Ludwig van Beethoven wrote his last Piano Sonatas Op. 109, 110 and 111 between 1820 and 1822. They are the last three of thirty-two different solutions provided by the composer in this category, which began with the first sketches for his Sonata Op. 2 in 1790. Listeners and performers alike – of whom literally everything is demanded – find these sonatas to be highly individual works, expressive in gesture and attitude as well as aesthetically independent. The last piano sonatas represent one of the greatest legacies in musical history and are considered an enigma to this day. For they have the ability to rise above the purely musical text, raising deeply human questions and entering into realms that cannot be fathomed by means of any analytical tool. For they present a certain mindset, which is far from any kind of "Gebrauchsmusik"
(= functional music): not only do they offer solutions to the technical and structural compositional problems of their time, they also drag the human as an individual into the spotlight. With his last three sonatas, Beethoven bequeathed to posterity – and thus also to the listeners of today – an extensive field, cultivated for us by interpreters such as Mari Kodama. For otherwise it would lie fallow forever.
Mention has already been made of the high degree of individuality contained in the three sonatas. And yet they form a kind of ideal unity, not only due to their having originated from the same mould: a triad, as was the case in Op. 10 or Op. 31. One can see interlinking relationships in the construction details of the various movements. All the sonatas are explicit forms of Beethoven's late works, having been written around the same time as the Symphony No. 9 and the Missa Solemnis. Just as Beethoven arranges the entrance of the choir in his Symphony No. 9, thus he also transcends the boundaries between the "vocal" and the "instrumental" in his last three sonatas. Take, for instance, the variation theme in Op. 109, the arioso and recitative inserts contained in Op. 110, and the arietta in the finale of Op. 111. Another characteristic of his late style is the thematic development taken to an extreme form. To the contrapuntal structures, e.g. the fugue as the strictest polyphonic design option, an important structural factor is added as a kind of counterweight to the recurrent quasi-improvisatory, imaginative and free "outbursts". Otherwise, it would be impossible to prevent the disintegration of the composition. Furthermore, Beethoven introduces innovative variation techniques in the final analysis – such as in the last variation of the finale of Op. 109, or for instance in Op. 111 – that lead to the undermining, or one might even say, destruction of all thematic areas and units, mulching them down into pure sound surfaces. Everywhere, one encounters harbingers of "new music". Sonata in E, Op. 109
The Sonata in E major, Op. 109 is dedicated to Maximiliane Brentano, the daughter of Beethoven's good friends. The three-movement structure, however, could also be interpreted as a kind of two-movement layout, as the Vivace ma non troppo moves directly into the Prestissimo: thus, these two movements form a counterweight to the grand finale. In the lyrical and highly cantabile first movement, the first and second theme contrast sharply with one another, each being allocated its own key, its own tempo, its own metre. One could almost speak of "thematic inserts". And the contrast principle is continued in the second movement. At first in the major key and with an adagio tempo, now in the minor and prestissimo. The movement has the effect of a scherzo, pressing ahead without a pause, before coming almost to a standstill at the end. The finale consists of a set of variations on a simple theme in the style of a Sarabande. By means of these five variations, a close examination takes place of the composition – it is developed, played with, and approached in a contrapuntal manner, the rhythm is shifted about, and the movement undergoes a polyphonic examination. In the sixth and final variation, after the introduction with chords, Beethoven intensifies the theme by means of quaver, triplet, semiquaver and even demisemiquaver figures, before fully resolving it in trills and treble "peaks", and the theme is heard again in its original form. William Kinderman describes the resolution process as follows: "Through a process of rhythmic acceleration and registral expansion, the slow cantabile theme virtually explodes from within, yielding, through a kind of radioactive break-up, a fantastically elaborate texture of shimmering, vibrating sounds". Sonata in A flat, Op. 110
