Listening to Beethoven #120 – Sonata for piano duet in D major Op.6


The duet by Arthur Devis. Photo credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sonata for piano (four hands) in D major Op.6 (1796-97, Beethoven aged 26)

Dedication not known
Duration 6′

1. Allegro molto
2. Rondo: Moderato

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

If it’s not too confusing a statement, Beethoven’s output for piano duet could be counted on the fingers of one of those four hands. We have already seen how imaginatively he writes for this combination in the Variations on a theme of Count von Waldstein, but here he returns for a short, two-movement sonata.

It is thought this brief piece, at little more than five minutes, was used for teaching. Peter Hill, who recorded the piece with Benjamin Frith for Delphian Records in 2019, writes that ‘the duet Sonata’s opening Allegro molto could be used as a textbook examples of how to write a classical first movement.’ He also writes affectionately of ‘the exchanges between the pianists that culminate (at the ends of the exposition and recapitulation) in arpeggios that ripple between and across the four hands.’ He also notes the ‘operatic feel’ of the second movement Rondo.

Thoughts

There is an impish quality about this piece, as though Beethoven wanted to have some fun with whoever was chosen to be by his side at the piano. A simple theme, a call to arms, leads to some fun between the parts in the first movement, with a few mischievous asides.

The Rondo has an elegant main subject, while its second theme is suddenly loud, as though it wants to grab your attention and talk over your conversation. It proceeds very naturally.

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Peter Hill & Benjamin Frith (Delphian)
Amy and Sara Hamann (Grand Piano)
Louis Lortie & Hélène Mercier (Chandos)
Lang Lang & Christoph Eschenbach (Deutsche Grammophon)

A stylish and fun interpretation from Hill and Frith. Even if you hadn’t seen the cover of their recording you would guess how much fun they had putting it together! The Hamann sisters are very good too, if a bit jarring with their dynamic contrasts in the second movement. Their second version, on a fortepiano after J.A. Stein from 1784, is almost comical as the ear adjusts – but ultimately good fun.

Also written in 1797 Eberl 2 Sonatas for piano four hands Op.7

Next up Kriegslied der Österreicher WoO 122

Listening to Beethoven #119 – Serenade in D major Op.8

Ignaz Schuppanzigh, Austrian violinist, teacher and friend of Beethoven

Serenade in D major Op.8 for string trio (violin, viola and cello) (1796-7, Beethoven aged 26)

Dedication unknown
Duration 30′

1. Marcia: Allegro
2. Adagio
3. Menuetto: Allegretto
4. Adagio – Scherzo: Allegro molto – Adagio – Allegro molto – Adagio
5. Allegretto alla Polacca
6. Andante quasi allegretto – Variations 1-4 – Allegro – Tempo I
7. Marcia: Allegro

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven returned to the string trio for a love letter to Vienna – possibly echoing his feelings after returning to the city. He chose the form of a serenade, and followed many of its conventions, including a March which ushers the players in and takes them out after a series of dance movements.

Choosing a string trio to perform the Serenade was quite unusual. In Mozart’s case the string ensemble would have been more substantial, with wind instruments possibly included.

Beethoven biographer Lewis Lockwood is quite dismissive of this work, implying it is lightweight when compared with the ‘higher level’ of the three string trios that follow as Op.9. Daniel Heartz notes this, but makes a strong claim for the Serenade’s endearing humour. ‘For three solo string instruments to produce such a big, pompous sounds as this Marcia in common time is already funny and portends a good show to come’. He notes how each of the three instruments gets a good solo in the theme and variations movement, placed fourth of six.

He also reveals that the work was advertised alongside another E flat major composition, the Piano Sonata no.4 Op.7, in the Wiener Zeitung on 7 October 1797. Stephen Daw, in his notes for the Leopold Trio recording on Hyperion, observes how ‘the Serenade was challenging material to play by the apparent standards of the time, but it looks as though Beethoven was already acquainted with the great violinist Schuppanzigh (above) at this time.

The use of a Polacca for the fifth movement is unusual, for Daw ‘one of the few real polonaises to survive from the period between those of W. F. Bach and Chopin.

Thoughts

The Serenade is a bright and breezy work, but an ambitious one too, far from the lightweight piece of fluff suggested by Lewis Lockwood.

The Marcia theme that forms the outer casing of the sandwich is hefty, and deceptive with it – Beethoven could easily have four or five instruments on stage rather than three. The contrast with the tender Adagio is rather affecting, and this movement takes its time, looking back longingly when it moves into the minor key.

A brisk Menuetto takes us back for a whirlwind stint on the dancefloor, and fades out rather cleverly with pizzicato. The fourth movement is one of extremes, with a slow section that threatens to spoil the mood, but ends up being a po-faced foil for a capricious Scherzo, taken at a breakneck speed.

