Listening to Beethoven #104 – Andante con variazioni for mandolin and piano in D major WoO 44b


Joséphine de Clary, dedicatee of Beethoven’s music for mandolin and piano. Picture courtesy of the Austrian National Library.

Andante con variazioni in D major for mandolin and piano, WoO 44b (1796, Beethoven aged 25)

Dedication Joséphine de Clary
Duration 9′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s second work for mandolin and fortepiano was also intended for Joséphine de Clary, and is a quite substantial set of six variations on a theme of unknown origin. It can also be played – unarranged – for violin and piano, which would suit Wenzel Krumpholz, the mandolin and violin player with whom Beethoven struck up a friendship in Vienna.

The piece is clearly written for some fun to be had between two players in an informal setting, and comfortably achieves its aim.

Thoughts

The theme chugs along in a friendly mood but there are hints of trouble when Beethoven adds a few spicy harmonies in the second half, providing a departure point for the piano. The first variation shows off the mandolin with some nice figurations, then the second goes towards the extremes of the instrument’s range.

Inevitably there is a doleful minor key variation, its sadness exaggerated by the plucking of the mandolin, but it is completely trumped by the following variation which skips merrily towards the end with a broad and slightly mischievous grin. A soft-hearted coda seals the deal.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Anna Torge (mandolin) and Gerald Hambitzer (fortepiano)

Alon Sariel (mandolin) and Michael Tsalka (fortepiano)

Julien Martineau (mandolin) and Vanessa Benelli Mosell (piano)

Alon Sariel and Michael Tsalka have a nice ‘give and take’ to their recording, as do Julien Martineau and Vanessa Benelli Mosell, who are a bit quicker in their version. Anna Torge and Gerald Hambitzer, in a disc from 2018 on CPO, have a lot of fun too – it’s difficult not to in a piece like this!

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 1796 GyrowetzString Quartet in C major Op.13/2

Next up Sonatina for Mandolin and Piano in C minor WoO43a

Listening to Beethoven #103 – Sonatina for mandolin and piano in C major WoO 44a


Beethoven’s Milanese mandolin, as hung near the piano at his home

Sonatina in C major for mandolin and piano, WoO 44a (1796, Beethoven aged 25)

Dedication Josephine de Clary
Duration 3′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Here is a lesser known corner of Beethoven’s output – the works for mandolin and piano. They have their origins in Beethoven’s travels from Vienna in 1796, and in particular his stayover in Prague, but it is thought the roots for Beethoven’s association with the instrument extend back to Vienna a year earlier when he met Wenzel Krumpholz, who played both violin and mandolin.

Their meeting is said to have taken place around the publication of the Op.1 piano trios, and ultimately yielded a Sonatina and an Adagio, of which more in the near future. This particular Sonatina – also with a complementary Adagio to come – are thought to have been written in the Czech capital for Josephine de Clary. More on her in the next article!

Thoughts

This is a whole new sound world for the Beethoven listening, and it proves to be rather invigorating. The musical language is relatively simple for the piano, letting the mandolin run free with a faintly humourous tune. Perhaps inevitably Beethoven cannot resist a central section of minor key bravado, the music taking a relatively stormy direction before realising its ‘mistake’, returning to the good-natured main theme.

The Sonatina is short but rather quaint, and is guaranteed to raise a smile from its audience.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Anna Torge (mandolin) and Gerald Hambitzer (fortepiano)

Alon Sariel (mandolin) and Michael Tsalka (fortepiano)

Julien Martineau (mandolin) and Vanessa Benelli Mosell (piano)

Anna Torge and Gerald Hambitzer give a bright account, the fortepiano’s friendly tones complementing the nicely phrased mandolin. Alon Sariel and Michael Tsalka are also good if a little sharp-edged with the recorded sound.

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 1796 GyrowetzString Quartet in D major Op.13/1

Next up Abschiedsgesang an Wiens Bürger

Perfect Songs – The Bluetones: Slight Return

by Ben Hogwood

The BluetonesSlight Return was released 25 years ago today.

