Listening to Beethoven #198 – Trio in E flat major Op.38

A view over Vienna river and St. Charles’s cathedral by Franz Gerasch (before 1906)

Trio in E flat major Op.38 for clarinet / violin, cello / bassoon and piano (1803, Beethoven aged 32)

  1. Adagio – Allegro con brio
  2. Adagio cantabile
  3. Tempo di menuetto
  4. Tema con variazioni: Andante
  5. Scherzo: Allegro molto e vivace
  6. Andante con moto alla marcia – Presto

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s Septet was a considerable success on its appearance in 1799, creating demand for the work to be arranged in a number of other instrumental combinations. Beethoven produced two trio versions, just as he did with the Op.11 Clarinet Trio – one for clarinet, cello and piano, with a substitution for cello with bassoon encouraged, and another for the more conventional piano trio (violin, cello and piano).

Writing for Hyperion Records, bassoonist Laurence Perkins details the specifics of the arrangement. The re-voicing gives (for the most part) the septet’s string parts to the piano, while much of the original clarinet part is preserved. A good deal of the cello line comes from the bassoon part of the septet, with occasional additions from the cello and horn parts. Perkins observes that there were far fewer bassoonists around than cellists in those times, but that offering the different choices of instrumentation would help the selling potential of the music. As he says, there is a strong case for performing this version with bassoon rather than cello, for “it restores that very special link between the clarinet and bassoon which is such a special feature of the original septet.”

He goes on to praise Beethoven’s achievement in the arrangements. “By transcribing the string parts with Beethoven’s characteristic pianistic style, it sounds totally convincing, as if it had been originally conceived in this form. From the spacious elegance of the adagio introduction to the first movement, leading into the energy, expression and momentum of the allegro con brio, we are on a very similar musical journey to the septet itself. The slow movement, adagio cantabile, remains as a wonderfully melodic vehicle for the clarinet’s lyrical qualities, while the minuet and trio is every bit as characterful, the bassoon adding its own brand of wit in the cheeky horn passages of the trio section. The theme and variations is particularly effective with lots of imaginative interplay between the three instruments, and the scherzo retains all the energy and excitement of the original version. The dark introduction to the final movement leads into the vibrant, energetic presto with the famous violin cadenza faithfully reproduced on the piano.”

Thoughts

If I were listening to this work cold, I would think it to be a substantial new piano trio almost in the form of a serenade. However with the knowledge that it is in effect another version of the Septet, it is easy to pine for the colours Beethoven uses in his expert blending of the seven different players. That said, this is an extremely effective arrangement, with or without clarinet and bassoon, and the three parts are ideally balanced. The music never feels too congested, and there is room for the wit and charm of the original to come through at every turn.

The bassoon / cello has an attractive solo to carry the second movement Adagio Cantabile to a higher plane, ably supported by the other two instruments. The cheeky subject of the Tempo di Menuetto isn’t quite as effective without the rhythmic prompting of the double bass, but leaves its witty mark nonetheless.

My personal preference would be for the clarinet / bassoon / piano version, going in line with Perkins’ argument and because the melodic ideas translate really nicely to the wind instruments. The conventional piano trio would not have to wait long for another original piece!

Recordings used and Spotify Links

Martin Roscoe (piano), Sarah Watts (clarinet), Laurence Perkins (bassoon) (Hyperion)
Judith Kent Stillman (piano), Richard Stoltzman (clarinet), Michael Reynolds (cello) (KidsClassics)
Adrian Brendel (piano), Pascal Moraguès (clarinet), Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro (cello) (Paraty)
Beaux Arts Trio [Menahem Pressler (piano), Isidore Cohen (violin), Peter Wiley (cello)] (Philips)

This delightful piece translates well to its smaller medium, and is served by some thoroughly enjoyable performances. Perkins’ own, with clarinettist Sarah Watts and pianist Martin Roscoe, is a treat – while Richard Stoltzmann overseas a bright reading on KidsClassics. The Beaux Arts Trio give a good performance on Philips with the piano trio version, but the clarinet really does help preserve the spirit of Beethoven’s original melodies. You can hear the Roscoe / Watts / Perkins version on the Hyperion website

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 1799 Haydn String Quartet in G major Op. 77/1

Next up Piano Concerto no.1 in C major Op.15

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