The Polacca is next, tripping along with an enjoyment of the dance, and with a catchy tune. Then the theme and variations, which Beethoven turns over beautifully, showcasing each of the trio’s instruments in significant solo episodes – with a special place for the viola in the middle and the cello at the end. After this the reappearance of the Marcia theme ensures the Serenade signs off with a flourish – and everyone can go home!

The Serenade is a thoroughly enjoyable piece, not to be taken too seriously – but with plenty of emotion under its often frivolous surface. It is definitely not a Beethoven work to be thrown away.

Recordings used and Spotify links

L’Archibudelli (Vera Beths (violin), Juergen Kussmaul (viola), Anner Bylsma (cello)
The Grumiaux Trio (Arthur Grumiaux (violin), Georges Janzer (viola), Eva Czako (cello) (Philips)
Anne-Sophie Mutter, Bruno Giuranna and Mstislav Rostropovich (Deutsche Grammophon)
Leopold String Trio Isabelle Van Keulen (violin), Lawrence Power (viola), Kate Gould (cello) (Hyperion)
Trio Zimmermann (Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Antoine Tamestit (viola), Christian Poltéra (cello) (BIS)

You can listen to the versions from L’Archibudelli, the Grumiaux Trio and the Mutter-Giuranna-Rostropovich trio on this playlist:

There are some very fine recordings of the Serenade, with three standing out as excellent – the Grumiaux Trio, who are quite luxurious in their thick sound, the Leopold Trio for a strongly characterised account, and Trio Zimmermann for an equally musical recording. All of them capture Beethoven straining at the leash, offering a Serenade but much more besides.

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1797 Wranitzky Symphony in C minor, Op. 31 “La paix”

Next up Sonata for piano (four hands) Op.6

Switched on – Celebrating Daft Punk

As of yesterday, it’s ‘au revoir’ to one of the best and most influential outfits in dance music.

Daft Punk, the duo behind massive hits Around The World, Digital Love, Get Lucky and more – not to mention three huge albums in Homework, Human After All and Random Access Memories – have decided to call it a day. The chances are this decision was made some time ago, for it is a long time since we have heard from them in a collaborative sense, their last released work being two brief cameos on The Weeknd’s Starboy album in 2016.

With Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo going their separate ways, it’s a good time to consider their impact on music and culture from the 1990s until now.

I can well remember when Da Funk came out, sneaking through the underground and on to an unexpected initial home, Glasgow label Soma Recordings. It was unusually slow for the techno label, and more guitar-laden than their roster at the time – but label heads Slam – aka Stuart McMillan and Orde Meikle – spotted its potential. The instantly recognisable riff found a home in Chemical Brothers live and DJ sets, like a distorted version of Kraftwerk in the way it strutted across the dancefloor – and in the way it translated effortlessly to radio.

Daft Punk built on this with imaginative samples and utterly brilliant videos – both combining to mesmerising effect on their second UK top 10 hit, Around The World:


Homework, their first long player, appeared in many a ‘best of 1997’ list – by which time the pair had moved onto Virgin, their logo uncannily matching that of their new label. Four years later the second album, Discovery, raised them to another level, propelled by their first no.1 single, One More Time:

The breathy vocals from Romanthony (another unexpected Glasgow link) were initially divisive as they sounded exaggerated…but the longer the single loitered on the radio the bigger it became. The lead track on Discovery, it began an album of true dancefloor happiness, which reached giddy heights with Aerodynamic and Digital Love.

These were sleek, funky club cuts with a healthy slab of disco attached, and went perfectly with the robotic image Daft Punk had now created. Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger – the next cut from the album – fared even better, its vocal calling card and riff picked up by Kanye West years later.

Live, Daft Punk were securing a devoted following, with winning sets at Coachella in 2006 and Hyde Park’s Wireless festival the following year. By that time album number three was on the streets. Human After All – good though it was – did not quite hit the heights of Discovery, in spite of Robot Rock and the title track.

By this time French dance music was enjoying a charmed life through the likes of Cassius and Etienne de Crécy, who worked close to Daft Punk and shared mutual influences in their work. Thomas and Guy-Manuel were enjoying success with their own collaborations, too – and we would soon see the fruit of their influence through the likes of Calvin Harris and David Guetta.

The pair’s next direction was unexpected but made total sense, realised in the Tron:Legacy film soundtrack of 2010. Again a little patience was needed on the part of the reviewers and record buying public, and sure enough after a few weeks it was confirmed to be one of the century’s leading soundtracks to date. The plethora of car adverts that still feature Tron:Legacy’s music are a testament to that, and the merging of electronica and orchestra is seamlessly achieved.

