Listening to Beethoven #206 – 3 Marches for piano duet Op.45

ballesio-duet
The duet by Giuseppe Ballesio

3 Marches for piano duet Op.45 (1803, Beethoven aged 32)

Dedication Princess Esterházy
Duration 14′

no.1 in C minor
no.2 in E flat major
no.3 in D major

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s return to the piano duet came through a commission from Count von Browne, the dedicatee of his three String Trios Op.9. Peter Hill, writing booklet notes for one of his last recordings for Delphian in 2020 (with Benjamin Frith), refers to a story given by Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries. Ries had been entertaining the Browne house with music by Beethoven, and mischievously included a march of his own which he passed off as a piece by his teacher. It was well received, but the joke backfired when he had to repeat the piece in the company of Beethoven himself.

Fortunately Beethoven saw the funny side, and also got the commission. As Hill notes, the three marches bear no resemblance to another famous march from later in the year – the funeral march second movement of the Eroica symphony – being substantial works in their own right.

Thoughts

These are really meaty pieces, close on five minutes each in duration. They are clearly structured with bold, contrasting ‘trio’ sections, too – much more so than the relatively slight collections of dances we have had from Beethoven to date.

The first piece has a grand stature, very upright and noble as the first theme is vigorously announced. As it progresses, however, Beethoven introduces a few subtle doubts, playing with major and minor tonality in a way Schubert might have done. There is quite a substantial middle section, which possibly hints at the forthcoming Fifth symphony.

The second march retains a heroic air, due partly to its key of E flat major, though its trio moves into A flat major for a playful section powered entirely by a rumbling bass note low down in the register of the piano. There are some unpredictable, fantasia-like elements here, but the familiar rumble is never far away.

The bracing third march is also powered by the bass, Beethoven moving into D major for a triumphant finale which is notable for its staccato, sharply dotted rhythms.

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Peter Hill & Benjamin Frith (Delphian)
Amy and Sara Hamann (Grand Piano)
Jörg Demus & Norman Shetler (Deutsche Grammophon)

Amy and Sara Hamann have recorded the marches twice – once on a modern Yamaha instrument and again on an instrument from Nanette Streicher, née Stein, ca. 1815. Both interpretations are lively, though on the original instrument there is extra bite to the rhythms. Peter Hill and Benjamin Frith clearly enjoy their account, with a natural give and take between the two. Demus and Shetler go slower on the first march, to good effect, before an extra snap to the rhythms of the second and third.

Also written in 1803 Viotti Trio for two violins and cello in E major

Next up Der Wachtelschlag WoO 129

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