From a personal point I remember it well. I was searching for employment in the backwaters of Norfolk and 1996 was one of the greyest January months you can imagine, thick cloud stretching across the Fens as far as the eye could see, which was not very far.

In the midst of this Britpop had already established a firm footing in the UK singles charts thanks to Blur, Oasis and Pulp, and Radio 1’s Evening Session was providing a lifeline of quality new music, either in thrall to those three or forging new paths on the electronica side of things.

The Bluetones had already established themselves as gifted tunesmiths with Bluetonic in 1995, but Slight Return took them up a level.

Why is it a perfect song?

To get all musical, the harmonies on Slight Return are sublime. Listen to the first two chords strummed by the guitars in the first five seconds of the song. The first (D major) sets a bright picture; the second chord simply adds one note – a C# – which opens up all sorts of new possibilities. Having sung “Where did you go?”, vocalist Mark Morriss has set the scene for his story, and the C# opens the music up to give him the chance to tell it in full.

From here the song is rather wonderful, Morriss’s earnest vocal supported by jangly guitars that take the music round in a couple of exquisite circles. The music stops whenever we come back to those two chords we heard at the beginning – all acting as natural punctuation for the story.

The words of the chorus are radio-friendly gold, too – “You don’t have to have the solution, You’ve got to understand the problem” – with a curious word accent that works really well.

The catchy chorus and verse match each other, with a lovely instrumental break that brings the guitars to the fore. The last chorus is even better, Morriss repeating the joyful refrain “I’m coming home” several times then countering it with “…just for a short while” and a lovely harmonic shift. That sets the scene for a breezy coda, this time using a C# right before the end, which leads to a ‘D’ for perfect closure.

Do you agree? Have a listen here:

Perfect Songs is a new occasional series from Arcana. If you have any suggestions for the series, or would like to contribute to it, get in touch – editor@arcana.fm

Listening to Beethoven #102 – Abschiedsgesang an Wiens Bürger WoO 121


Peanuts comic strip, drawn by Charles M. Schulz (c)PNTS

Abschiedsgesang an Wiens Bürger for voice and piano (1794-6, Beethoven aged 25)

Dedication not known
Text Josef Friedelberg

Duration 2’45”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

It is interesting and slightly curious that Beethoven should set Josef Friedelberg’s poem Abschiedsgesang an Wiens Bürger (Song of Farewell to the Citizens of Vienna on the Departure of the Flag Division of the Viennese Voluntary Corps) while seemingly away from the city himself. The date of composition is given as November 1796, just as he was on the point of returning from Berlin and the successful premiere of his two Sonatas for cello and piano.

The uncredited booklet for Capriccio’s complete edition of the Beethoven songs puts its composition in context. ‘The Beethoven of the songs for voice and piano is thus less concerned with establishing his own artistic autonomy than with serving music lovers with compositions in accordance with their expectations and possibilities. This explains why he kept the technical requirements for playing the piano movement to a low to moderate standard, and also the fact that he set texts to music as a favour to people, or when commissioned to do so, which explains the choice of many of the poems’.

Thoughts

This song for lower voices and piano is a red-blooded offering, with a fulsome vocal from the male soloist as the piano sets the march tempo. Then there is a brisk intervention from the male chorus as a refrain. The song feels nationalistic, especially with the choir, and is designed as a basic but bracing ensemble piece.

Recording used and Spotify link

Hermann Prey (baritone), Leonard Hokanson (piano), Berlin Heinrich Schütz Choir / Wolfgang Matkowitz

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 1796 Cramer Piano Concerto no.2 in D minor Op.16

Next up Ah! Perfido Op.65

Listening to Beethoven #101 – Sonata for piano and cello no.2 in G minor Op.5/2


Jean-Pierre Duport, cellist and composer – print made by Baron Dominique Vivant Denon

Sonata no.2 for piano and cello in G minor Op.5/2 (1796, Beethoven aged 25)

Dedication Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia
Duration 27′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven and Jean-Louis Duport are thought to have performed both Op.5 sonatas for piano and cello at the court of King Frederick William II between 20 May and 3 July 1796 in Berlin. Nothing is known of the performances themselves, which are thought to have been private affairs – though the cellist’s brother, Jean-Pierre (above) would almost certainly have been in attendance.

