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Daniel Barenboim at the piano (photo by Monika Rittershaus)
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Barenboim also offers the charming, but still surprising "Sonata No. 11 in B-flat major." Here, Beethoven seems to be in a genteel mood, as if he were content to be merely channeling Mozart. Consider the third movement, ostensibly just a lovely minuet at first; before long, the piano starts producing thunderlike rumbles that herald, in the movement's middle section, a sudden storm. It's one of those only-by-Beethoven moments that crop up all the time in the sonatas. Likewise, the finale gives every indication of being concerned only with pure melodic loveliness and creative embellishment of the recurring theme, but then a dark, drama-rich detour reminds us never to take this composer for granted.

Although the next two sonatas in the concert are numbered 19 and 20, it's readily apparent they are not cut from the same adventurous, innovative cloth as others that high in the chronological ranking. The numbering is misleading. These are actually early works of Beethoven's, written closer to the time of "Sonata No. 5," in the mid-1790s. His well-intentioned brother Kaspar sent the scores of these two short pieces to a publisher without Beethoven's knowledge or consent, figuring that they would be more profitable than the challenging sonatas the composer was writing in the early years of the 19th century. Sonatas 19 and 20, published as Op. 49, No. 1 and 2, have only two movements, rather than the more typical three or four. And they are, to be sure, simpler in their technical demands. Given the time when they were created, it's not surprising that a Mozartean spirit pervades these sonatas, but they're still genuine Beethoven, and that guarantees a high level of inspiration in the working out of their engaging melodic ideas.

"Sonata No. 23," better known as the "Appassionata," concludes the program, delivering, as it invariably does in a commanding performance, a startling portrait of Beethoven in his legendary manic, fist-raised-to-the-heavens mood. There's even a punchy four-note figure running through the first movement, a close cousin to the one that dominates and propels his "Fifth Symphony." If Beethoven had written nothing but this sonata, he'd still rank among the most startlingly gifted composers in history.

Before Beethoven came along, piano sonatas were essentially intimate creations, meant for entertainment as much as anything else. The "Appassionata" is, instead, a "great hymn of passion" filled with "the violent eruptions of the afflicted soul," in the words of music scholar Donald Francis Tovey, writing in the 1930s. His description of events in the first movement gets even more colorful: "Hesitant knocking at the door, terrifyingly furious response; touchingly simple appeal, and haughty, imperious bursts of passion; glimmering hope and staggering despair; fear-inspired stillness and heart-rendering cries of distress; dark depth and sun-bathed height. ... Never before had music spoken in such glowing accents of passion."

Tovey's repeated use of the word "passion" is understandable. It's awfully hard to listen to the first movement as an abstractly intellectual work of art; to hear in the relative repose of the second movement nothing but a thoughtfully developed melodic idea; or to hear only speed and bravura in the finale. Instead of just a piano sonata, Beethoven creates nothing short of a three-act opera, a thing of inexplicable and indelible expressive weight.

Many of the 32 sonatas provide similar theatrical effects. Others seem to open windows into the composer's soul, not just his heart. Some, especially the last ones he wrote, pose questions that may never be answered. All of this explains why Beethoven's piano sonatas have exerted a fascination for pianists and listeners since they were first published, and why they will continue to do so.

Top banner photos: Daniel Barenboim in performance at the Berlin Staatsoper.

The maestro instructs Lang Lang during the master class.

The maestro instructs Lang Lang during the master class.

Pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim.

Pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim.

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