. No greater contrast is imaginable than that between this intimate, conversational chamber work and its fiery duo-sonata predecessor in the Beethoven canon, the virtuosic, concertante "Kreutzer" Sonata, written a full decade earlier.
The G-major Sonata impresses as a deeply contented final statement in the form, a flowing, effortlessly masterful score from which all excesses, all strain and striving have been pared away to reveal music sublimely pure and ethereal. The first performance of the Sonata was given on December 29, 1812 at the Vienna home of Beethoven’s (and before him, Haydn’s) patron, Prince Lobkowitz. The violinist was the French virtuoso Pierre Rode, the pianist the Archduke Rudolph, another Beethoven patron, to whom this work and the B-flat Piano Trio (the "Archduke") were dedicated.
The Sonata was begun early in 1812 but after the first movement Beethoven decided to devote all his energy to the Eighth Symphony. The Sonata’s second movement took shape in November, and the finale not until two weeks before the first performance because, as Beethoven wrote to the Archduke, “I have not hurried unduly to compose the last movement merely for the sake of being punctual, the more so as in view of Rode’s playing I have had to give more thought to the composition of this movement. In our Finales, we like to have fairly noisy passages, but Rode does not care for them. . ."
The gently lyrical first movement is one of Beethoven’s most gorgeously serene inspirations, but full of brief, unexpected excursions into remote keys. The slow movement -- in E-flat -- is a reminiscence of the comparable movement in the Violin Concerto, written six years earlier: an ineffably tender dialogue between two gentle spirits.
Their conversation is, however, rudely interrupted by a wild scherzo (in G minor) that is itself interrupted by a trio which resumes the E-flat dialogue of the preceding movement, as if giving the participants the opportunity to finish.
The finale is a set of six variations, moving ever further in mood and tonality from the simple, folklike theme. The variations also become progressively quieter and more intimate in expression until variation six is broken off by the rowdily humorous coda and conclusion, which do convey some of that "noisiness" Beethoven said he would not impose on his violinist but from which he does not exempt the pianist.
Herbert Glass, a columnist and critic for the Los Angeles Times from 1971 through 1996, is also a frequent contributor to Gramophone and The Strad. He is English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival.