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The logic of this progression eventually brings the piece to the unexpected and unorthodox key of B major. Adjacent notes are the most harmonically distant from each other, and the presence of this tonality of B both at the heart of the development and then in a shattering assertion of the opening subject in B minor, after the recapitulation is supposed to have re-established the home key of B flat major, is profoundly destabilising. Throughout the sonata, Beethoven exploits this tension between adjacent notes and often expresses it in trills, which in his late music move far beyond their original, merely ornamental function and become melodic and even structural elements.

The ensuing scherzo literally plays with the idea of the ascending and descending thirds which were a matter of life and death in the opening movement. Rosen calls this second movement a parody of the first. But at the heart of this tiny piece, deliberately in miniature amid the gigantism of the other three, is a fantastical passage in which after a bizarre series of quavers and rests full of suppressed violence there is a prestissimo scale through six octaves ending on a diabolical figure on the harmony of the minor ninth that is neither trill nor shake, but a kind of demented laugh. This little episode yields an insight into the strange and isolated nature of Beethoven’s sense of humour in his last period, and anticipates the scherzos of the string quartets Opp 130 and 135. Likewise bleakly humorous is the violent outbreak of unvarnished fortissimo B naturals at the end of the movement as if to mock the architectural complexity of the B flat/B natural conflict in the first.

The slow movement returns to a mood of utmost seriousness, but it is far more than that. It has been called “a mausoleum of humanity’s deepest sorrows, the apotheosis of pain . . . for which there is no remedy”. (Christoph Eschenbach extends his performance of this adagio to an indulgent 25 minutes; this near-halving of the indicated tempo, a flowing quaver = 92, is not necessary to convey its ambience.) The colours are those of the cloudy last works of Titian, for example of the Pietà in the Accademmia of Venice, the figures in which adopt poses of frozen grief or raw despair. The movement begins on a chord of F sharp minor, which is its key — an unusual tonality in any event and all the more so here, until we remember that F sharp is a third apart from B flat — but at the last minute the composer decided to preface this opening chord by two harmonically ambiguous rising unisons, that match the rising thirds with which the other movements start. This afterthought was one which greatly impressed Tovey: “they leave it to the full chord [that follows] to reveal what they mean” and “constitute one of the most profound thoughts in all music”. Once again the piece is in sonata form, though after a relatively short development, in which the thirds and sixths seem explicitly to predict the opening of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, the recapitulation is so heavily varied as to be almost unrecognisable. The ornamentation of the melodic line puts the listener in mind of Chopin. Beethoven is firmly a classical composer, but this is a movement which in many respects speaks the language of the Romantic piano literature of the later 19th century.
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