Listening to Beethoven #117 – Quintet for piano and wind in E flat major Op.16


The Freyung in Vienna, from the North-West by Bernardo Bellotto (1758)

Quintet for piano and wind in E flat major Op.16 for piano, clarinet, oboe, horn and bassoon (1796-7, Beethoven aged 26)

1. Grave – Allegro ma non troppo
2. Andante cantabile
3. Rondo (Allegro ma non troppo)

Dedication unknown
Duration 28′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

On his return to Vienna after the successful Berlin trip, Beethoven ‘settled down to a relatively calm life’, writes Daniel Heartz, ‘where he had many well-paying piano pupils, especially young ladies of noble rank. His health was good, and he was composing some of his most charming chamber music at the time.’

Examples of that charm can be found in the Quintet for piano and wind, where we find Beethoven returning to E flat major – his ‘go to’ key for wind. The work is modelled on Mozart’s Quintet in E flat major K452, completed in 1784 for the same instrumental combination of piano, clarinet, oboe, horn and bassoon. One of Beethoven’s closest friends, Hungarian cellist Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovecz, had the autograph score of the Mozart, from where Beethoven took his acquaintance.

Each work is similar in form, cast in three movements. There is a slow introduction to the first movement, a slow movement in B flat major, and a carefree Rondo to finish. Yet the writing itself remains individual, and Richard Wigmore observes how ‘Beethoven…characteristically sets the piano and wind quartet in opposition, so that the outer movements at times resemble a chamber concerto for piano and wind’.

Lewis Lockwood is more critical, lamenting a lack of drama and passion in the first movement when comparing it with the Sonata for piano and cello in G minor Op.5/2. ‘The quality improves in the beautiful opening theme of its slow movement’, he says, but the finale is found ‘lacking Mozart’s perfect blend of imagination and restraint’.

The quintet was premiered on 6 April 1797, at a concert in Ignaz Jahn’s restaurant in Vienna.

Thoughts

It is true, the Quintet is less dramatic than the Cello Sonata – but the two are surely written for very different audiences. This piece would have been for more domestic, intimate music making among friends rather than trying to impress royalty – and its warm textures and collaboration between the quintet confirms that.

As with all the works for wind we have encountered so far, the sonorities are lovely – right from the stately and serious introduction, given in unison by all five instruments. Soon this cuts to a jovial Allegro with winsome melodies. The second movement is a lovely contemplation, introduced by the piano before the lovely sonority of the wind instruments appears once more. There is a lovely horn solo halfway through that steals the show.

The third movement has the catchiest theme, and as it is a Rondo we hear it often, dancing with an attractive turn of foot. It is one of Beethoven’s best earworms so far.

The Beethoven and Mozart quintets fit together hand in glove, which is why they appear on disc together so often. Yet Beethoven’s is a complement rather than a copy, a charming work both to play and to listen to.

Recordings and Spotify link

Pascal Rogé (piano), London Winds [Michael Collins (clarinet), Gareth Hulse (oboe), Richard Watkins (horn), Robin O’Neill (bassoon)]

Gaudier Ensemble [(Susan Tomes (piano), Richard Hosford (clarinet), Douglas Boyd (oboe), Jonathan Williams (horn), Robin O’Neill (bassoon)

Robert Levin (fortepiano), Academy of Ancient Music Chamber Ensemble [Antony Pay (clarinet), Frank de Bruine (oboe), Anthony Halstead (horn), Danny Bond (bassoon)

There is a lovely warm glow to the Gaudier Ensemble slow movement, with flowing piano and a Rondo that dances lightly. The colours are a little sharper in the period instrument version from Robert Levin and the Academy of Ancient Music Chamber Ensemble, but this adds more primary colours to the music, with an appealing rasp to the horn and a crisp clarity to the clarinet, oboe and bassoon

Minute-long clips from the Gaudier Ensemble recording can be heard on the Hyperion website here

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 Haydn 6 String Quartets, Op.76 (The Erdödy Quartets)

Next up Piano Quartet in E flat major Op.16

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