Maria Anna Wilhelmine von and zu Westerholt-Gysenberg with her family and her husband Freiherr Friedrich Clemens von Elversfeldt, called from Beverförde zu Werries painted by Johann Christoph Rincklake
Trio for flute, bassoon and piano WoO 37 (c1786, Beethoven aged 15)
Dedication The family of Count Friedrich Ludolf Anton von Westerholt-Gysenberg
Background and Critical Reception
An unusual combination of instruments for Beethoven’s first published chamber music composition. This is entirely due to the aristocratic Westerholt-Gysenberg family of Bonn, for whom the piece was written – with a father who played the bassoon, whose children played the flute (son) and piano (daughter). The pianist, known Maria Anna Wilhelmine, was a pupil of Beethoven’s. On the words of John Suchet, Beethoven ‘fell in love with such a passion…that Romberg was telling tales of his friend’s unrequited love forty years later’.
For a while the authenticity of this Trio was in question, due to the teenage composer’s handwriting, but that notion was put to bed in the 1970s and the piece took its place in the canon as Beethoven’s first known chamber music trio.
The trio is a substantial piece, lasting 27 minutes, and it falls into three movements. The first is in G major and the second is an Adagio in G minor, leading directly into a set of theme and variations which comprise the finale. Writing in a booklet note for an early Deutsche Grammophon release, Anthony Burton describes a first movement ‘which, for all the triteness of some of its episodes of scales and arpeggios, anticipates the mature Beethoven in its breadth and range’. The finale is ‘an early example of Beethoven’s lifelong fondness for variations. Here, the form allowed him to achieve what was clearly his intention throughout the work: to provide all three players with fair shares both of the melodic material and of virtuoso passagework’.
On first listen this piece brought to mind some of C.P.E. Bach‘s more imaginative chamber music combinations, but also the attractive trios written by Haydn for flute, cello and piano. The style of this piece leans a bit more to the former than the latter, though the musical language does still feel quite ‘safe’ in the first movement, a reflection perhaps of its destination for domestic music making.
The piano does still dominate but there is the feeling that Beethoven is beginning to level the instruments more and give them more equal contributions. The start of the second movement sees a shadow pass over the surface of the work, and the music sounds more vulnerable, the bassoon suddenly plaintive.
On first impression another set of theme and variations was not going to raise the pulse rate too much but I was wrong. Although the theme initially feels quite regal and relatively simple, that does of course give it the ideal profile for Beethoven to work some magic with it – and he does with a wide range of profiles. The ubiquitous minor-key variation (fourth of seven) is effective, and the work ends in a sunlit mood with a restatement of the main theme.
Recordings used and Spotify links
Karlheinz Zoeller (flute), Klaus Thunemann (bassoon), Aloys Kontarsky (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon) – tracks 40 to 42:
Les Vents Français – Emmanuel Pahud (flute), Gilbert Audin (bassoon), Éric Le Sage (piano) (Warner Classics) – tracks 5 to 7
Both versions are excellent, but the more recent release from Les Vents Français has the greater freshness in its recording, not to mention an excellent performance. The version led by pianist Aloys Kontarsky for DG is brightly voiced, with a pronounced holding back before the main tune comes back in both the first and third movements. Slightly exaggerated but undoubtedly stylish!
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 1786 Mozart Symphony no.38 in D major K504 ‘Prague’
Next up 2 Preludes in all the major keys, Op.39