Beethoven – Piano Sonata 30 in E, Op. 109 (1820)

Glenn Gould: Beethoven Sonatas Opp. 109, 110, 111 (Courtesy:

Glenn Gould: Beethoven Sonatas Opp. 109, 110, 111 (Courtesy:

This sonata has travelled with me since January of 1966, when I purchased, in Ottawa, Glenn Gould’s Columbia LP of Opp. 109, 110, and 111. It was Op. 109 that made the immediate and lasting impression upon me, and I have revisited it annually, as I did yesterday, around the same time of each winter.

András Schiff, in his remarkable lecture, declares the third movement of Op. 109 his favourite movement of the piano sonatas, so I am delighted that my own perspective is shared by one whose ability and learning I cannot emulate.

Schiff observes that the final triptych of Beethoven’s piano sonatas shares an interrelationship that is also found in the three final symphonies of Mozart and the final three piano sonatas of Schubert. He points out the allusion to Es ist vollbracht from the Johannes-Passion of Bach; the compaction of material throughout (which, to my mind, is also evident in the F minor string quartet, Op. 95); and, that the sonata, as others have observed, has no beginning and no end, for it arises and subsides in the flow of things.

Beethoven: Op. 109, aria of the third movement

Beethoven: Op. 109, aria of the third movement

The incomparable final movement, of six variations upon a sarabande that is a descendant of the opening aria of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, moves through bel canto, a pointillist “mosaic,” a quickness of thirds, kindness piacevole, a credo that clearly relates to the Missa Solemnis, and a diminution of note values that begin with the minim and ultimately dissolve into the trill. Whereafter the sarabande is restated, and the sonata comes to its end in the midst of all that is around it that is heard in the silence.

Vancouver’s Mark Ainley, who publishes the very excellent The Piano Files, has noted Maria Tipo’s 1979 live performance in Lugano of the sonata. It antedates my experience of Schiff, but not of Gould. Which merely demonstrates that age and history are matters of perspective.

It is an interesting performance. She plays the first movement’s adagio espressivo with a clarity that includes superb enunciation of the harmony and its modulatory progress, and fine attention to the largamente  and ritardando instructions. In the final tempo primo, the short chorale between the two sections of syncopation is wonderfully played. The same applies to the contrapuntal lines in the prestissimo movement. The third variation of the final movement has particularly fine contrast between the lines in 8th notes and those in 16ths. And her rendition of the sixth variation brings into focus its precursive relationship to the arietta of the 32nd sonata. This is from Ainley’s post:

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