Listening to Beethoven #174 – Lob auf den Dicken, WoO 100

ignaz-schuppanzigh
Violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, the subject of this song

Lob auf den Dicken (Schuppanzigh ist ein Lump), WoO 100 for tenor, two basses and choir (1801, Beethoven aged 30)

Dedication Ignaz Schuppanzigh
Text Beethoven
Duration 40″

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

This is the first appearance of a musical joke in Beethoven’s output – and one of the first pieces for unaccompanied choir we have encountered. Many of the jokes are from the composer himself – with Lob auf dem dicken Schuppanzigh (Praise to the fat Schuppanzigh) no exception.

It does exactly what it says on the score, taking the mickey out of one of Beethoven’s few lifelong friends, violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh. ‘We all agree that you are the biggest donkey’, runs the text, affectionately taunting the man who was to take part in the premieres of all three string quartets dedicated to Count Razumovsky, Schubert’s Rosamunde string quartet and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, where he led the orchestra.

It seems Beethoven’s friend was thick skinned in more ways than one.

Thoughts

This is definitely one of those songs where the humour is ‘of its time’ – and it certainly helps to have the text to hand when following it. It would be good to know how Schuppanzigh received Beethoven’s humour, as otherwise it feels rather awkward.

It is a tiny musical postcard, showing off the composer’s humour, while giving a hint that composing was something he did in his sleep and that his confidence was high enough to write like this in public. There will be more jokes and send-ups as time goes on…

Recordings used and Spotify links

Cantus Novus Wien / Thomas Holmes (Naxos)

Kammerchor der Berliner Singakademie / Dietrich Knothe (Brilliant)

A full-throated Berlin version – and a light-hearted new recording on Naxos. Both work well.

Spotify links

A playlist of four different versions of the Op.48 Lieder can be found here:

Also written in 1801 Zelter 12 Lieder am Clavier zu singen Z122

Next up 12 Contredanses, WoO 14

Listening to Beethoven #173 – 7 Variations on ‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen’ WoO 46

Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (right, in a portrait by Johann Georg Edlinger)

12 Variations on ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte Op.66 for piano and cello (1796, Beethoven aged 26)

Dedication Count Johann von Brown-Camus
Duration 9′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

The theme is a duet from Act 1 of Mozart‘s opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), between the characters Pamino and Papageno, as below. It is an attractive tune in triple time, shared between the piano and cello in its higher register.

Background and Critical Reception

This set of variations is the third and last from Beethoven for piano and cello – and the second to use a theme from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. The inspiration is thought to have been two new productions of the opera appearing in Vienna in 1801. Steven Isserlis notes that despite its equal writing for both instruments, the first edition of Beethoven’s new work ‘fails to even mention the cello on its title page: pianistic chauvinism’.

This is all the stranger given the cello’s elevated role in Beethoven’s writing. As Misha Donat observes, writing for Philips’ recording by Heinrich Schiff and Till Fellner, ‘for the first time the two players are treated very much as equals. Their equality is inherent in the theme itself, which is laid out in such a way that the piano takes the part of Pamina, and the cello the answering voice of Papageno.

Isserlis takes the variations ‘depict various aspects of romance – from excited gossip to lofty ardour’. Marc D. Moskovitz and R. Larry Todd, in their wonderful book Beethoven’s Cello, observe how the fourth variation travels through the ‘parallel, though remote and rare, key of E-flat minor’, and Beethoven ‘reaches for the extremes’, the piano in its high register and the cello down low. Then, the three final variations ‘further deconstruct Mozart’s theme’, the last with a coda.

Thoughts

As the authors observe, Beethoven is bringing his ‘duo’ works to an ever more even keel. The theme here is a case in point, piano and cello united in their sharing of melodic material, and some effortless dialogue. Soon Beethoven is working through a busy second variation, before spicing up the melody with some chromatic additions. The questions and answers between the instruments continue, before the striking fourth variation in the minor key – tricky tuning for the cello here!

The two instruments have a lot of fun, finishing each other’s sentences in the fifth variation. Variation 6 is a florid affair, first for piano then cello, before the substantial finale, with the exuberant interplay of its coda – which also goes on a forceful excursion into the minor key. On the music’s return ‘home’ there is a bit more sparkling interplay before the two instruments sign off convincingly.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Adrian Brendel (cello), Alfred Brendel (piano) (Decca)
Mischa Maisky (cello), Martha Argerich (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Miklós Perényi (cello), András Schiff (piano) (ECM)
Steven Isserlis (cello), Robert Levin (fortepiano) (Hyperion)
Nicolas Altstaedt (cello), Alexandre Lonquich (piano) (Alpha)

The Spotify playlist below includes all but one of the versions listed above – with the opportunity to hear a clip from Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin’s version on the Hyperion website

All versions are excellent, with operatic flair in evidence from Perenyi and Maisky. Once again though it is Robert Levin and Steven Isserlis who get to the heart of the piece and the enjoyment it can provide.

