University square in Vienna by Bernardo Bellotto (18th century)
Sextet in E flat major Op.81b for 2 horns and string quartet (1795, Beethoven aged 24)
1. Allegro con brio
Background and Critical Reception
In his early twenties Beethoven wrote a good deal of music for wind instruments, staying close to the ‘Serenade’ and ‘Divertimento’ forms perfected by Mozart. The combination for this particular work is quite unusual, with the two horns and string quartet unmatched in any other composition. The only comparable instrumentation would seem to be Mozart’s Horn Quintet in E flat major from 1782.
Peter Holman, in his booklet notes for the Gaudier Ensemble’s recording on Hyperion, speculates that the work may have been written for performance by Nicholas Simrock, a friend of Beethoven’s since their days at the orchestra in Bonn in 1789. Simrock published the work in 1810 with the misleading Op.81b, suggesting a composition date much later than the actual year of 1795.
The work brings the two horns to the front, giving them plenty of opportunity for display – and often has the horns and string quartet as opposing or complementary forces.
This is a light-hearted work, very undemanding for the listener – but pleasant too, with plenty of easy natured tunes. Sometimes it feels like Beethoven is just trying out the agility of the horns, while other times he writes unexpectedly moving music. Some of the horn lines in the slow movement in particular, a lovely reverie in A flat major, are sublime, as are the colours Beethoven achieves with the richness of the horns and the strings.
The third movement has something of the hunt about it, from the opening theme on the horn, but it also shifts to the minor key for quite a big section in the middle, exposing a mournful theme from one of the horns. There are some lovely low notes towards the end, part of a pretty rigorous technical challenge for both horn players.
Overall though the Sextet has a lovely communal feel, an undemanding but quite substantial work – and occupies quite a unique spot with its instrumental combination.
Recordings used and Spotify links
Members of the Berlin Philharmonic Octet (Philips)
Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble (Philips)
Gewandhaus Quartet, Hermann Baumann, Vladimir Dshambasov (horns) (Deutsche Grammophon)
The older recordings from the Members of the Berlin Philharmonic Octet and the Gewandhaus Quartet show their age a little, with quite grainy string sound, and with the DG recording the two groups feel very separate. The L’Archibudelli version, on period instruments, is really enjoyable, and the slightly unpredictable horn tuning adds a touch of authenticity. The ASMF Chamber Ensemble are excellent in this repertoire, beautifully poised and balanced.
The Spotify playlist below collects the recordings used:
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 1795 Frederich Witt Horn Concerto in E flat major
Next up String Quintet in E flat major Op.4