Listening to Beethoven #91 – 12 variations on a Menuett à la Vìganò


The young Ludwig van Beethoven (left) and Maria Sophia Weber, wife of the composer Jakob Haibel, for whom no picture could be found

12 variations on a Menuett à la Vìganò WoO 68 for piano (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication not known
Duration 12′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

Despite being called a Menuett, and having a triple time lilt, the theme actually has four beats in the bar. This creates a bit of tension but some intriguing cross rhythms too.

Background and Critical Reception

It has been a little while since we heard from Beethoven in the ‘Variations’ discipline, for piano at least. He had certainly not forsaken the form, however, this set being one of at least four he completed in 1795. The theme is from a Menuet from the successful ballet Le nozze disturbate, written by Jakob Haibel (1762-1826) in the same year. Haibel was an Austrian composer, tenor and choirmaster.

Jean-Charles Hoffelé, writing in the booklet note for Cécile Ousset’s superb Decca recordings of variations by Beethoven, gives out plenty of compliments. For him, the variations ‘apply a piquant inventiveness to this dance, popularised at Vienna’s Theater auf der Wieden, beyond the city’s fortifications. Beethoven transforms the ternary rhythm of the dance into an astonishing scherzo’.

Thoughts

Another terrifically entertaining set of Beethoven variations. The first variation is like a peal of bells, then a flurry of right hand activity takes us into a thrilling second variation, Beethoven really pressing down on the accelerator. The tempo choices vary wildly as we progress, moving through a solemn but quite stilted minor key variation (no.4) and a brisk march (no.5).

The eighth variation has an attractive lilt, but no.9 could hardly be more different as it hits some really gruff, bass heavy chords that feel like pure Beethoven – and which are further emphasised by the pause written by the composer to make them last longer.

Sparkling interplay between the hands characterises variation no.10, before the twelfth and final variation plays out between two very different voices, one serene and the other impatient. The coda settles to a quiet and rather moving conclusion

Recordings used and Spotify links

Cécile Ousset (Eloquence)

Rudolf Buchbinder (Warner Classics)

Mikhail Pletnev (Deutsche Grammophon)

All three of these recordings are excellent, but Ousset just has the extra magical touch, the listener hanging on every note of her 1975 Decca recording.

Also written in 1795 Hummel Piano Sonata no.8

Next up 9 Variations on ‘Quant’e piu bello’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.