About this work
After completing his Op. 28 Piano Sonata, Beethoven told his friend Krumpholz that he was dissatisfied with what he had written and was setting out to compose in a new way. However, the Op. 31 sonatas don't seem to indicate any radical changes. In the first of the three sonatas, one gesture really stands out: in the first movement's recapitulation, where traditional sonata form requires the music to appear in the dominant key (in this case, D major), Beethoven slips instead into the submediant, a vaguely unsettling place, suggesting that the music still has some distance to travel before it reaches its harmonic home. Beethoven would often employ this trick later in life. The opening Allegro vivace begins in a flurry of notes, which gives way to a theme consisting of curt, impatient chords. A longer version of the flurry is followed by the quick chordal theme again. Then a new, impetuous subject bursts in, briefly venturing into the minor mode. The succinct development is devoted entirely to the "flurry" material, and barely before it's begun, the opening section is recapitulated. Near the end it loses melodic direction and, as mentioned, drifts into the "wrong" key before lurching into an abrupt G major conclusion. The Adagio grazioso is based on a trilling melody that rumbles when it moves to the keyboard's lower register. The tune flies about capriciously before offering a leaner, plainer version of itself. The initial version returns, seeming more than ever like a self-centered ballerina twirling over a clumsy Ländler rhythm. Throbbing chords dominate the next section and allow the music to descend into a hazy minor-mode region. The opening melody returns focus to the movement and is shortly displaced by a gently pealing, bell-like section. The principal subject comes back in one of its most frivolously ornamented guises yet and surrenders to a section that is little more than trills competing with a hypnotic repetition of chords, before flitting up toward the top of the keyboard and away. Beethoven displayed subtlety in the concluding rondo, a good-natured Allegretto whose first contrasting section alludes to the previous movement's penchant for trills. By and large, this rondo is really a series of short variations on the primary theme, almost all of them turning the left hand into a perpetual motion machine; the right-hand material, in contrast, is quite easy-going. The theme becomes slow and coy as the coda arrives, but ultimately whirls toward a conclusion that turns out to be a string of muttered little afterthoughts.
Curated by Maria Nemtsova, Pianist