Listening to Beethoven #152 – Sonata for piano and horn in F major Op.17

giovanni-punto

Giovanni Punto, the dedicatee of Beethoven’s Horn Sonata. Artist unknown

Sonata for piano and horn in F major Op.17 (1799-1800, Beethoven aged 29)

1. Allegro moderato
2. Poco adagio, quasi andante
3. Rondo. Allegro moderato

Dedication Giovanni Punto
Duration 15′

Listen

by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

Although Beethoven had written a good deal for wind instruments up until now, this was the first time he had written a solo sonata for one. However as horn player Richard Watkins notes, it is ‘typical of Beethoven’s sonatas in that it could easily be described as a piano sonata with a horn obligato.’

There is a definite date for the first performance of this work, given by Czech horn player Jan Václav Stich (better known in Vienna as Giovanni Punto) and Beethoven on the piano at Vienna’s Burgtheater on 18 April 1800 in Vienna. Punto had also played Mozart’s work, so had an impressive musical pedigree. The story runs, however, that Beethoven arrived in Vienna the day before giving a concert with Punto to find a new horn sonata advertised – which he had not yet written! The next day he had completed a horn part, improvising his own role at the piano. The audience warmed to the new music so much that there was a standing ovation and a repeat performance.

There is a cello arrangement of the work, made by Beethoven himself, which falls easily into the stringed instrument’s range. Steven Isserlis, while noting that it is ‘certainly not a profound work’, enjoys the fun as much as the composer himself. ‘This could not be by anybody else’, he says.

Thoughts

The horn begins with a breezy call, to which the piano responds – and then the two engage in lively dialogue, which the piano begins to dominate. Beethoven’s writing is exuberant, sometimes reckless for the piano – no doubt with his audience in mind. The freshness of his invention is clear, the two players pulling back the volume for a soft-hearted second theme in the first movement. There are some lovely rasps from the horn at the end.

Things take a solemn turn for a very short while, Beethoven slipping into the minor key for a plaintive statement from the horn. Rather than a slow movement proper, however, this acts as a short introduction to a fast third movement. This one is a little more poised than the first but still good fun, with Beethoven asking plenty of the horn player with some wide leaps in the melody.

Overall this is a light-hearted piece, which no doubt made a strong impression at its premiere in spite of the haste with which it was written. It’s good fun and not to be taken too seriously!

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Dennis Brain (horn), Denis Matthews (fortepiano) (EMI)
Hermann Baumann (horn), Stanley Hoogland (fortepiano) (Teldec)
David Pyatt (horn), Martin Jones (piano) (Erato)
Richard Watkins (horn), Julius Drake (piano) (Signum Classics)
Barry Tuckwell (horn), Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano) (Decca)

There are some very fine versions of this piece, with the Tuckwell – Ashkenazy and Pyatt – Jones partnerships standing out as particularly fine. Yet Dennis Brain is in a league of his own, with a superb account matched by Denis Matthews.

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 1800 Gyrowetz – Divertissement for piano, violin or flute and cello Op.50

Next up String Quartet in F major Op.18/1

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