All four works on this evening’s program date from the years 1796–1806, when Beethoven definitively emerged from the shadow of Mozart and Haydn and forged the boldly “heroic” style of his so-called middle period. That same decade saw the composition of no fewer than 23 of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, as well as numerous concertos, variations, and other solo pieces. This prolonged concentration on the piano was a natural outgrowth of Beethoven’s flourishing career as a concert virtuoso in Vienna. At the same time, it reflected his quest to incorporate in his music modes of expression made possible by the rapidly evolving technology of instruments, like the period-style fortepiano.
The composition of the Piano Sonata No. 4 in E-flat Major roughly coincided with Beethoven’s first meeting with the soon-to-be celebrated piano maker Johann Andreas Streicher. Beethoven counted Streicher among the few makers “who realize and understand that, provided one can feel the music, one can also make the pianoforte sing.” The piano sonatas nos. 10 and 18 were both conceived for a Streicher or similar instrument. But by the time he wrote the Thirty-Two Variations in C Minor in 1806, Beethoven had become increasingly disenchanted with the pianos at his disposal. Determined, as he told Streicher, to “create my own tone,” the composer was already envisioning the expanded tonal resources embodied in his later works.