The second of Beethoven’s ‘duo for a new duo’ is a very different work to its partner, and yet, as Marc D. Moskovitz and R. Larry Todd write in their superb book Beethoven’s Cello, ‘one could hardly imagine one without the other’.

Here we find Beethoven working in the key of G minor for the first time in his published output, a tonality to which he would hardly return across his entire output. He marks the occasion with a language we have not heard in his chamber music before. For, as Steven Isserlis writes in his booklet notes for Hyperion, the work ‘takes us firmly into the opera house’. He notes the theatrical aspects of the music throughout, from the grand introduction – ‘practically a full movement in its own right’ where ‘the lengthy silences seem to hover over a chasm of darkness’. This leads to a full-blown Allegro, described as ‘the most explosive (and surely the longest) movement of any duo sonata written up till that time’. The finale is a different beast, its protagonists off the leash and cavorting around the stage. Isserlis tells of how ‘He plays with the listener, reprising every possible section almost to the point of eye-rolling (was he being paid by the minute?!)’

Despite their chalk and cheese nature there are qualities common to both Op.5 works. Beethoven does not use a slow movement in either, meaning the only truly slow music we hear is towards the start of each piece. He uses quick, showy third movements, carefree and fast, wrapping up each of the pieces with memorable tunes.

Moskovitz and Todd declare that by the end of Beethoven’s two Op.5 sonatas, he had ‘single-handedly altered the history of the instrument, and changed forever how composers viewed and exploited its potential. Beethoven had written music fit for a king, but in the process created works that ennobled the composer’s art.’

Thoughts

The G minor sonata is a remarkable work, an ideal counterpart to its high spirited companion. There is a lot more shade in Beethoven’s writing here, perhaps inevitably given his choice of a minor key, but as Steven Isserlis says there is a great deal of authentic theatricality.

The introduction is truly dramatic, the piano pacing around impatiently as the cello leads with profound musical statements. Then the music settles on a ‘pedal’ note which gets increasingly tense, waiting to break out into the Allegro.

Once this part of the work begins, the listener is propelled forward towards Brahms in the way the cello and piano interact, using melodies ripe for expansive development. Passionate exchanges follow, a wholly absorbing set of musical ideas. Sometimes the cello is shadowed by the inner parts of the piano; at other times the keyboard is allowed to run free in a display of virtuosity, but Beethoven writes a taut musical argument which is wholly engaging.

The finale trips along in the major key, sporting lighter thematic ideas. Beethoven is out to have fun, but here he is looking forward again. This music sounds very similar in content to the finale of a much later piece, the Piano Concerto no.4 – also in G major. How versatile Beethoven’s thoughts were to become!

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Steven Isserlis (cello), Robert Levin (fortepiano) (Hyperion)
Heinrich Schiff (cello), Till Fellner (piano) (Philips)
Miklós Perenyi (cello), András Schiff (piano) (ECM)
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello), Sviatoslav Richter (piano) (Decca)
Pierre Fournier (cello), Wilhelm Kempff (piano) (DG)

As with Op.5/1, the playlist below contains a handful of recordings of the piece, including Mstislav Rostropovich and Sviatoslav Richter, Heinrich Schiff and Till Felner. Miklós Perenyi and András Schiff and Pierre Fournier and Wilhelm Kempff. Fournier and Kempff give a passionate performance, Perenyi and Schiff live closer to the edge – but as with Op.5/1 I return to fortepianist Robert Levin and cellist Steven Isserlis, their reading jumping off the page as it alternates between power and affectionate tenderness.

The below playlist includes most of the recordings mentioned above save Isserlis and Levin – to hear clips from this you can visit the Hyperion website

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 1796 Haydn – B-flat major, Hob.XXII:10

Next up Abschiedsgesang an Wiens Bürger