Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) was one of the significant pioneers of German Romanticism in music, chiefly remembered for his operas Der Freischütz, Oberon and the popular Invitation to the Dance.
Weber was also a brilliant pianist who composed four Sonatas, several shorter solo pieces, two Concertos, the Konzertstück in F minor for piano and orchestra, and considerably influencing successors such as Mendelssohn and Liszt.
Though not as universally known as those of his contemporaries Beethoven and Schubert, Weber’s four Sonatas have found a continuing place in the repertoire, and have been championed by leading concert artists such as Artur Schnabel, Claudio Arrau, Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, Leon Fleischer, Hamish Milne and Paul Lewis.
They have been less-well served in print however, an oversight which Schott Music hope to rectify with the publication of their new, affordable single-volume edition.
Composed individually between 1812 and 1822, Weber’s four Piano Sonatas were written contemporaneously with the late Beethoven Sonatas, but their tone more anticipates the Early Romantic style of Schubert and Mendelssohn; for those interested in the bridge between Classicism and Early Romanticism, they are both indispensable and enlightening.
Weber’s extraordinary piano writing, its figuration and texture, has at times a quasi orchestral colour that even anticipates Liszt. His virtuosity as a player is evident in all four of these works, although three of the four were written for other dedicatees; in terms of difficulty are all at least diploma level.
There is some consensus that each Sonata surpasses its predecessors, but all are well-crafted and substantial concert works. Let’s take a quick look at each:
The Sonata No.1 in C, Op.24 dates from 1812 and is in four movements which follow the then-established Viennese classical model of Allegro – Adagio – Minuetto & Trio – Rondo (Presto). Though perhaps the weakest of the set, notable exponents nevertheless include Claudio Arrau, whose compelling recording of the work makes a strong case for it.
The Sonata No.2 in Ab, Op.39 followed in 1814-16, and is the largest of the four. The opening Allegro moderato con spirit ed assai legato is particularly ambitious, symphonic in stature. The following Andante is another substantial movement which continues the dramatic tone. The third movement, another Minuetto marked Presto assai, is essentially a Scherzo, and the Sonata finishes with a more serious Rondo (Moderato e molto grazioso).
There is a historical recording made by Alfred Cortot, a gripping live recording of Emil Gilels, and Paul Lewis has recently also committed this Sonata to disc.
The Sonata No.3 in D minor, Op.49 dates from 1816, and is my personal favourite. There are just three movements here. The opening Allegro feroce has a dramatic thrust and taut melodic development that seems at once to channel Beethoven, while the delicious Andante con moto offers a delightful theme followed by a series of whimsical but well-paced variations. The final Rondo – Presto brings the Sonata to an astonishing conclusion, with its five melodic ideas culminating in a virtuosic tour de force.
Those looking for recordings of the Third Sonata will want to check out Sviatoslav Richter’s stately live recording, which has a truly enervating finale. But give me Hamish Milne’s more recent reading, in which the Andante has a sparkling elegance which might charm your socks off.
The Sonata No.4 in E minor, Op.70 became Weber’s final work in the genre, and is perhaps the most adventurous of the set. The opening Moderato again reveals Beethoven’s shadow in its motific development, though perhaps lacks the immediacy of the Third Sonata’s opening.
The middle movements are swapped, the Menuetto appearing first. This is again a vivacious Presto, far removed from the classical ballroom. The third movement, marked Andante quasi Allegretto has an irresistible Schubertian charm, while the Finale is a Tarantella which again makes extreme technical demands. For recordings, I find Leon Fleischer’s version unbeatable, despite the rather hollow recorded sound.
The Schott Edition
The new Edition Schott appears in their top-end house style with silver soft covers, cream interior, and beautifully engraved, spacious notation.
The inner title page announces that this publication is “edited from the Text of the Carl Maria von Weber Complete Edition by Markus Bandur”.
The edition includes a two-page Preface in German and English, following which the remainder of the 144-page book is taken up with the scores of the four Sonatas.
The Preface largely deals with details of the original sources and approach to editing, but includes a useful section covering the special features of Weber’s notation, including his use of ornaments and how they might be interpreted. For performers, this is certainly essential reading.
Those wanting a more in-depth critical commentary are advised to refer to the complete Weber edition from which this publication has been drawn, which apparently offers more information about the history of the compositions and the critical response to them, as well as giving further background information on the source documents, variants and editorial procedures.
The Edition Schott publication is, then, squarely aimed at performers and general scholars.
Bandur notes that most editions readily available today are based on later 19th-century editions which add considerably to the text; in response he has returned to the first editions and consulted previously-ignored sources, going to great lengths to get as close as possible to presenting Weber’s intentions.
This has led to a surprisingly clean score in which every detail is very clearly presented. There are no added fingering suggestions, editorial interventions, and even footnotes are rare (and sadly only in German). Of note, however, in the first Sonata the editor has included in light grey text additional markings which Weber apparently wrote on the dedicatee’s score, while in Op.39 grey text is similarly used to identify text Weber added to the engraver’s proof.
Considering that so many great pianists over the decades have programmed and recorded Weber’s four Sonatas, it’s curious that they still aren’t better known, and the absence from the market of a decent edition has surely contributed to this ignorance.
The newly published Edition Schott version must, we hope, go a long way to righting this wrong and returning these masterpieces to the forefront of the Romantic piano repertoire where they belong.
Certainly, for anyone wanting to study or perform these fabulous pieces, the Edition Schott text is now the obvious choice.
Available online from Schott Music London here.