Listening to Beethoven #1 – 9 Variations on a March by Dressler


Ernst Dressler (left) and the young Ludwig van Beethoven

9 Variations on a March by Dressler WoO 63 for piano (1782, Beethoven aged 12)

Dedication not known
Duration 7′ (13’30 with repeats included)

Listen

What’s the theme like?

Dressler’s theme is serious in tone, and foursquare. The march is a slow one but it gives plenty of room for the young composer to work with his source material.

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s first published work was released into the public domain when the composer was barely 12 years old. Its release was accompanied with a glowing reference from his teacher at the time, Christian Neefe. Jan Swafford takes up the story in his recent Beethoven biographer. ‘He plays the clavier very skillfully and with power, reads at sight very well, and…plays chiefly The Well Tempered Clavier of Sebastian Bach…He (Beethoven) has had nine variations for the pianoforte engraved in Mannheim. This youthful genius…would surely become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were he to continue as he has begun.’

The variation form was a good way of exercising students; seeing how inventive they could be when given a theme as a starting point. Talking with Arcana about the Dressler variations, pianist Cyprien Katsaris notes how “this piece is variations by a kid, and it could be considered in the beginning a little bit boring. His teacher probably told him to keep the same tempo, but I think there is a probability that if Beethoven played that piece as an adult he would play it in a different way to when he was under the guidance of that teacher. What a pity we didn’t have recordings earlier!”

Barry Cooper‘s booklet note for DG’s New Complete Edition of Beethoven notes how variations of the time were usually in a major key, and the adoption of C minor ‘feels like something of a statement’. It is a key we will traverse many more times as Beethoven’s portfolio unfolds. Swafford interprets the choice of C minor and its serious material ‘might form a memorial for the boy’s recently passed, still-lamented teacher and friend Franz Georg Rovantini‘, and that the final variation is a ‘triumph over sorrow’.

Thoughts

The young Beethoven takes the relatively basic Dressler theme and works nine variations from it, beginning in serious mood but gradually loosening his approach to explore different techniques.

For eight of the nine variations we keep the darker colour of the minor key, staying true to the mood of the theme but gradually adding more to it, with a few grace notes (variation 1), relatively polite sequential figures (2), then extra arpeggios in the middle parts (3), and chromatic inflections in the right hand (4). The fifth variation is more playful.

The sense of a composer running with greater freedom is clear, as the fifth variation is really let off the leash, the right hand roaming as it wishes. Variation six exchanges trills and more playful melodies between the two hands, while the seventh is in lilting triple time. The eighth feels like music we have heard already, with flowing arpeggios. Until now all variations have remained in the minor key, but this heightens the moment Beethoven switches to the major for the last variation, a terrific flurry of notes for the right hand which show off his technical prowess. Not many 12-year-olds could play music like this!

Recordings used

Cécile Ousset (Eloquence), Mikhail Pletnev (DG); Cyprien Katsaris (Piano 21)

Cécile Ousset includes all of Beethoven’s repeat markings, so each half of each variation is repeated, the piece extended to 13 minutes. Hers is a gracious account, brilliantly executed at the end.
Pletnev is very straight-faced initially, and plays around with the tempo a good deal, but goes for broke at the end to make the final variation sound like a piece of C.P.E. Bach.
Katsaris, including revised material by Beethoven, is in a room with a good deal of reverberation, heightening the serious theme and quite deliberate initially – but with terrific excitement generated in the fifth and final variations.

Spotify links

Mikhail Pletnev

Cécile Ousset

Cyprien Katsaris

 

Also written in 1782 Haydn Symphony no.73 in D major ‘La Chasse’

Next up Schilderung eines Mädchens

You can read Cyprien Katsaris’ full interview about Beethoven with Arcana soon.

LSO: Always Playing – Steve Reich Quartet & Sextet tonight @ 7pm

Tonight’s installment of the LSO’s online series ‘Always Playing’ is a smaller-scale affair, as the LSO Percussion Ensemble deliver two of Steve Reich‘s more recent works for percussion.

The Sextet, a substantial work from 1993, is complemented by the Quartet completed 20 years later, a more challenging and fragmented composition.

The team – percussionists Neil Percy, Sam Walton, Gwilym Simcock, David Jackson, Simon Carrington, Philip Moore and Joseph Havlat – add works from Joe Locke (Her Sanctuary) and Makoto Ozone, Simon Carrington’s arrangement of Kato’s Revenge.

You can read more about these works in the booklet notes for the concert here – and the performances themselves, given at LSO St Luke’s across concerts in October 2015, March 2018 and February 2019, can be seen on the orchestra’s YouTube channel from 7pm tonight here:

 

Online recommendations – Bergen International Festival 2020

How long is it since you last experienced live music?

For the vast majority of us it will be two months and counting now…the last for Arcana having been on Monday 16 March at the Wigmore Hall.

Thankfully in that time a huge number of artists, organisations and orchestras have stepped into the breach, either with archive concert footage or with online concerts and recitals. One of the biggest contributions to date, however, comes from the Bergen International Festival, which is streaming over 50 events online for free.

These are genuine live events, given without an audience and streamed across the world from the festival’s website – and there is some quality music making coming up.

