Listening to Beethoven #109 – “Ah! Perfido”, Op.65

Portrait of Josepha Duschek in 1796

“Ah, perfido!”, Op.65 for soprano and orchestra (1796, Beethoven aged 25)

1. Scena: Ah! perfido, spergiuro
2. Aria: Per pietà, non dirmi addio

Dedication Josepha Duschek
Text Pietro Metastasio / Anonymous
Duration 14′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven wrote Ah! Perfido as a two-part concert scene and aria, with the Czech soprano Josepha Duschek in mind. He met the singer and her husband on his visit to Prague in 1796, but in the end had to entrust the debut on 21 November to Countess Josephine Clary, because of a clash of engagements. Despite its relatively early genesis the work was not published until 1807, and it appeared on the programme of Beethoven’s famous Akademie concert in 1808.

Many commentators see the roots in Ah! Perfido from Mozart’s writing for voice and orchestra. Writing in The Beethoven Companion, Leslie Orrey sees a clear prototype for the work in Mozart’s Bella mia fiamma, K528 – itself a scene and an aria written for Duschek. Daniel Heartz, in his comprehensive appraisal of early Beethoven, is not so sure.

He writes in typically revealing detail. “Since the text is pathetic, his (Beethoven’s) choice of E flat is appropriate, and so is the form, that of the two-tempo rondo, still the height of fashion in 1796 and just the sort of piece a professional like La Duschek would want to sing. Its languid first part, Adagio in 3/4 time, has a theme that returns after contrast, while the second part, Allegro assai in common time, has a gavotte-like theme that also returns after contrast. The faster transition between the two parts, which appears later, is unusual. It has been claimed that Beethoven modelled Op.65 on Mozart’s Bella mia fiamma. Yet there is little in common between them aside from the form, which Mozart treats more freely still.” 

Thoughts

Beethoven puts our emotions through the wringer with this dramatic scene. The orchestra’s brisk introduction sets the picture for our soloist, who is given some powerful and declamatory high notes. Seen live, the effect is arresting, the dialogue with the orchestra like a recitative from a Handel opera, with comments made in quick bursts.

Yet with the solo aria the mood changes markedly. A slow introduction from the orchestra leads to a beautiful melody from the soloist, which requires great control but fully conveys the emotion of the unknown author. Beethoven provides subtle orchestral complements from clarinet and woodwind, and in the middle of the aria we pull back to just the singer and soft pizzicato, a moving moment indeed. Our protagonist is resigned to a troubled end, with fresh drama through a burst from tremolo strings and another heartfelt plea. Finally the slow music returns, rather beautifully.

Recordings used

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano), Philharmonia Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan (EMI)

Janice Watson (soprano), English Chamber Orchestra / Matthew Best (Hyperion)

Chen Reiss (soprano), Academy of Ancient Music / Richard Egarr (Onyx)

Charlotte Margiono (soprano), Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique / John Eliot Gardiner

Camilla Tilling (soprano), Gabrieli Players / Paul McCreesh (Archiv)

In her interview with Arcana, Chen Reiss talked about approaching Ah! Perfido from two different historical directions. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf brings the romantic drama in a commanding performance, singing with fulsome tone and vibrato. Herbert von Karajan’s sleek orchestral accompaniment makes the piece sound around 70 years younger.

By complete contrast, the leaner tones of the Academy of Ancient Music under Richard Egarr have the excitement of the new, as the strings burst from the blocks. Reiss’s voice is clear and urgent, the words still fresh off the page. Hers is a dramatic account indeed, and Egarr ensures the detail from the orchestra is beautifully shaded.

A mention, too, for Charlotte Margiono, whose clear singing matches John Eliot Gardiner’s detailed account – and for Camilla Tilling, who makes an excellent partnership with Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Players. Not quite as dramatic as Reiss and the AAM though!

Spotify links

This playlist collects most of the available versions mentioned above:

 

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 1792 Cimarosa – Gli Orazi e i Curiazi

Next up 6 German Dances for violin and piano

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