Beethoven composed his Sonata in A flat, Op 110 immediately after his Sonata in E and parallel to his Sonata in C minor, Op. 111. In the first four bars of the first movement of Op. 110, a distinctively lyrical sonata movement, Beethoven introduces the – as it were – motto of the entire work: ascending fourths, which characterize the fugue theme in the finale. The end is already inherent here in the beginning. The character of the movement remains cantabile, with a subtle sound design; and its development focuses exclusively – and uncharacteristically – on the beginning of the first theme. The humour so typical of Beethoven sparkles in this strongly contrasting Allegro molto, not least through his quoting of the popular Viennese song "Ich bin liederlich" (= I'm slovenly). The grand finale, which opens with a B-minor chord, forms the end and, simultaneously, the destination of the work. In this movement Beethoven exaggerates every previous personal attempt to express himself in his piano works. One feels caught up in an emotional Adagio, before a recitative breaks in after only three bars, followed by another Adagio with the famous "Bebung"
(= the repeated playing of a note to extend its vibration) of the A note, followed again by excerpts typical of a recitative, after which the Arioso dolente is heard. Such extreme alternations within such a confined space point towards purely expressive music. The lament sinks into deep resignation. As the fugue theme ascends in fourths, hope germinates. The fugue intensifies in a triumphant cadenza, but the Arioso dolente returns once more and the music wanes, becomes pallid, and dissolves into a number of components. After the music comes to a standstill, the second fugue commences, this time with an inverted theme and a whole series of contrapuntal artifices with a strongly improvised character in some developments: in the final apotheosis the fugue theme undergoes a transformation into a sonata-movement theme. Sonata in C minor, Op. 111
What could be coming now? Two movements. Two worlds. Contrasts of the most extreme kind. The work begins with the presentation of a historically familiar, perhaps even "vanquished" form – the sonata form. This is followed in the second movement by the juxtaposition of the radically innovative, perhaps even the futuristic – the variation movement as a means for the resolution of any thematic basis in pure sound. In the extremely complex first movement, Beethoven has a final go at the sonata form. The diminished seventh chords in the slow introduction are followed by the impulsive rush of the Allegro, the power of which transcends the prescribed form principles. The second theme at first remains simply an episode, and the development is rushed through swiftly. It is remarkable that a strong tendency to assimilate prevails in all sections of the movement, including the exposition itself. The boundaries are blurred. The form itself is called into question. The temporal drama of thesis and antithesis is clearly a thing of the past.
This is then followed by the Arietta, with its pure and simple lyricism. In the following three variations, Beethoven singles out the theme by means of a continual reduction of the rhythmic values ??and an intensification of the tension. However, the characters also change. In the final variation, the resolution process – as was already recognizable in nucleus in the finale of Op. 109 – strides towards its climax. It rings out – pure sound. Thematic figures are no longer of interest. They are embedded in a cascade of sounds. The resolution contains the sublimation. Another movement is not required. For the moving open ending of Op. 111 is, to quote Thomas Mann, an "Ende auf Nimmerwiedersehen" (= a final, for-ever ending). top
“The beauty of this piano-playing sneaks up on you….One telling example of her over-arching view is the consistency of her sforzandos; they never come crashing down, as one is used to hearing in Beethoven, but rather land with all the notes evenly revealed and intact, still loud and even biting, but not clangy…The very idea that someone can still play this music and introduce a new perspective is remarkable enough.” Peter Burwasser , Fanfare
The first things that struck me on first playing was the sonic quality and remarkable playing.
This is 25 year old Beethoven sounding like any of the later numbers
“Kodama commands the pieces in excellent fashion with artistry, passion, and a true love of the material that shines through a wonderful, expressive, and emotional mix. This is not a mix that is playful, it’s designed to simply capture the music in such a neutral and natural sense that it gets out of the way and just lets the music exist”. Nate Goss, fulviewdrive-in.com
“Ms. Kodama brings a canny, graceful style to these early--though iconoclastic--works of Beethoven, a graded, assiduous sense of rhythm and tempered dynamics”. Gary Lemco, Audiophile Audition
“Young Japanese pianist Mari Kodama continues her recordings of Beethoven's piano sonatas with this issue of the three of Op. 2 .. Already she has recorded three SACDs for Pentatone containing nine other sonatas. Excellent performances all, and very well recorded with larger than life surround sound”. Robert Benson, ClassicalCDreview.com