Garrick Ohlsson's Beethoven Favorites

The Score – Playlist: The Gentle Beethoven05 Mar 2018

On my February 27 recital at Alice Tully Hall, I feature Beethoven’s most popular “name” sonatas: Appassionata, Moonlight, Pathétique, and Waldstein.

These four works reinforce some of our views of the Great Composer—Beethoven seizing fate by the throat, the Promethean bringer of fire, the creator who repeatedly journeys from dark to light, the man who overcame deafness to pen some of the most powerful music ever written, shaking his fist at the unjust fate the Heavens had in store for him.

And we love this Beethoven, mighty and God-like.

But he is much more.

It struck me repeatedly when I gave cycles of his complete 32 piano sonatas that more of his music is gentle and lyric than we tend to think. Yes, we know that he was not primarily a lyricist, a tune craftsman—he tended to make vast constructions out of small amounts of material.

Sometimes, in recital, I enjoy opening with a warm and gentle Beethoven sonata, say Op. 109, and following it with Schubert’s Wanderer-Fantasie, where Schubert almost outdoes Beethoven in storming the heavens: each creator wearing the other’s costume!

Here are a number of my favorite gentler movements from the Beethoven sonatas:

Piano Sonata No. 11 in B-flat major, Op. 22, 2nd movement
An almost Midsummer Night’s Dream nocturnal mood, with a Mozartian abundance of lyrical ideas.

Piano Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 2/1, 2nd movement
Deeply personal, again with piercingly beautiful dissonances (yes, there are some stormy moments).

Piano Sonata No. 4 in E-flat major, Op. 7, 3rd movement
Elfin grace and charm (again, a stormy midsection).

Piano Sonata No. 5 in C minor, Op. 10, 3rd movement
Radiant and cheerful.

Piano Sonata No. 12 in A-flat major, Op. 26, 1st movement
As Schubertian as Schubert himself.

Piano Sonata No. 24 in F-sharp major, Op. 78, Full work
One of Beethoven’s favorites among his own works; he thought it superior to the “Moonlight.”

Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109, 3rd movement
Elevated sublime lyricism, touching the entrance to heaven.

Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major, Op. 110, 1st movement
Again, an outpouring of deep melodic inspiration.

Lincoln Center