Listening to Beethoven #95 – Sextet in E flat major Op.71


Mehlmarkt in Vienna by Bernardo Bellotto (1758)

Sextet in E flat major Op.71 for 2 clarinet, 2 bassoons and 2 horns (1796, Beethoven aged 25)

1. Adagio – Allegro
2. Adagio
3. Menuetto quasi allegretto
4. Rondo. Allegro

Dedication unknown
Duration 21′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven wrote his Sextet for an established combination of clarinets, bassoons and horns – two of each – in 1796. However it appears not to have been performed until 1805, at a concert for the benefit of his violinist friend Ignaz Schuppanzigh, and another five years elapsed until it was published.

Reviewing the benefit concert, Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung spoke of ‘lively melodies, unconstrained harmonies, and a wealth of new and surprising ideas.’

When handing it over to his publisher, Beethoven is said to have described it as ‘one of my earlier works, written in one night, and one can only say that it is written by an author who has brought out at least some better works’.

The quick composition time explains the fluent writing through four traditional movements, Beethoven thinking in a form that would please Viennese audiences.

Thoughts

The Sextet starts with what feels like a very basic introduction, a slow and simple statement of the notes of the E flat triad. From these less memorable beginnings comes a first movement of charm, rooted in the dance – which the bassoons are intent on reminding us about with a spring in the step of their accompaniment. Burbling clarinets help the inner workings as the piece trips along, the sonority of the ensemble in itself a lovely tonic to the ear. Beethoven gradually develops his material, moving to keys further afield, before reasserting E flat with the jauntier fast theme.

The slow movement is lovely, giving the bassoon an unusual prominence for its songlike first them, echoing the male baritone voice. The Menuetto brings the horns forward, and is more staccato in tone as a result, with a central trio section of lovely colours that is the ideal complement. Finally a Rondo, easy on the ear, makes the most of ensemble teamwork with its busy exchanges.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble (Philips)
Scottish Chamber Orchestra Winds (Linn)
L’Archibudelli (Sony Classical)
Gerd Seifert, Günter Piesk, Henning Trog, Karl Leister, Manfred Klier, Peter Geisler (Deutsche Grammophon)

Some very fine performances here. The ASMF winds are immaculate, and so too are the Scottish Chamber Orchestra ensemble, who benefit from Linn’s superb recording. L’Archibudelli, playing on period instruments and a slightly lower pitch, have a coarser sound that proves every bit as enjoyable as their modern counterparts. The starry team of soloists from the Berlin Philharmonic on DG are not as consistent with their use of Beethoven’s repeated sections.

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 1796 Haydn Trumpet Concerto in E flat major Hob. VIIe/1

Next up Quintet for wind in E flat major H19

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