Top 5 Sonatas from the Romantic Period: #4

#4: Chopin – Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58 (1844)

While preparing for my Romantic sonata ranking, I listened to all three of Chopin’s sonatas for the first time. An overexposure to Chopin in college had caused my general interest to wane, which may explain my late arrival to the party.

The arguably more popular Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor didn’t make it into my ranking. Yes, the famous funeral march movement is impressive, and the daringly brief finale is probably the most musically advanced thing Chopin ever wrote, but there’s something about the Third that elevates it. One senses Chopin consciously responding to criticisms about the Second, digging deeper into sonata form and striving for something more mature, serious, and controlled. The end result feels like the best possible expansion of Chopin’s art into a large-scale structure.

Like many minor-key Romantic sonatas, this one commences with grand, dramatic gestures. The material, based around a little descending motive, unfolds with a clear logic as Chopin works in more pianistic textures. On the way to the second subject there’s a gnarly thicket of chromatic scales rising in the left hand, with a canonic melody in the right hand that comes across as strangely stark with the lack of stable harmony. When we do reach the second subject, it becomes clear that that curious passage subtly anticipated the melodic contours of this theme. It’s a lovely, archetypal Romantic tune that Chopin spins out into a more rhapsodic statement. Suddenly it feels like we could be listening to one of the Ballades. The exposition ends with some very well-crafted phrases that tie together some of the melodic, harmonic, and textural content explored thus far. Chopin does ask for a repeat of the exposition, a surprising choice considering its length. On the several recordings I listened to, no one followed the repeat.

In the development, the dramatic first subject comes to the fore in variations of increasing intensity. For about twenty-seven bars, including a restatement of a chunk of the second subject, running sixteenths are somewhere in either hand, or in both. The recapitulation comes as a bit of a surprise, as Chopin doesn’t reiterate the first subject; he probably figured he had explored it enough in the development, or that the development resolved itself into a sunnier mood. So instead the recap lands right on the second subject, now in B major, and the music stays in B major till the end.

The Scherzo’s main material is exactly the type of facile, show-offy thing that I used to hate in Chopin’s music, but I have to admit it’s really well done. It’s unabashedly pianistic and provides a great showcase for technique. The Trio enters a slower, dreamy mood that I imagine Scriabin would have enjoyed.

In the Largo, Chopin announces something serious with more forte, double-dotted chords. But the music that emerges is a quiet, measured melody, once again in B major, over a slow-march bass ostinato. A second, sostenuto subject in E has a transcendent world-weariness to it, and shades of Brahms in some of its pedal tones. As Chopin pushes into darker harmonic territory, I also see a comparison with the slow-moving harmonic poetry of the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. A transition before the return of the first subject features more specifically Beethovenian rhetoric (I suspect Chopin was listening to the slow movement of the Hammerklavier). When the tune returns it is set in a gently rocking texture reminiscent of a nocturne or barcarolle. The winding down in the coda reminds me of Chopin’s F-sharp major prelude. The final cadence is a G augmented chord resolving to B major; just a final hint of trouble resolving. There’s a tender, generous spirit throughout this movement that’s really appealing, as Chopin strives to create an ultimate slow movement.

The finale is an Agitato gallop on horseback through minor and major moods. Aside from the primary material of churning 6/8, Chopin finds room for some breathtaking leggiero virtuosity, with scurrying scales that I could only dream of playing at tempo. The emotions communicated in this movement are hard to pin down. There’s a sense of heroism rising from a struggle, and then absolute buoyancy in those leggiero runs. Given the scope of movements I and III, I would have liked this finale to be longer; it seems to wrap up too quickly and neatly in B major. But it’s satisfying enough, and it’s wonderfully pianistic. The whole piece really is a pianist’s sonata, and a great synthesis of technique and musicianship.

Where to find it:

HL00132326   Chopin: Sonatas Op. 35 & 58 (Chopin National Edition)

HL51480290   Chopin: Piano Sonata in B minor, Op. 58 (Henle Urtext Edition)

HL00132325   Chopin: Sonatas (PWM Edition, ed. Padarewski)

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