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The Beethoven Sonatas: Where to Start?

Products featured here are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

In this review I will be looking at two recent volumes from publisher Henle Verlag which between them offer an excellent introduction to Beethoven’s 35 Piano Sonatas, in a superb new edition edited by Norbert Gertsch and concert pianist Murray Perahia.

The two volumes are:

  • Five Easy Piano Sonatas, Henle 1391
  • Five Famous Piano Sonatas, Henle 1392

The Gertsch-Perahia Edition

Henle have been steadily releasing their new edition of the complete Beethoven Sonata cycle over recent years, sonata by sonata, and are now more than half way through the project. Several Sonatas have been issued as single copies, while the second of the three projected complete volumes is also available.

Ultimately Gertsch and Perahia’s edition promises academic authority to compare with the recent Del Mar edition from Barenreiter (reviewed here), with fingering added by maestro Murray Perahia, and presented with Henle’s unrivaled engraving clarity as a three volume publication and in digital format via the Henle Library app.

The release of the two volumes presently under review was timed to coincide with last year’s Beethoven Anniversary celebrations, but with complete editions from Bärenreiter and Wiener Urtext (reviewed here) also arriving on my desk I didn’t want to overwhelm readers by reviewing them all at once.

I very much hope to bring you a review of the complete three volume Gertsch-Perahia set before too long, but in the meantime these two volumes offer more than simply a staging post; I have found that of all the Beethoven volumes in the Pianodao Music Library, these are two to which I very frequently return, not least because Perahia’s fingering insights are often revelatory.

Five Easy Piano Sonatas

The first volume here comprises the following five Sonatas:

  • Sonata in G minor, Op.49/1
  • Sonata in G, Op.49/2
  • Sonata in E, Op.14/1
  • Sonata in G, Op.14/2
  • Sonata in F minor, Op.2/1

As for the 92-page publication, presented in Henle’s usual house style, it includes an extensive preface on the genesis and publication of the works, comprehensive source information and the discussion of problematic readings among the sources, as well as a short but valuable essay by Perahia on the sketches and structure of the Sonata op. 14/1.

The first Beethoven Sonata which I have tended to introduce to my students over many years has been the two-movement G major Sonata Op.49/2. The first movement has a dynamic energy that always appeals, while the second movement is the same charming Tempo di Menuetto that the composer also used in his Septet Op.20.

Its pair, the G minor Sonata Op.14/1, is also a two-movement work. Here, the opening Andante movement casts a more restless spell before giving way to an elegant Rondo in the major key. Both Op.49 Sonatas are suitable and popular with early advanced players at around UK Grade 6 level.

There is a notable step increase in difficulty as we approach the four-movement F minor Sonata op.2/1, long popular with teachers, the first movement of which has also been a popular Grade 8 exam choice of late (and appears in ABRSM’s Encore Book 4).

How wonderful to have the complete piece here though: the second movement offers a sublime introduction to the fanciful passagework that embellishes some of the most beautiful classical sonata slow movements, while the charming Menuetto and furious Prestissimo are immensely rewarding.

Without doubt the highlights of this collection, however, the two Sonatas Op.14 are surely among Beethoven’s greatest works for solo piano. Published in 1799, these two works were composed for sisters taught by the composer, each betraying something of their respective characters and interests.

Most of the movements from the Op.14 pair have appeared at Grade 8 over the years, and either Sonata can be presented in its entirety for ARSM or DipABRSM diplomas. More importantly, they seem to me an apotheosis of Beethoven’s coming of age as a composer, full of his trademark wit, ingenuity and drama. These are Sonatas that I have performed and repeatedly taught over several decades, and I love them today more than ever!

There are of course other Beethoven Sonatas which players at this level might approach, notably the Sonata facile in G major Op.79 and the preceding F sharp major Sonata Op.78, which opens with surely one of Beethoven’s most gorgeous melodic inventions. Neither are included here, but nor please should they be neglected!

However, the five Sonatas selected and presented here unquestionably offer a superb, near perfect introduction to the Beethoven Sonata repertoire.

This is a collection which can be recommended without reservation.

Five Famous Piano Sonatas

Any player who has enjoyed the Five Easy Piano Sonatas will be itching to play Beethoven’s two most famous works in the genre: the so-called Moonlight and Pathétique Sonatas.

Happiness abounds with the discovery of both together in one volume, Henle’s second must-have selection, whose 156 pages comprise:

  • Grande Sonate Pathétique in C minor Op.13
  • Sonata in A flat major Op.26, “Funeral March”
  • Sonata in C sharp minor Op.27/2, “Moonlight”
  • Sonata in D major Op.28, “Pastorale”
  • Sonata in D minor Op.31/2, “Tempest”

The accompanying three Sonatas would seem to me to have been picked for their technical accessibility as much as for their fame. Although it’s notable that all five have subtitles, none are more famous than the more challenging Appassionata or Waldstein Sonatas.

The scores are preceded again by an in-depth Preface in German, English and French, outlining each work’s background. Perahia contributes additional preliminary essays to all but the Pathétique Sonata, and as ever the volume concludes with an detailed critical commentary.

I am particularly pleased to see the inclusion of the A flat major Op.26 Sonata in this collection, long one of my personal favourites from the cycle. Who can resist the melody of the opening Andante con Variazioni?

The Pastorale is another Sonata which I have found popular with players, its gentle charms proving especially rewarding for adult students and enthusiasts. I hope that its presence here will lead to an even greater appreciation of the work.

The Tempest offers perhaps the most substantial challenges, both technical and musical, of the collection. But here is another pivotal work that many buying Henle’s Five Famous Piano Sonatas will surely aspire to include in their repertoire.

There are other Sonatas which could happily have appeared here, but with such range of musical expression and technical challenge, along with the popularity of these five Sonatas, it would be churlish to find any fault whatever. This is quite simply another stunning publication.

Closing Thoughts

Eventually, any serious pianist will want to own the complete cycle of Beethoven’s 35 Piano Sonatas (and the Gertsch-Perahia edition may yet prove to be the one to own), but in the meantime there are compelling reasons to put these two collections at the top of your sheet music shopping list.

For the student, these two volumes deliver a progressive introduction to some of the greatest of Beethoven’s works, presented with clarity and authority in books which are more portable than the complete Sonata editions, and more cost-effective than buying individual performance copies.

For adult players wanting to explore the repertoire they offer these same benefits, as well as satisfying bucket-list ambitions to play the masterworks so many of us aspire to when taking up the instrument in the first place.

For teachers, the two volumes are extremely handy too. I have complete editions from Wiener Urtext and Bärenreiter, and individual Sonatas from various publishers, but I now keep these two modest books close at hand. The combination of convenience, superb editing and enlightening fingering suggestions have made both books truly indispensable in my teaching work.

Ah yes, Murray Perahia’s fingering! Did I mention that it is revelatory?

Others may have pipped Henle to the post with newly updated complete urtext editions, but publishing these two superb selections is a genuine masterstroke, and only heightens my expectations for the full three volume complete edition!

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.