Listening to Beethoven #38 – Duo for two flutes in G major


A Man in Eighteenth Century Dress with a Flute, in His Study by (Henry Hetherington Emmerson) (1877)

Duo for two flutes in B flat major WoO 26 (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

1 Allegro con brio
2 Menuetto quasi allegretto

Dedication ‘for friend Degenharth’
Duration 6′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

This is the first of Beethoven’s chamber works not to include the piano – though it was not published until after his death. The dedication, ‘for friend Degenharth’, is to a lawyer, a member of Beethoven’s close circle of friends. It has prompted speculation that the piece may have been a commission or a present.

Either way, it is a short work in two movements of roughly equal length, and continues the close affinity Beethoven had with the flute at this time. Technical demands are thought to be few (according to Flutetunes.com at any rate!) so the music is suitable for most ability levels.

Thoughts

The two movements of the Duo are charming. The melodic parts are closely intertwined in the first section, like butterflies dancing in a breeze. Beethoven shifts to the minor key half way through, as though intending to move off on a set of variations. The music has a more graceful feel at this point, but then the dancing butterflies return.

The instruments stay close for the second movement, where the second flute has a simple arpeggio ‘Alberti’ figuration. There is more of a dance form evident here, in triple time.

Beethoven’s domestic side is on show here, with communal music making the main aim. As a result there is nothing too challenging here, but the charms are many.

Recordings used

Patrick Gallois, Jean-Pierre Rampal (DG)
Patrick Gallois, Kazunori Seo (Naxos)

Gallois and Rampal are brilliant together, and it proves almost impossible to tell their instruments apart at times!

Spotify links

Patrick Gallois, Jean-Pierre Rampal

Patrick Gallois, Kazunori Seo

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 1792 Haydn Piano Trio in G major HXV:32

Next up 8 Variations on a theme by Count Waldstein

Listening to Beethoven #37 – An Minna


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

An Minna WoO 115 for voice and piano (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

Dedication not known
Text Anonymous
Duration 0’55”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Very little is known or written about this short song, but it appears to be another of the small nuggets Beethoven completed before departure from Bonn to Vienna in late 1792. The text is anonymous and even a translation could not be found online.

Thoughts

An Minna is a brief song indeed. Barely has it started then Beethoven wraps it up very quickly! It has a positive complexion though, despite slightly awkward phrasing (no doubt text related). The vocal line feels quite plaintive in the baritone version, and the piano has plenty of room.

Recordings used

Peter Schreier (tenor), Walter Obertz (piano)
Hermann Prey (baritone), Leonard Hokanson (piano)

As befits most of his Beethoven songs so far, Schreier does not hang about but has a nice, bright tone. Prey, in a lower ranger, is fuller and broader in scope.

Spotify links

Peter Schreier & Walter Obertz

Hermann Prey & Leonard Hokanson

Also written in 1792 Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle La Marseillaise

Next up Duo for two flutes in G major

On record – Roderick Williams, Michael Dussek & Bridge Quartet: Those Blue Remembered Hills (EM Records)

Gurney
The Western Playland (and of Sorrow) (1920)
Edward, Edward (1914)
By A Bierside (1916)
String Quartet in D minor (1924-5)
Howells
There was a Maiden (1915)
Girl’s Song (1916)
King David (1919)
The Mugger’s Song (1919)

Roderick Williams (baritone), Michael Dussek (piano), Bridge Quartet [Colin Twigg, Catherine Schofield (violins), Michael Schofield (viola), Lucy Wilding (cello)]

EM Records EMR CD065 [80’52”]

Producer Rupert Marshall-Luck
Engineer Patrick Allen

Recorded 4 & 5 June 2018 at Potton Hall, Suffolk

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

The latest release from EM Records is largely devoted to music by Ivor Gurney (1890-1937), including the second of his song-cycles with ensemble and the first recording of a large-scale string quartet composed before encroaching mental illness led to a cessation of his creativity.

What’s the music like?

Time was when Gurney was viewed as a poet who also wrote songs, but recent research has unearthed piano music, two orchestral pieces and numerous chamber works. Just how much he wrote and destroyed in a period of activity through to 1927 will probably never be known.

It was the success of Ludlow and Teme (recorded on EMRCD036) which led Gurney to essay a second song-cycle after A. E. Housman. Equally well received, The Western Playland was revised in 1925, when (and of Sorrow) was added to the title as if to point up that emotional dislocation the composer felt when incarcerated at City of London Mental Hospital – far from his beloved Gloucestershire. The eight songs traverse a wide expressive range, with such as a limpid setting of Loveliest of Trees and a purposeful take on Is my Team Ploughing very different in manner yet comparable in quality to those by Butterworth or Vaughan Williams. The forced jollity of the initial Reveille strikes a slightly jarring note, but the final March conjures a luminous poise which is further enhances by its extended instrumental postlude.

