Listening to Beethoven #126 – 8 Variations on ‘Une fièvre brûlante’, WoO 72

beethoven-gretryLudwig van Beethoven and André Grétry (right)

8 Variations on ‘Une fièvre brûlante’ from Grétry’s Richard Coeur de Lion, WoO 72 for piano (1795-98, Beethoven aged 27)

Dedication Countess Anna Margarete von Browne
Duration 7′

written by Ben Hogwood

Listen

What’s the theme like?

The theme is a duet from André Grétry’s opera Richard Coeur de Lion, and it is an aria for the soprano playing Marguerite. It is sung in this clip – one of the very few available – by a tenor:

Background and Critical Reception

Jean-Charles Hoffelé, writing about Beethoven’s variations in the booklet note for Cécile Ousset’s rather wonderful recordings of many of the variations for Decca France, saw the beginning of a new stylistic phase in the composer’s variations on Wranitzky’s Das Waldmädchen, finished in the year prior to this work and recently covered by our listening.

These variations, on an aria from Grétry’s Richard Coeur de Lion, he says, ‘confirm this trend. Variations? No, more like an opera for piano with harmonies that Schumann would not have disavowed, with characters and a stage, and with a vast range of mood and a sense of Beethoven enjoying creating contrasts all the way to a finale that has the kind of euphoria found again in the denouement of Fidelio. This is a major collection, but one that pianists are unfamiliar with’.

That much is certainly true, for I was unable to find any other notes about the collection, not even in Deutsche Grammophon’s Complete Beethoven edition.

Thoughts

The first variation has an idly wandering right hand, the second even more so as the chromatic approach starts to bear fruit. Variation 3 takes off at quite a lick, the melody dressed with so many ornaments that it is barely recognisable, before the fourth variation straightens the smile and takes us into the minor key.

The sixth variation is a stern march, with extra dressing from the right hand, but Beethoven saves the real surprises and fireworks for the end. A flurry of notes in C major sound like the accompaniment to a comedy silent film before the music suddenly stops and takes a sideways glance into A flat major. A very pensive mood is set, but only briefly, for Beethoven wrenches us back ‘home’ with a quickfire finish.

Recordings used and Spotify links

John Ogdon (piano) (EMI)
Gianluca Cascioli (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Cécile Ousset (piano) (Eloquence)
Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano) (BIS)

The Spotify playlist below includes all of the versions listed above. The Variations may not have been recorded a great deal on disc, but each of these four versions has considerable merit. Brautigam is upfront and full of character, while John Ogdon’s virtuosity is beyond reproach. Ousset brings a touch of elegance to her account, as does Cascioli, whose slightly reserved account of the theme serves him well when the variations really get going.

Also written in 1798 Wranitzky Grande Sinfonie caracteristique in C minor Op.31

Next up Piano Sonata no.6 in F major Op.10/2

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