Beethoven's final three piano sonatas are three of the most important piano pieces of any composer in any era. Beethoven was entirely deaf at this point, quite ill with things like jaundice (he was quite the drinker) and other liver ailments. His health slowed him down but did not prevent him from pushing the boundaries of the piano to their limits.
Pianist Richard Goode is one of the world's best interpreters of Beethoven's piano music. His box set of all of Beethoven's sonatas are a must-listen.
He really turned the piano, which he was dissatisfied with as you know, into the deeply eloquent thing that he thought it should be.Pianist Richard Goode
When I interviewed Goode about these final three sonatas, I confessed to him that I struggled with No. 31. I had a hard time conceptualizing all of the ups and downs of it, the louds and softs of it, the pushes and pulls it has. It's a remarkable survey of all the types of sounds a piano can make (or could in Beethoven's time).
The first movement is a lovely song.
"My feeling is that the first movement represents a sort of Edenic state of quiet bliss, and tranquility and serenity," Goode says. "It's the most euphonious possible, for Beethoven; it's all thirds and tenths and these beautiful sounding intervals."
Goode explains, there are "probably more expression marks than in many sonatas." These expression marks were Beethoven's way to direct the pianist's performance telling performers exactly how to play this sonata.
"I think it's Beethoven's supreme attempt to let the piano speak or sing, depending on what you think. But he really turned the piano, which he was dissatisfied with as you know, into the deeply eloquent thing that he thought it should be."
The final movement contains two fugues in it, the second fugue being the inversion of the first fugue. You can hear a comparison of the two on today's Learning to Listen.
One notable innovation is how the Sonata ends.
"A Classical [era] piece does not usually end on its highest point. Romantic pieces often end on their high points. In classical [era] pieces, the endings are quite... just an end, you know? This piece actually goes and goes and ends on its highest point. And that's a very unusual thing. This goes further and further and further until, you know, it can go no further."