Listening to Beethoven #173 – 7 Variations on ‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen’ WoO 46

Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (right, in a portrait by Johann Georg Edlinger)

12 Variations on ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte Op.66 for piano and cello (1796, Beethoven aged 26)

Dedication Count Johann von Brown-Camus
Duration 9′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

The theme is a duet from Act 1 of Mozart‘s opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), between the characters Pamino and Papageno, as below. It is an attractive tune in triple time, shared between the piano and cello in its higher register.

Background and Critical Reception

This set of variations is the third and last from Beethoven for piano and cello – and the second to use a theme from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. The inspiration is thought to have been two new productions of the opera appearing in Vienna in 1801. Steven Isserlis notes that despite its equal writing for both instruments, the first edition of Beethoven’s new work ‘fails to even mention the cello on its title page: pianistic chauvinism’.

This is all the stranger given the cello’s elevated role in Beethoven’s writing. As Misha Donat observes, writing for Philips’ recording by Heinrich Schiff and Till Fellner, ‘for the first time the two players are treated very much as equals. Their equality is inherent in the theme itself, which is laid out in such a way that the piano takes the part of Pamina, and the cello the answering voice of Papageno.

Isserlis takes the variations ‘depict various aspects of romance – from excited gossip to lofty ardour’. Marc D. Moskovitz and R. Larry Todd, in their wonderful book Beethoven’s Cello, observe how the fourth variation travels through the ‘parallel, though remote and rare, key of E-flat minor’, and Beethoven ‘reaches for the extremes’, the piano in its high register and the cello down low. Then, the three final variations ‘further deconstruct Mozart’s theme’, the last with a coda.

Thoughts

As the authors observe, Beethoven is bringing his ‘duo’ works to an ever more even keel. The theme here is a case in point, piano and cello united in their sharing of melodic material, and some effortless dialogue. Soon Beethoven is working through a busy second variation, before spicing up the melody with some chromatic additions. The questions and answers between the instruments continue, before the striking fourth variation in the minor key – tricky tuning for the cello here!

The two instruments have a lot of fun, finishing each other’s sentences in the fifth variation. Variation 6 is a florid affair, first for piano then cello, before the substantial finale, with the exuberant interplay of its coda – which also goes on a forceful excursion into the minor key. On the music’s return ‘home’ there is a bit more sparkling interplay before the two instruments sign off convincingly.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Adrian Brendel (cello), Alfred Brendel (piano) (Decca)
Mischa Maisky (cello), Martha Argerich (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Miklós Perényi (cello), András Schiff (piano) (ECM)
Steven Isserlis (cello), Robert Levin (fortepiano) (Hyperion)
Nicolas Altstaedt (cello), Alexandre Lonquich (piano) (Alpha)

The Spotify playlist below includes all but one of the versions listed above – with the opportunity to hear a clip from Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin’s version on the Hyperion website

All versions are excellent, with operatic flair in evidence from Perenyi and Maisky. Once again though it is Robert Levin and Steven Isserlis who get to the heart of the piece and the enjoyment it can provide.

Also written in 1801 Woelfl Duo for cello and piano Op.31

Next up Lob auf dem dicken (musical joke) WoO100

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.