Also featured are two of Gurney’s songs with piano – that of the anonymous ballad Edward, Edward summons a malevolence that finds natural contrast with the sombre wartime (indeed, trench-bound) setting of John Masefield’s By a Bierside. Four songs by Herbert Howells are a reminder of the close personal and regional ties between these composers – three of which are appealing in their craftsmanship, with the setting of Walter de la Mare’s King David as affecting as any song from this period and justifiably receiving of the poet’s endorsement.

The centrepiece here is a String Quartet in D minor – one of several written during Gurney’s incarceration and which, fortunately for posterity, he was able to hear performed thanks to the redoubtable musicologist Marion M. Scott. Extensive revisions made deciphering his ultimate intentions more difficult, but the time and effort has been well worthwhile. The EMR release referred to above contains the original version of the work’s Adagio, and the revision as heard here only intensifies its anguished pathos. This, along with the ruminative ensuing intermezzo, are the highlights of an ambitious entity – the motivic ingenuity of whose opening movement feels undermined by lack of textural or rhythmic clarity; this latter failing arguably inhibiting the vehemence and drama which otherwise inform the finale as it surges to its fatalistic close.

Does it all work?

Almost. Roderick Williams is at his perceptive best in the songs, sensitively accompanied by Michael Dussek. The Bridge Quartet is superb in the song-cycle and makes a fine effort in the quartet, of which further performances are needed to assess the full extent of its achievement.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Gurney is a composer whose stature has only latterly become apparent, and to which this disc is a signal contribution. Spacious and natural sound balance, together with detailed and often insightful annotations, further enhance what is another indispensable EMR release.

Listen and Buy

You can discover more about this release at the EM Records website, where you can hear clips from the recording and also purchase.

On record: Steve Elcock: Orchestral Music, Volume Two (Toccata)

Steve Elcock
Incubus Op.28 (2017)
Haven: Fantasia on a Theme by J.S. Bach Op.4 (1995, rev. 2011-17)
Symphony no.5 Op.21 (2014)

Siberian Symphony Orchestra / Dmitry Vasiliev

Producer/Engineer Sergei Zhiganov
Recorded 8-12 July 2019, Philharmonic Hall, Omsk

Toccata Classics TOCC0445 [77’20”]

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics continues its coverage of Steve Elcock (b1957) with this second instalment of orchestral music – dominated by the Fifth Symphony with provocative allusions to its most famous predecessor, together with shorter yet distinctive pieces from either end of his output.

What’s the music like?

Although it marks a return to the four-movement format of his first two such works, the Fifth Symphony is hardly conventional in formal or expressive follow through. As with the almost contemporaneous Fifth by the late Christopher Rouse, the presence of that archetypal ‘No. 5’ feels undeniable – even more so given Elcock’s explicit referencing at the start of each outer movement; a head-on approach hardly less confrontational than that with Beethoven Nine in Tippett’s Third Symphony a half-century ago. In all other respects, Elcock goes entirely his own way: the visceral charge of that beginning quickly subsides into an opening movement whose restive searching seems becalmed emotionally while not tonally, as the music strives increasingly to regain its initial energy before relapsing into a mood of pervasive desolation.

The next two movements unfold without pause as a contrasting duality. As its title suggests, the Ostinato builds explosive impetus over a remorseless rhythmic motto that climactically implodes to leave a musing clarinet melody as expands into the ensuing Canzonetta. Less a slow movement than extended intermezzo, what might have brought a return to the earlier sombreness rather assumes a more compassionate aura that makes possible the final Allegro. Comparable to the first movement in its scale, this unfolds as a sonata design of unflagging dynamism whose twin themes are drawn into a process of continuous development on route to a peroration which, though it could hardly evince the triumph of Beethoven, is never less than affirmative in its bringing the work decisively and, moreover, demonstrably full circle.

A notable achievement, then – less ruggedly distinctive if ultimately more cohesive than the Third Symphony (recorded on TOCC0400), and evidently a statement with which to reckon. It is preceded here by two pieces that further attest to the consistency of Elcock’s underlying vision. Haven: Fantasia on a Theme by J.S. Bach takes the Sarabande from the First Violin Partita as basis for a series less of variations than of paraphrases such as pass from nostalgia, through militaristic brutality, to renewed concord with the theme newly explicit at the close. Derived from a recent string quartet, Incubus is a study in nocturnal imaginings – ostensibly the result of insomnia – which seems predictable only in its marshalling a disparate range of ideas into a taut ‘curtain raiser’ whose outcome is the more telling for being so unexpected.