Also written in 1801 Woelfl Duo for cello and piano Op.31

Next up Lob auf dem dicken (musical joke) WoO100

Switched On: Kasper Bjørke: Sprinkles (hfn Music)

kasper-bjorke

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Kasper Bjørke is a prolific producer, with two decades’ worth of music under his belt. Much of that has been in a solo capacity for the Copenhagen artist, who has proved himself equally effective as a songwriter and instrumentalist.

His new album Sprinkles falls into the latter category, and appears to have its roots in a lockdown climate. Recorded and produced on his laptop, in a cabin by the beach in Denmark, the aim is to draw on energy and positive feelings from Bjørke’s experience gigging worldwide. It should provide music to fill the considerable hole left by empty dancefloors over the last year and a half.

What’s the music like?

Polished, dancefloor-friendly, and summery. Bjørke writes with a fluent, listener-friendly approach, providing plenty of hooks but working them in to textures as suitable for a Balearic poolside as they are for the darker club. Elements of house, techno and electro combine with instinctive ease.

The three singles already released – Baybi, Running and Kites – are excellent, and the way Baybi unfolds with a lazy saxophone is especially attractive. Grace has bubbling synths, its analogue approach working well, while Mirage flickers brightly at the edges, with some nicely applied textures.

As the album progresses so does Bjørke’s tendency to experiment, and RDVSpecial sharpens the synth tones to good effect. Finally Viewwws throws a few longing looks back towards 1990s ambient, with its loping, dubby tread.

Does it all work?

It does. Nothing here is too demanding, but nor is it lacking in substance. The Danish seaside gives itself away in the warm textures, and the sepia-tinted edges to some of Bjørke’s tracks are attractive.

Is it recommended?

It is. Kasper Bjørke’s output has been consistent and varied up until now, but there is room for the deeper side in his output – and the productions here are linked together rather nicely. Sprinkles is an ideal summer album.

Stream and Buy

Sprinkles  is released on 30 July. To hear the first three singles and to purchase, you can visit Bandcamp here:

Listening to Beethoven #172 – 6 Lieder von Gellert Op.48

songs-op48
Peanuts comic strip, drawn by Charles M. Schulz (c)PNTS

6 Lieder von Gellert Op.48 for voice and piano (1801, Beethoven aged 30)

1 Bitten
2 Die Liebe des Nächsten
3 Vom Tode
4 Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur
5 Gottes Macht und Vorsehung
6 Busslied

Dedication not known
Text Christian Fürchtegott Gellert
Duration 14′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Although Beethoven was enjoying a fierce period of creativity in his compositions, his health was suffering – and in particular his hearing. This cycle of six Gellert settings captured his state of mind at the realisation that his loss of hearing may well be temporary.

Jan Swafford feels the anguish in songs whose roots go back several years. ‘That Beethoven turned to the artless North German piety of these poems, and set them in a style more interested in declaiming the words than in waxing lyrical, is another indication of his state of mind’, he writes. ‘If doctors could not help him, maybe God could, at least in giving him consolation. These song come from the heart of his anguish and incipient depression.

The texts are revealing, perhaps nowhere more so than the third song Vom Tode, with its line ‘Meine Lebenszeit verstreicht, Stündlich eil ich zu dem Grabe (My life is ending and with each hour I move swiftly to the grave)’.

This is followed by two hymns of praise, before an expansive final song Busslied which explores both sides of the ‘argument’.

Thoughts

The deeper emotion Beethoven has been investing in his instrumental pieces can also be keenly felt in these six settings.

The music of Bitten, in a pure C major, offers a kind of cold and rather downcast consolation, the poet (and composer) contemplating their fate. The tone of Die Liebe des Nächsten, however, is upward looking, and more than a little operatic, the piano answering the voice as a Handel orchestra might have done.

Vom Tode itself has a very hollow ring, and is a sombre affair indeed, one of Beethoven’s most moving songs – and we can surely allow him the exploration of his fate. In the wake of such an empty song, deep in the minor key, Die Here Gott also sounds a little hollow in spite of its status as a genuine hymn of praise. The musical language remains stern, but when Beethoven switches to the major key it becomes genuinely exultant, with massive peals from the piano at the close. Gottes Macht is very much in the same vein, all about strength and power – and here the stance is a Handelian one too.

Busslied is an epic in comparison to these shorter settings, as long as the previous three songs put together. It starts in very withdrawn fashion but moves to a more positive outlook, with a hymnlike melody in the voice. The piano scampers to keep up, turning in some particularly athletic counterpoint.