The evening of Saturday 23 May will see Leif Ove Andsnes and friends giving an all-Schumann concert at 20:00 (19:00 GMT), capped by the wonderfully invigorating Piano Quintet, while Sunday 24 May (21:15, 20:15 GMT) brings the traditional festival performance of Grieg‘s evergreen Piano Concerto. The soloist will be Víkingur Ólafsson, with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under chief conductor Edward Gardner. Intriguingly, the Grieg will be prefaced by VasksThe Fruit Of Silence, with the Edvard Grieg Kor.

Meanwhile Monday 25 May brings an intriguing concert from ​Leif Ove Andsnes (piano), Sonoko Miriam Welde (violin), Ludvig Gudim (violin), Eivind Ringstad (viola) and Amalie Stalheim (cello). The quintet will perform works by Schubert, Mozart and Jörg Widmann – the composer’s Idyll and Abyss and String Quartet no.3. Nicknamed the Hunt, it will follow Mozart’s quartet of the same name.

These three concerts alone give an idea of the breadth of repertoire and quality we can expect from the festival. Head here to experience it for yourself!

Switched on – Matthewdavid’s Mindflight: Care Tracts EP (Leaving Records)

What’s the story?

Matthewdavid’s Mindflight is the incredibly ambient extension of producer Matthewdavid‘s output. As a composer used to working across genres, this is the area where he really kicks back and lets things evolve at a very natural pace.

The EP comes with a message from Matthewdavid, saying that ‘With your help we will overthrow corrupt capitalistic systems of greed and exploitation in favour of life and love for the benefit of all beings. We will end all war and hierarchy. Love is the gateway to paradise. Love is your way.’

What’s the music like?

The above sentiments come through with the music – but to be honest this is music that is best experienced with the objective of getting a completely empty head. Previous albums from this source have been capable of doing exactly that – and this half-hour set of three continuously mixed and evolving tracks hits the spot unerringly.

It always takes a little while for the dust to settle, but when it does the sonic beauty of these electronics can be appreciated. The sound world is definitely an outdoor one, with a soft breeze and cool blue colours. Best to treat this is one continuous composition with three blissful ‘movements’, and the music will make its most effective impact.

Does it all work?

Yes. With no beats in sight and no specific harmonic movement, this is nonetheless music that continues to evolve. It is the aural equivalent of sitting on the beach and staring at a calm sea, inducing all sorts of stationary and soothing thoughts.

Is it recommended?

Yes, effortlessly. Previous visitors to this source will know just what to expect – and they won’t be disappointed. If you’re new and fancy some warm-weather tranquillity in musical form, then look no further!

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On record – Yuja Wang, LAPO / Gustavo Dudamel: John Adams – Must The Devil Have All The Good Tunes? (DG)

Yuja Wang (piano), Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra / Gustavo Dudamel

John Adams
Must The Devil Have All The Good Tunes? (2019)
China Gates (1977)

Deutsche Grammophon 4838289 [32’05”]

Recorded November 2019, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, USA

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? is John Adams’ first major work for piano and orchestra since 1997. Its world premiere took place in 2019, with dedicatee Yuja Wang taking the solo part in the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, the city’s Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. The same team are on the money here with the first recording of the substantial new piece – with a contrasting makeweight, as Wang offers one of Adams’ much loved shorter works, the solo piano composition China Gates.

What’s the music like?

In a word, dynamic. The composer’s direction for the first of the three movements of Must the Devil…says a lot – Gritty, Funky, But in strict Tempo; Twitchy, Bot-Like. It describes the music perfectly, for as Yuja Wang drives the music forward with big, block chords there is a great deal of positive mechanical energy – and indeed a bit of funk. The ‘good tunes’ are not quite so obvious, with the through-composed nature of the piece masking any obvious hooks, but there is a strong and assertive drive forward, like the relentless surge of traffic along a Californian freeway.

The frenetic activity subsides towards the end of the first movement and we get a closer look at Adams’ soul, glimpsed through luminous string textures and sensitive, nocturnal piano writing. The mechanical grind is temporarily forgotten and a tender, thoughtful mood evolves. This leads to the Gently, Relaxed direction, which effectively becomes the concerto’s slow movement, with music of serenity and beautiful colours. As the movement progresses the lines become a little more angular, the strings and piano working together while complemented by softly spoken wind and brass choirs.

Then the energy returns, and we move into the finale with clumps of percussive chords from Wang, leading the orchestra in a section marked Obsession / Swing. The cross rhythms sway, generating exciting momentum between piano and orchestra, and Wang throws her all at the piano as it issues massive, repetitive statements, the obsession growing ever greater towards the end and the sound of a bell, with which Adams brings an end to the three rounds.

China Gates is a much-needed repose, its meditative thoughts given in an unbroken, fluid stream.

Does it all work?

Yes, and is hard to fault in this performance. The musical language is familiar – recognisably John Adams in its long lines of busy activity – and it could be argued some of these statements are familiar too, closely related to previous large-scale utterances. But the performance is ideal, a white knuckle ride in the faster sections and a cool reverie in the memorable slower parts. China Gates is the ideal foil.

Yuja Wang is brilliant throughout, a whirlwind of energy in the fast music of Must the Devil…and a model of sensitivity in the quieter music.

Is it recommended?

Fans of Adams’ music will not hesitate – and nor should newcomers either, for not only is the music very listenable it is presented in terrific recorded sound. A DG release with all the fireworks for sure, and if there are no recognisably good tunes to hum afterwards there is plenty to enjoy. John Adams’ positive energy wins through once again.

Listen

Buy

You can purchase this recording from various digital outlets via the Deutsche Grammophon website