A quick note about the recordings: I like Glenn Gould, partially because of Torontoian pride but mostly because his discography just seems easier to get a hold of than most any other pianist, probably because of his infamy more than his fame. Here, he’s less interested in interpreting the pieces in his own way as he did Bach’s works as he is just playing them (the most he does really is ignore marked volumes). But he plays them well regardless; though “Sonata No. 9 in E Major, Op. 13” is commonly criticized as easy to play, it’s still not that easy.
Fair warning though, he’s Glenn Gould, so he hums. It’s barely audible – and when I say barely, I mean you really have to look for it – on the first two sonatas, but it’s really distracting on the second movement of “Sonata No. 10 in G Major, Op. 14.” It doesn’t help that the movement has the most empty spaces of all of them or that it’s the longest-lasting one by quite a margin or that it’s nowhere near as melodic as the second movements of the other two sonatas. Also, I can hear the page turning at the 1:20 mark of “Sonata No. 10 in G Major”’s third movement, which irks me, not just because of clear it is, but because the injustice of how I was practically forced by the RCM to memorize all of my pieces for exams while Glenn Gould just does what he wants. A love/hate relationship if there ever was one.
Lead sonata “Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13” is Beethoven’s most famous sonata after “Moonlight Sonata.” Perhaps his single most famous piece written before 1800, actually, famously named “Pathetique,” for having moved the publisher so much – it was around this time where Beethoven mastered emotional expression in addition to technical expertise. And it deserves its status – every movement here is gold. The main theme of the grave section of the first movement begins forte and ends in piano, like an unwanted rumination that simply won’t go away, and when Beethoven launches into the tremoloing octave in the left hand of the allegro molto e con brio section, it feels like those ruminations begin devouring the protagonist (perhaps the best example of what I meant earlier when I said that Gould ignores the marked volumes is how he starts this section in pure forte when it asks for piano and truthfully…I like it more this way). The main theme returns briefly twice after, like the protagonist managing to regain sanity for just short periods of time before descending back into the chaos immediately after.
But truth be told, my favorite sonata of these three is definitely “Sonata No. 9 in E Major, Op. 14.” Though the theme of the first movement of “Sonata No. 10 in G Major, Op. 14” is subject to more key changes, none of them are ever as successful as the one that occurs at the 1:24 mark, where the entire mood of the song shifts to something incredibly darker. After the slower second movement, Beethoven caps off the sonata with a lively rondo. Meanwhile, though I’ve spent a lot of time bashing the second movement of “Sonata No. 10 in G Major,” the sandwiching movements are both good; the best stretch happens on the last movement starting at the 2:43 mark, where a brief descending staccato figure leads to the graceful legato passage.
Broadly speaking ,though all of these were written between 1797 and 1799, and thus, still considered Beethoven’s early period, he’s definitely branching out: “Sonata No. 8 in C Minor”’s first movement is mostly allegro (fast), but begins slow – the first time he’s done this. Elsewhere, you’d expect the first movement of “Sonata No. 9 in E Major” to end with more finality, but he opts to make it quieter and quieter, and you probably wouldn’t expect the ending of the second movement of “Sonata No. 10 in G Major” at all – a fortissimo that literally comes out of nowhere (although the abrupt ending is not as cool as it should’ve been – owing in part to those aforementioned empty spaces leading up to it). And either I haven’t been paying enough attention, but I don’t recall him using as many major seventh chords (the closest he can get to playing atones, really; it’s a really ugly sounding chord) on previous works as he does here. Finally, the last movement of “Sonata No. 10 in G Major” progressively goes lower and lower on the piano’s register until it physically can’t (at the time, anyway). And you can hear all the romantics taking notes, with Chopin interested in the major to minor key changes of “Sonata No. 9” and Debussy interested in the syncopated duplets against triplets in the first movement of “Sonata No. 8” and the third movement of “Sonata No. 9.”