The Kaunitz Palace and Garden, Vienna by Bernardo Bellotto
Trio in B flat major Op.11 for clarinet, cello and piano (1797-8, Beethoven aged 27)
Dedication Countess Maria Wilhelmine von Thun
1. Allegro con brio
3. Tema con variazioni ‘Pria ch’io l’impegno’: Allegretto
Background and Critical Reception
The combination of clarinet, cello and piano was a relatively rare one when Beethoven wrote his trio in 1798. It is thought to have been written for the Viennese clarinettist Joseph Bähr, but was dedicated to Countess Maria Wilhelmine von Thun. Richard Wigmore, writing in his booklet note for Hyperion on the piece, thinks Bähr suggested a theme for the variations Beethoven wrote in the finale – on Josef Weigl’s new comic opera L’amor marinaro which was premiered late in 1797 – and which gives the trio its sometimes-used Gassenhauer nickname.
Daniel Heartz dubs the piece ‘very entertaining’, but Lewis Lockwood is less convinced. ‘Of the lesser works, designed for popularity and little more, the most developed are the Clarinet Trio Op.11 and the Quintet for Piano and Winds Op.16. On its publication in 1798 Beethoven dedicated it to a Countess Thun, presumably the oldest one of several by that title, who a few years earlier had gone on her knees to implore him to play. For her pains she now received a light and flashy reward that moved from a glittering first movement and slow movement to the circus style of its finale, made up of variation on the hit tune Pria ch’io l’impegno from a recent comic opera by Josef Weigl. In once more forcing an inevitable comparison with Mozart, whose E flat major Clarinet Trio, with viola, had been another quiet masterpiece, Beethoven did well to make his piece attractive to audiences and performers, especially cellists, but he was fully aware that instead of attempting a really serious work that could stand up to Mozart’, he was trolling the surface for easy dividends.’
Lockwood’s relative disdain for the piece has not carried over to audiences, nor artists – for as you will read below there are many fine versions of the piece. This in spite of the critic in 1798 who declared that the work was ‘difficult’ and that Beethoven wrote ‘unnaturally’.
What a charming piece this is.
The first theme we hear is an unlikely one. Given that the piece is in B flat major Beethoven seems to want nothing to do with the home key initially, arriving there as though by accident. The second theme is nice, too, given out by the clarinet after a simple and quite dreamy aside in D major. The tone of clarinet, cello and piano is lovely – and while the piano often takes the lead there is plenty for the other two instruments.
The second movement is sublime, a lovely period of reflection with a lyrical theme made for cello. This is also the ideal point to enjoy the colour combination of cello and clarinet in particular which Beethoven clearly relished.
The composer has a great deal of fun with the ‘Gassenhauer’ theme, which has a wide set of variations. The perky theme is taken for a run first by the piano, then through a canon between cello and clarinet, then another upright exchange with brilliant high notes from the clarinet. The fourth variation finds minor key stillness, deep in thought, but is completely swamped by tempestuous scales from the piano, blasted out fortissimo. Variation 7 returns to the minor key, in a mock-stern funeral march, then we hear a glorious high cello and clarinet unison for the eighth. The ninth and final variation goes far and wide, allowing the piano room to roam before a bracing coda.
Recordings used and Spotify links
Sabine Meyer (clarinet), Heinrich Schiff (cello), Rudolf Buchbinder (piano) (EMI)
Gervase de Peyer (clarinet), Jacqueline du Pré (cello), Daniel Barenboim (piano) (EMI)
Karl Leister (clarinet), Pierre Fournier (cello), Wilhelm Kempff (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
The Nash Ensemble (Virgin Classics)
Jon Manasse (clarinet), Clive Greensmith (cello), Jon Nakamatsu (piano) (Harmonia Mundi)
Paul Meyer (clarinet), Claudio Bohórquez (cello), Eric Le Sage (piano) (Alpha)
The trio led by Jon Manasse give a sparkling performance, of which you can hear half on Spotify due to time restrictions. Sabine Meyer and her trio are also superb, with Heinrich Schiff excelling in the slow movement. Karl Leister, Pierre Fournier and Wilhelm Kempff had a great rapport, as do Eric Le Sage and his trio – all of them emphasising how much pleasure this work can bring as pure chamber music to be enjoyed together.
You can listen to these versions on the playlist below:
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 1798 Eybler Clarinet Concerto in B flat major
Next up String Trio in G major Op.9/1