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Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, op. 58

February 26, 2017: Emanuel Ax, piano

Until they parted ways in 1847, Chopin and writer George Sand spent most of their summers at Nohant, her country estate, where Chopin composed some of his best works. He completed his Third Piano Sonata, one of the greatest of the Nohant works, during the summer and early fall of 1844—this was before their relationship had soured and altogether one of the happiest periods of his life. Chopin dedicated the Sonata to his pupil and friend Countess Emilie de Perthuis, wife of aide-de-camp Louis-Philippe, who had received the dedication of Chopin’s Opus 24 Mazurkas.

Early critics belittled Chopin’s formal technique in his three mature sonatas, which are now considered masterpieces: No. 2 in B-flat minor (which contains the popular Funeral March), the present Sonata, and his last work, the Cello Sonata. More recently his “abnormalities” have come to be appreciated for their supreme ingenuity. In a throwback to certain eighteenth-century sonatas, his first-movement sonata forms begin the return (recapitulation) of the opening section not with the first theme group, but with the second. This allowed him great liberty to treat the first theme with complex contrapuntal working-out in the development section without fear of overexposure. His development sections also show him taking the Romantic fancy for chromatic elaboration to highly original levels.

The first movement of the B minor Sonata is packed with ideas. Characteristically in Chopin’s music, certain melodic or figural wisps generate material whose sophisticated kinship crosses sections and movements, and thus provides a kind of unity that lurks beneath the surface. Almost every passage of fast sixteenth notes here in the first movement can be related to the brief cascade at the very outset. Especially striking are the mysterious incarnations in contrary motion, which bring about a grand gesture with a nice harmonic surprise. The lovely second theme with its widely spaced broken-chord accompaniment would seem right at home in one of Chopin’s nocturnes. This is the theme that, after remarkable contrapuntal working-out of the first theme, returns to initiate the recapitulation.

Chopin’s Scherzo, placed second as in the Second Sonata, is one of those glistening, feather-light creations that flashes by, interrupted by a much lengthier introspective central section. This centerpiece offers a kind of slow-moving counterpoint over long-held notes that allows the listener to enter a dream world.

The Largo begins and ends majestically—a slow march possibly conceived under the same impulse as the Funeral March of the Second Sonata. One senses Chopin’s great love for Italian opera in the singing melodic line with distinctive accompaniment that follows the dramatic unison introduction. Along the way he treats the listener to some remarkable harmonic twists and turns, leading to an exquisite middle section that again lulls one into reverie, and lasts much longer than the opening section or its condensed return.

Chopin’s finale takes the form of a rondo—not a lighthearted romp as in Classical-period sonatas, but a surging movement whose refrain gives a feeling of inexorable power. The intervening episodes are relentless in another way, requiring utmost virtuosity to make the right-hand filigree seem effortless. A bravura coda presses the built-up excitement to a dazzling conclusion.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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