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Igor Levit: Today a performance of the Hammerklavier is no longer a rarity (©Brill/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

The most catastrophic moment in the fugue comes when the composer deploys his usual device of foreshortening thematic material, here by separating the leap of a tenth followed by a trill, with which the fugue subject begins, and setting in quick succession repeated statements of this fragment, in both rising and falling forms (harmonised moreover in tenths). Once the ear is attuned to the language of the movement, this is one of the most exciting moments in all music. It is followed by a stunned silence, a moment of respite, and then the storm gathers again for a final few pages, before at last, in a series of titanic rising trills (followed by falling tenths), the movement somehow finds a resolution. In performance, it is almost invariably the final utterance in a concert programme, and should not be followed by an encore. Sviatoslav Richter once broke this rule — but his encore was to play the last movement again.

Early reaction to Beethoven’s late piano works was often either indifferent or baffled. The most famous case of incomprehension was one of the earliest: it was his secretary Anton Schindler who asked the composer why he had not written a third movement for his last sonata, the entirely sufficient two-movement Op 111, a question definitively answered over a century later by Thomas Mann in the finest piece of writing about real music in fiction ever penned. (Beethoven’s dismissive reply to Schindler’s question was that he had had no time.) Among early notices of the Hammer-klavier is an 1835 article published in the French periodical Le Pianiste, covering Opp 106, 109 and 110 (it appears that the great Op 111 was beneath notice.)

In these three works — 106 in particular — the musical sense is almost as clear as in a philosophical treatise of Kent [sic] . . . there is no doubt that Beethoven — who was more deaf than ever at this time — did not understand himself what he wrote; but his infirmity, so fatal to a musician, had perhaps rendered his intuitive sense more delicate, and enabled him to see nebulae which we cannot distinguish. In general, his last works are imbued with the sort of mysticism that is impenetrable to the common people.

Perhaps the first unequivocally positive review of the work was by Berlioz, reporting on a performance given the following year by the 24-year-old Liszt in Paris: he had

explained the work in such a way that if the composer himself had returned from the grave, joy and pride would have swept over him . . . It was the ideal performance of a work with the reputation of being unperformable. Liszt, in bringing back a work that was previously not understood, has shown that he is a pianist of the future. Honour to him!
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