Op.111: messages from angels 

We’re told that as an ‘angel number’, 111 is a clear sign of the presence of angels, and with that awareness, it can bring you profound guidance and insight from on high. Certainly, when it comes to music, 111 spells an angelic or at the very least guiding presence …. specifically with Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, and Prokofiev. Here are the works in question, with a few guiding remarks that I hope might prove helpful. I also append a handful of favourite recordings.

Beethoven’s last piano sonata [No. 32] in C minor Op. 111 (1821-1822), conceived while he was working on his expansive and uplifting Missa Solemnis, runs the gamut from gruff, muscular argument (first movement) to radiant acceptance (end of the second), opposite poles where initial fisticuffs seem unlikely to achieve any semblance of closure …. but they do. The first movement needs storm clouds as backing, a colossal protest that shakes you to the core, which is where the ‘Arietta’ second movement takes over, the start, sublime, the journey to the equally peaceful close admitting among its pages bizarre jazz prophesies, prayer-like incantation and finally an angelic trip home floating on a sea of trills. This ‘angelic presence’ is all the more powerful for having arrived in the wake of tumultuous gales. To do Beethoven’s C minor Sonata full justice you need a pianist who tackles it head on, confronts both angels and demons.  In my book Artur Schnabel (Warner Classics or RCA/Sony Classical) has the work sussed 100%: once heard, there’s nothing more to be said. Schnabel has covered it all. Otherwise, Claudio Arrau or Solomon (both, again, from Warner Classics) and the Russian Maria Yudina (on various labels). All four players leave you in no doubt as to what Beethoven has put you through and, perhaps, how he has changed you in the process. These are mono recordings featuring artists who had known the challenges and privations of War. Maybe that’s why their performances carry such burning conviction. 

Critics tend to be in two minds about the works that Robert Schumann composed between 1850 and 1854, but for me among the masterpieces from this period are the Three Fantasiestücke for piano, Op. 111 (1851), rhapsodic and emotionally equivocal essays that if not angelic in themselves suggest a spirit withdrawing after having experienced some overwhelming vision( the ‘Gerontius factor’?).  In fact, Schumann is said to have written them as a tribute to Beethoven’s Op. 111. In September 1851 Clara Schumann wrote in her diary, “Robert has composed three piano pieces of a grave and passionate character which I like very much.” ‘Grave and passionate’ just about sums it up, the first piece like a hectic ramble across hills in autumn, the second consistently reflective, the third, proudly assertive. As to performers of Schumann’s Op.111, my view is that Vladimir Horowitz (Sony Classical) has them under his skin like no one else: his seductive touch, the way he splits chords and phrases – leaning this way or that – brings this strange but uniquely moreish mini-suite fully to life. 

No music could be less akin to Schumann’s questioning Op. 111 than the positive, fiery, light-flooded Allegro non troppo that sets Brahms’s Second String Quintet (1890) in G major, Op. 111 in motion. Brahms had originally intended this work to be his last, but no, two clarinet sonatas and various mostly reflective piano pieces followed it. The Quintet’s first movement evokes the same sense of unsullied optimism that characterises the opening movement of the Third Symphony, music that challenges angels to play. The winsome second movement conjures ghosts as much as angels, the impassioned middle section bringing to mind unstoppable weeping for joys long past. Placed third is one of Brahms’s incomparably wistful intermezzos, angels at dusk you might say, whereas the jaunty finale toys with various dance rhythms, as if drunk on its own exuberance. This is truly one of Brahms’s greatest chamber works and among numerous available recordings is a real classic from the 1952 Prades Festival featuring Isaac Stern and Alexander Schneider (violins), Milton Katims and Milton Thomas (violas), and Paul Tortelier (cello). A performance in the million, this, like facing the sun head-on though the work’s darker aspects are also beautifully realised. It’s currently available as part of a big Sony box featuring Isaac Stern’s analogue recordings. My only reservation is that it doesn’t include the first movement exposition repeat. This is such wonderful music that it’s only natural to reach the end of the exposition and exclaim – ‘that was truly fabulous, let’s have it again!’ If that’s an essential prerequisite than I’d recommend a 1998 Warner Classics recording by the Alban Berg Quartet with violist Hariolf Schlichtig, a big, beefy performance, confrontational and warm-hearted but not quite as insightful as Stern and his mates. 

Sergei Prokofiev briefly considered dedicating his Sixth Symphony (1947) to the memory Beethoven. Although the work shares the same opus number as Beethoven’s last piano sonata (see above), one of Prokofiev’s favourite works, the dedication was allegedly borne from “a desire to carry on the tradition of lofty intellectualism and profound tragedy that characterized Beethoven’s later works.” That said, many years earlier he also claimed that his Second Symphony bore a structural relationship to Beethoven’s C minor. Not that any of this springs spontaneously to mind while listening to Prokofiev’s gnarled symphonic masterpiece, which he started work on at end of the Second World War. If there are any angels present here, they’re hiding securely in the wings. After a stinging descent on four nasty chords, the first movement is dominated by a march motive that becomes excitable then turns loudly dramatic. The largo second movement is a crying lament, the finale, fleet-footed until a sense of rage sets in just before the jubilant (?) ending. The best Sixth on disc is conducted by the man who led the world premiere, Yevgeny Mravinsky, conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic (Praga, stereo). Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony (RCA/Sony Classical) are majorly successful in projecting the work’s sense of scale – it’s a real big’un, this, and an iron-clad structure. But Mravinsky’s recording comes closer to a definitive statement.

And not forgetting …..

Max Reger Three Duets Op111a: Waldesstille (forest silence), Fruhlingsfeier (spring festival), Abendgang (evening stroll). Impassioned duets that, in terms of style, cross Brahms with Hugo Wolf, intensely communicated by Juliane Banse (soprano), Brigitte Fassbaender (mezzo-soprano), Cord Garben (piano) (Koch Schwann) 

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