Before one can go on stage and present a successful performance, there is a long journey that musician has to cover the completely learn that musical material. The preparation a pianist should always follow include a preliminary time when he should familiarize himself with the repertoire context. Some background information about that composer, or details in regard with the period of his life when he composed that work would help to crystalize the image of the piece. A form analysis of that piece would also be helpful, and some comparison with other similar genres and forms could offer interesting perspectives on that work. After this step is completed, a pianist can dive in and start practicing the actual music.
Ludwig van Beethoven composed his Piano Sonata Op. 57, No. 23 in F Minor, “Apassionata” between 1804 and 1806, during the period known in music as his second compositional period. The composer himself considered this sonata as one of the most difficult he ever composed. This piece demands high technical skills, and a strongly developed musical understanding for the performer. In this piece, Beethoven follow the standard setting for a piano sonata with three movements in the fast-slow-fast setting, the same his predecessors Haydn and Mozart used too. However, Beethoven decided to experiment some new aspects with this work.
The first movement follows a standard sonata form, but with a highly enlarged coda, and at least one passage that reminds of cadenzas used in concertos. One innovation Beethoven brings with the beginning of this piece is that he builds the entire movement based on a descending figure containing the three notes of the F Minor chord, the main tonality of the whole piece. An interesting aspect here is that even if Beethoven composed thirty-two piano sonatas there are only two of them in the tonality of F Minor. The other sonata in the same key is Op. 2, No.1, which intriguingly uses the same motive based on the F Minor chord, but this time inverted, in ascending motion. The other motive Beethoven builds his piece is the descending half step figure D-flat-C which will appear in different forms later. This motive is nothing else than a small variation of the four-notes motive Beethoven begins with his Fifth Symphony, composed in the same period of time.
One of the most challenging aspects in the performance of this piece is represented by the capability to create a unified tempo throughout the whole movement. The primary theme of the piece is sectioned in small individual fragments which create a static feeling. This section ends with a cadenza-like passage and with a fermata. The next section is a repeat of the primary theme, which is unusual for a sonata form, since the norm would require a transition. The tempo in this repeated primary material is more stable and the direction of this section is driven by the pulsating eight notes. The transition also offers a feeling of lack of movement which persists in the secondary key area. The secondary theme offers another innovation. Beethoven did not use a different material, but he recycled the material from the first theme. Once the closing theme develops the pulse is much stricter with permanent sixteen notes figures. The same feeling remains for most of the development, and the recapitulation features similar problems with the exposition.
One other performance challenge with this first movement includes the capability of the performer to gradually build the long cadenza-like passage toward the end of the movement. This section, which corresponds to the climax of the piece, demands a high level of virtuosity. More than the technical skills, a pianist has to dynamically control this whole section. A harmonic analysis can help to understand the main harmonies, and which notes are te pillars of this section.
The second movement features a theme and variation which can be interpreted in at least two different ways. The choral-like writing can suggest that this movement may be a representation of a chorale, or it can portray the music for a string quartet. The second option is more plausible because the writing suggests one low voice on the left hand, and three other voices on the right hand. To recreate that sound, a pianist needs to carefully control the pedal, because the sound can easily become to heavy. The touch of the keys also has to be controlled, and the pianist should remain more at the surface of the keys. The opposite of this sound is required for the second half of this movement where there is a long section with thirty-second notes. This technique implies a very high level of agility, where each finger has to be active, especially the last phalanges. A gentle, but in the same time percussive sound is recommended for this section.
The third movement of this sonata is long virtuosic section. The innovation here is that Beethoven does not repeat the first section, like usually, but he decided to repeat the second part. The coda, called by the pianist Andras Schiff a “demonic czardas” is also extremely challenging in terms of high virtuosity, in a very fast tempo.