Vincenzo Righini (left) and the young Beethoven (unattributed picture)
Dedication Countess of Hatzfeld
Background and Critical Reception
Beethoven’s second set of variations for the keyboard is very different from the first. The Dressler Variations, his first published work, were effectively testing the water to see what the young composer could come up with. This set of 24 variations is a different animal entirely. Alexander Thayer‘s biography of Beethoven tells the story of its genesis:
‘Kapellmeister Vincenzo Righini, a colleague of Sterkel in the service of the Elector of Mainz, had published Dodeci Ariette, one of which, Vieni (venni) Amore was a melody with five vocal variations, to the same accompaniment. Beethoven, taking this melody as his theme, had composed, dedicated to the Countess of Hatzfeld and published 24 variations for the pianoforte upon it. Some of these were very difficult, and Sterkel now expressed his doubts if the author himself could play them.’
He could indeed – and ‘went on with a number of others no less difficult, all to the great surprise of the listeners’. Harold Truscott is impressed. Writing in The Beethoven Companion, he declares the work ‘has a strong claim to be considered Beethoven’s earliest masterpiece’. He goes further, noting anticipations of Brahms’s variation technique, and a fade out of ‘imaginative power which would not be out of place in mature Beethoven and which also anticipates one of Schumann’s favourite coda devices’.
Truscott is right. This piece takes Beethoven’s writing for piano up several levels, both technically and emotionally. Righini’s them has basic outlines, which are perfect for the variation treatment – and Beethoven wastes no time in getting to work with his interpretations on the theme, picking up momentum quickly.
The sheer variety of his variations are dazzling – the trills of the fourth variation, the triplet figures of the fifth and the free, almost improvised nature of the eighth. There is plenty of humour here too, Beethoven enjoying the chromatic ninth variation, but darkening the mood considerably with two minor key variations. The first (no.12 is mysterious and uncertain; the second powers through the octaves.
The fascinating drama continues, with every variation raising the question in the listener’s mind as to what might be next! In no.14 Beethoven plays around with the tempo and mood, almost as though the composer is scratching his head as he considers his next move. In no.15, an emphatic volley of notes, we find out. Towards the end the drama heightens again, with the impish no.20, the big octaves of no.21 and the flowing no.22. The profound thoughts of the 23rd are blown out of the water by an almost violent final variation, but despite the virtuosity and drama, Beethoven opts for a quiet and thoughtful coda which is all the more meaningful and leaves the listener lost in thought.
This set of variations is a fascinating and totally absorbing journey, with thrills, spills and unexpected turns on its route. Beethoven’s unpredictable streak has truly arrived.
Ronald Brautigam (BIS), Cécile Ousset (Eloquence), Mikhail Pletnev (DG)
Three excellent recordings – though Mikhail Pletnev’s is a little more mannered with a clipped delivery of the main theme and some interesting ideas of playing around with the tempo of the music. Most are in line with Beethoven’s thoughts – but even he is not quite as impressive as Cécile Ousset, who delivers a compelling performance of virtuosity and thoughtful insight. The quiet passages of her playing will have you leaning in towards the speaker.
Meanwhile Ronald Brautigam is typically incisive with his fortepiano version, and the flicks he achieves on the second variation are really well done, but he is a bit breathless at times, finishing almost two minutes clear of the others.
Also written in 1791 Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A major K622
Next up Ritterballet WoO 1 (piano version)