This is a side of Beethoven we have not yet seen in the vocal music, a deeper and more personal expression which seems more suited to the world of the Lied than the stage. It is a private and rather moving 15 minutes spent with a composer whose physical ailments were destined to challenge him greatly, but ultimately not to overcome his fierce will to compose.

Recordings used

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Hartmut Höll (piano) (Warner Classics)
Hermann Prey (baritone), Leonard Hokanson (piano) (Capriccio)
Roderick Williams (baritone), Iain Burnside (piano) (Signum Classics)
Matthias Goerne (baritone), Jan Lisiecki (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)

These are four really excellent versions, from the ‘old-school’ and imperious approach from Hermann Prey and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to the newer versions from Roderick Williams and Matthias Goerne. Goerne is especially fine here in his new recording with Jan Lisiecki, finding a moving and reverent stillness in the slower songs and tempering the exuberance of the hymns of praise. Roderick Williams phrases Vom Tode beautifully, with a deliberately flatter tone (not pitch) to the voice.

Spotify links

A playlist of four different versions of the Op.48 Lieder can be found here:

Also written in 1801 Haydn The Spirit’s Song Hob.XXVIa:41

Next up 7 Variations on ‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen’

On record: Meriel & Peter Dickinson: An Erik Satie Entertainment (Heritage Records)

satie-dickinson

Meriel Dickinson (mezzo-soprano / reader), Peter Dickinson (piano / reader)

Heritage Records HTGCD171 [68’09”] French texts included
Producer Antony Hodgson
Engineer Tony Faulkner

Recorded 6 October 1975 at All Saints’ Church, Petersham (Unicorn LP only) Remastered by Peter Newble

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The Heritage label continues its worthwhile excavation of overlooked ‘deep catalogue’ with this selection of Erik Satie’s piano pieces, songs and prose as performed by Meriel and Peter Dickinson, whose recitals were a notable fixture of the UK music-scene over several decades.

What’s the music like?

After the lively and rumbustious march Le Piccadilly (1904), Trois melodies (1887) show the composer’s poignant take on domestic song-writing from the period. The haunting Deuxième Gnossienne (1893) is followed by the hieratic plangency of Hymne: ‘Salut Drapeau!’ (1891), while the Deuxième Pièce froide (1897) anticipates the quirky humour to come. Tendrement (1902) ranks among Satie’s most disarming songs, as does the amiable Proudre d’or (1900/1) within his piano music. Two winsome songs from incidental music for the play Geneviève de Brabant (1899/1900) precede two piano pieces – the mystically aloof Première Gymnopédie (1888) and the demurely anarchic Vexations (1893) – which, between them, outline the extent of Satie’s creative thinking. Similarly, the gently facetious humour of Trois melodies (1916) affords pointed contrast with the introspective mystery of the early Chanson (1887) then the considered evocation which is Chanson medieval (1906); further reminders that demarcation between this composer’s seemingly serious and humorous sides cannot be taken as absolute.

An undoubted bonus of the added live material is the Dickinsons’ readings from Satie’s own writings. Thus, there is Peter’s deadpan rendering of Satie’s Self-Portrait as provided for his publisher, its barbed whimsy duly complemented by brief piano interludes from his comedy Le Piège de Méduse (1913), while those gnomic expressions that are Quatres petites melodies (1920) inhabit similarly elliptical domain. Peter reads from the composer’s fanciful outline of his ‘routine for living’ in A Musician’s Diary, while Meriel tells of his ironic attitude towards Beethoven in Satie’s Fakes; between them, she sings the compact confessionals that are Trois Poèmes d’amour (1914). The gnomic song-cycle Ludions (1923), among Satie’s final works, makes a suitably telling foil to Peter’s reading of the archetypal Satie text In Praise of Critics. The selection concludes with a brace of songs – the blithely sardonic La Diva de l’Empire (1904) then the quintessentially Satie confection Je te veux (1897), its deftest interplay of charm and guile with a knowing sentimentality evidently to the pleasure of those listening.

Does it all work?

Very much so, given that Meriel and Peter are so attuned to the facets of Satie’s inimitable genius. At the time of this LP and its attendant recitals, its sheer extent had still to be fully assessed, which does not lessen the significance of the Dickinsons’ efforts (as with Satie’s younger contemporary and English counterpart Lord Berners) in championing this music at the highest artistic level. Both the transfer of the original Unicorn disc and the live extracts (mono) have been capably done – revealing few, if any, limitations in the source-material.

Is it recommended?

It is, not least as an informed and appealing introduction to this music by artists for whom its advocacy was clearly a labour of love. A pity that English translations of the song-texts were not included, though these are mostly accessible online, and their omission is a minor caveat.

For further information on this release, and to purchase, visit the Heritage Records website, and for more on Meriel and Peter Dickinson click here