Listening to Beethoven #13 – Piano Quartet in D major WoO 36/2

Bonn around the year 1790. Artist unknown

Piano Quartet in D major WoO 36/2 for piano, violin, viola and cello (1785, Beethoven aged 14)

Dedication Thought to be Elector Maximilian Friedrich
Duration 20′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Having heard a deeply passionate work in the Piano Quartet in E flat major, we move on to distinctly sunnier climes with the Piano Quartet in D major, a slightly shorter work.

When talking about the Piano Quartets, Lewis Lockwood is convinced they are Beethoven’s first sign of greatness. ‘Despite the limitations of these works’, he says, ‘remarkable features crop up everywhere, above all in melodic inventiveness and in the larger layout of individual movements. As a major step forward from the little piano sonatas of 1783, these ensemble works show signs of maturity in the making.’

There are some weaknesses, however, ‘largely in the string writing and in his inability to integrate piano and strings effectively and idiomatically. They stand up not despite their direct indebtedness to Mozart – above all certain Mozart violin sonatas – but precisely because of it. They possess the voice of a beginner of genius who is steeping himself in Mozart’s ways and is trying to imitate them. For Lockwood, ‘they mark the beginning of a relationship to Mozart that remained a steady anchor for Beethoven over the next ten years as he moved into his first artistic maturity.

The D major work was the second of the three quartets when published – but we are sticking with Beethoven’s ordering, in which it appears third.

Thoughts

As with the Electoral Sonata in the same key, Beethoven’s use of D major allows him to create a work with a fully positive outlook – and it has the sort of unison beginning which we will certainly hear with greater conviction in his later output. There is lively interplay between the piano and strings, while the second theme is warm hearted and more legato (smoother). Even here though Beethoven strains at the leash on occasion, threatening to break off into distant keys before arriving at the more ‘accepted’ ones.

The slow movement is attractive but feels a bit long, clocking in at just under 10 minutes when performers used the composer’s prescribed repeats. There is however an intriguing bit near the end, as though Beethoven is considering breaking the rules – and the strings use pizzicato (plucking) for a short while, which changes the colour considerably. The end itself is surprisingly sombre. This only makes the return to D major a sunnier occasion, with a bracing tune to send the audience out on a high. Again this is a Rondo, Beethoven’s chosen vehicle for a finale nicely wrought again.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Christoph Eschenbach (piano), Members of the Amadeus Quartet (Deutsche Grammophon) – tracks 4 to 6:

Anthony Goldstone (piano), Cummings String Trio (Meridian) – tracks 6 to 8:

New Zealand Piano Quartet (Naxos) – tracks 7 to 9:

All three versions of this work are strong, but it is Christoph Eschenbach and the Amadeus Quartet members who bring the greatest energy and drive. Anthony Goldstone and the Cummings String Trio enjoy the sunny disposition of the piece. Good though the New Zealand Piano Quartet version is, the use of repeat and a slower tempo mean the middle movement feels that bit too long.

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 1785 Mozart Piano Quartet no.1 in G minor K478

Next up Trio for flute, bassoon and piano in G major WoO 37

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