Listening to Beethoven #116 – 2 Rondos Op.51


Max Klinger´s Beethoven monument in Leipzig (1902)

2 Rondos Op.51 for piano (thought to be from 1796-7, Beethoven aged 26)

no.1 in C major
no.2 in G major

Dedication Countess Henriette von Lichnowsky (no.2)
Duration 15′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

In the 1790s Beethoven only assigned an opus number to new works in a ‘sonata’ form, while compositions such as these two Rondos had to wait until later for publication. Very little is written about them in Beethoven tomes, other than the second piece carrying a dedication to Countess Henriette von Lichnowsky.

The two pieces were seemingly written apart, but dates are inconclusive. Keith Anderson, writing in the booklet notes for Jenő Jandó’s Naxos recording, looks at the musical content. On no.1, ‘marked Moderato e grazioso, it offers a principal theme in characteristic singing style, contrasted in particular with a more dramatic C minor episode, after which the main theme returns in various guises.’

On the second, ‘with the opening direction Andante cantabile e grazioso, the rondo contains an E major episode of greater brilliance and further contrast before the final varied return of the main theme.’

Thoughts

Keith Anderson’s observation on the singing style of the first Rondo rings true. It has grace and poise, occasionally feels like it’s going to break out into more of a dance piece but otherwise is elegant…until the second section, where an unexpectedly fierce C minor asserts itself. There is a Mozartian simplicity at play in the way Beethoven makes a little go a long way.

The second rondo, a substantial piece lasting nearly ten minutes, is also quite graceful in its main theme but has these intriguing, flickering scales that travel up through the parts. The section ‘B’, in the relatively distant key of E major, feels like an exploration towards the unknown. There is a bit of an outburst, before eventually returning to the relative safety of the main material.

Both pieces are an assertion of Beethoven’s confidence in writing graceful but substantial material, showing he can comfortably hold the listener’s interest through an economy of works. They already feel like subtle pointers towards his later style.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Radu Lupu (Decca)
Alfred Brendel (Decca, no.1)
Ronald Brautigam (BIS)
Jenő Jandó (Naxos)
Rudolf Buchbinder (Teldec)
Olli Mustonen (BMG)

Some excellent versions here…but time and again I found myself returning to Radu Lupu for his compelling playing.

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 1797 Dussek Duet for harp and piano Op.38

Next up Quintet for piano and wind in E flat major Op.16

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