An unexpected treat was to follow in 2013, when Get Lucky surfaced – a superstar collaboration that delivered even more than it promised, with the effortless funk of Nile Rodgers’ guitar and the cool-as-California vocals from Pharrell Williams. The chart topping album Random Access Memories also delivered in this respect, though – Lose Yourself To Dance aside – it did not reach the heights of its lead single and even had an underlying melancholy towards the end.

We hardly ever saw their faces, but that was one of Daft Punk’s enduring qualities. They were friendly, robotic types, unable to make music without injecting a huge dose of funk into proceedings. Yet their soundtrack to Tron: Legacy showed there was so much more to their craft – and who knows, we may hear their work for Dario Argento‘s Occhiali Neri which was due to appear in 2020.

Even if we don’t, there is plenty with which we can treasure this duo and their lovable dance music, which makes the dancefloor a brilliant place to be when it’s on. C’est magnifique!

On Record: Django Django: Glowing In The Dark (Because)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Over the course of three albums, Django Django have shown themselves to be a remarkably fluid musical group. Staying clear of genre labels and pigeon holes, they simply make the music that feels right to them in the moment – and Glowing In The Dark, their fourth long player, is no exception.

What’s the music like?

With lean textures, danceable beats and quickly moving basslines, Django Django have made an album of urgency and craft, but with a few surprises along the way too, which befits the way they work.

It is easy to get swept up in the rush of Spirals, a heady opening track with a fluid bassline. It establishes the positive mood with dazzling keyboards, jangly guitars and a catchy chorus – all elements that are kept up with Right The Wrongs.

Charlotte Gainsbourg’s guest appearance on Waking Up will raise a good many eyebrows, but for good reason as the combination works perfectly. Here and elsewhere it is the drums and bass that provide a really strong basis for the music, while the vocals reach back through the 1970s and 1960s for their source material.

There is a slight dip in form towards the end, but Hold Fast and Asking For More ensure the album ends on a high.

Does it all work?

Glowing In The Dark may lose a bit of its brightness towards the end, where the melodies are not quite so strong as they were at the beginning, but other than that it is a very strong album, with regular bursts of inspiration and some really catchy choruses and hooklines.

Is it recommended?

Yes. If you enjoyed the last album Marble Skies then you’ll warm to the winding paths of this one, added to the instinctive feel it has throughout. A record made by friends with a common love of instinctive pop music that pays homage to their record collections but keeps their own identity strong too.

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You can purchase Glowing In The Dark at the Piccadilly Records website here

 

Switched On: Grasscut: Overwinter (Lo Recordings)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Overwinter, the fourth album from Brighton duo Grasscut, was conceived in 2018 and 2019 – but its message carries from there to where we find ourselves today, locked down and in need of solace. Andrew Phillips, the principal songwriter, drew inspiration from wintertime walks around their home city, talking with homeless people on the seafront, while also attending marches of protest against the Grenfell tragedy.

At that time he was writing the music for a feature documentary on the disaster, and that writing spilled into Overwinter, conveying the keen desire to move from darkness to light. The same applies today, in the first album the duo have completed since their Lo Recordings debut in 2015, Everyone Was A Bird.

What’s the music like?

Very descriptive, and with an extremely strong sense of time and place. Phillips did much of his walking at either end of the day, and the music reflects the unusual light just before or after darkness. The enchanting first song Return Of The Sun has the wonder of a new start, captured through Marcus O’Dair‘s dappled piano and Phillips’ hushed vocals, which immediately transport the listener to his world. Edges Of Night reaches similar parts, and so does The Branches Of The Tree, by which time the album has taken an upward turn.

The songs are lovingly crafted, with very little percussion – in complete contrast to the duo’s earlier work but leading on naturally from Everyone Was A Bird. The natural world takes pride of place, realised in analogue arrangements with electronic trimming. The gentle bass clarinet undulations of Root & Branch suggest the beginnings of new life, thanks to the playing of Nick Moss, while the strings of the Moscow Bow Tie Orchestra are beautifully managed by conductor Vladimir Podgoretsky.

Does it all work?

Overwinter, heard by this listener for the first time in the ideal conditions of a snowstorm, is a vivid portrait of the UK’s coldest season. It works as well as it does because the nine tracks are arranged to form a single suite whose mood and climate align to the situation in which we find ourselves now. Andrew Phillips’ vocals are just right, a mixture of subtle emotion and clarity, and the arrangements complement them perfectly.

Is it recommended?

Heartily – but with the caveat that listening to this piece of work is even more effective if you have heard the previous three Grasscut albums. That may sound like a promotional sentence, but it’s true – the duo’s musical voyage together is creating music of ever greater substance. Overwinter is their most meaningful statement yet.

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