Does it all work?

It does. Just occasionally taxed in those more demonstrative passages, the Siberian Symphony Orchestra otherwise yields little to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic as to the conviction of its playing, with Dmitry Vasiliev demonstrating an absolute grasp of Elcock’s combative musical vision.

Is it recommended?

It is. Orchestral sound has commendable heft and perspective, while Francis Pott’s extensive annotations situate all three pieces within an appropriately wide context. Hopefully Elcock’s Fourth Symphony will feature on the next volume in what is an absorbing and valuable series.

Listen

Buy

For further information, audio clips and purchase information visit the Toccata Classics website. For more on Steve Elcock you can visit the composer’s website

Listening to Beethoven #36 – 14 Variations in E flat major Op.44


Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (left) and the young Ludwig van Beethoven

14 Variations in E flat major Op.44 for piano trio (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

Dedication not known
Duration 15′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

Very simple – but Dittersdorf‘s theme has comic potential, as you might expect from a humorous stage work. In the right (or wrong!) hands this could be a bit po-faced.

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven wrote a lot of chamber music for trio in his Bonn years – and a good deal in the key of E flat major too. This piece was not published until 1804, but is thought to have been completed in 1792 before he left for Vienna. Choosing a simple theme from a comic operetta by Dittersdorf, Das rote Käppchen (‘The little red cap’), he wrote 14 variations of varying character.

Writing to accompany the Florestan Trio recording of this piece on Hyperion, Richard Wigmore compliments Dittersdorf, whose ‘comically rudimentary tune is a vision of dry bones, as bare as the famous ‘Eroica’ theme which it faintly resembles.’ He also notes the glint in Beethoven’s eye and his predilection for mischief in several of these variations, most notably the ‘delicately tripping twelfth…’disrupted by an uncouth fortissimo outburst – Beethoven gleefully sticking out his tongue at rococo decorum’.

Thoughts

This set of variations is great fun, and you really get a sense of Beethoven flexing his compositional muscles and trying a few new things. From the first variation there are strong hints that he is going to have some fun with this theme – and so it proves. In the second variation the pianist enjoys the opportunity to flex the rhythms, bringing in the violin for a capricious third variation, before the baton passes to the cello for the benefit of its richer tone.

The ensemble passages have great energy, and for almost the first time we are getting a sense of the terrific forward drive in Beethoven’s music, especially in the propulsive movement of the sixth variation. A slow minor key deviation follows (variation 7), the cello and violin exchanging mournful thoughts, before the distant chugging of the violin and cello support a piano theme given in octaves. Variation 9 is lively and fun, while the syncopations of the tenth feel particularly advanced at this stage in Beethoven’s development.

As we approach the end, the second minor key variation (13) is even slower and more drawn out. This only makes the reappearance of the ‘home’ key all the happier, before a striking passage where the piano takes a sort of cadenza over the bare bones of the strings. Finally we return to the simplicity of the theme’s profile from the start, before a rush to the finish.

The variety and virtuosity of these variations is reminiscent of the earlier Venni Amore variations for piano, in their wide breadth of moods and techniques – and in their entertainment value, too.

Recordings used

Florestan Trio (Susan Tomes (piano), Anthony Marwood (violin), Richard Lester (cello) (Hyperion)
Wilhelm Kempff (piano), Henryk Szeryng (violin), Pierre Fournier (cello) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Daniel Barenboim (piano), Pinchas Zukerman (violin), Jacqueline du Pré (cello) (originally EMI Classics)

The superstar trio of Henryk Szeryng, Pierre Fournier and Wilhelm Kempff take their time with Dittersdorf’s theme in a very deliberate presentation, and Variation 2 finds Kempff in particularly airy mood – but it is really well judged. That said, they are still a good deal quicker than another superstar ensemble, including husband and wife team Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline du Pré.

The best modern version of the variations comes from the Florestan Trio on Hyperion, which enjoys not just the sparkling pianism of Susan Tomes but also the closely-matched Anthony Marwood and Richard Lester. They all embody the first principles of chamber music by clearly listening to each other and responding in kind. As a result their recording is instinctive and fun.

Spotify links

Wilhelm Kempff (piano), Henryk Szeryng (violin), Pierre Fournier (cello) (Deutsche Grammophon)

Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zukerman, Jacqueline du Pré

You can hear a clip from the Florestan trio version on the Hyperion website

Also written in 1792 Haydn Symphony no.73 in D major ‘La Chasse’

Next up An Minna