Switched on – Yotam Avni: Was Here (Kompakt)

What’s the story?

For his debut album, Tel Aviv producer Yotam Avni is looking to combine two of his deep musical loves – Detroit techno and the sort of jazz you might hear on the ECM label. With that in mind, Kompakt is his ideal label home, and the Cologne label have been encouraging his solo output through a succession of well-received tracks and remixes. Avni is honing his sound, bringing it back to the elements – and Was Here, his first album after almost a decade of recording, is a clear statement of his musical identity.

What’s the music like?

The priority here is the rhythm, which Avni often sets out at the start of the track – but melody and texture come through as each piece develops to assume equal importance. There are some sultry atmospheres here, especially when the jazzier elements are introduced. The muted trumpet of It Was What It Was works very well, as does Free Darius Now.

A sparing use of vocals is also effective, meaning the guest appearances of Georg Levin (Island Hopper) and dOP (with trumpeter Greg Paulus on Just Another Day) really stand out. So too does Vortex, a really fine track that grows into its main feature, a hypnotic chant, creating a smoky atmosphere.

Does it all work?

Yes. This is classy deep techno but with a hot-weather twist, very atmospheric and with a few really nice elements worked in from other musical forms. Avni gets his rhythm tracks on the deep side and they provide a solid foundation on which he can always build.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Another good find for Kompakt! Highly recommended.

Listen

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Listening to Beethoven #4 – Rondo in A major


The sitting Ludwig van Beethoven or draft for a Beethoven monument (Friedrich von Amerling – Washed pen drawing, mid-19th century (Beethoven-Haus Bonn, NE 209)

Rondo in A major WoO 49 for piano (1783, Beethoven aged 12)

Dedication not known
Duration 2’30

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Very little is known of this short Rondo – and even its date of composition appears to be in doubt, at least from its appearance on a DG anthology played by Mikhail Pletnev. In his writing about the set, Barry Cooper places it around Beethoven’s output at the age of 12 – and its stylistic features would seem to confirm that.

Thoughts

The Rondo sounds like a study piece, with its polite theme – but as time goes on it turns out to be a bit of an earworm, especially when repeated and developed as the Rondo form demands.

With a classic Rondo form of A-B-A-C-A (each letter referring to the appearance of a theme) the ‘A’ section is the polite one. ‘B’ is more flowing, the music shifting to C major, then ‘C’ throws off the shackles a bit more before sliding rather provocatively back to ‘A’ – a subtle but eye catching chromatic movement. There will be many more to come in Beethoven!

Recordings used

Mikhail Pletnev (DG); Jenő Jandó (Naxos), Ronald Brautigam (BIS)

All three performances are good. Pletnev is slightly more ‘pointy’ in his delivery, and that works well with the theme. Jenő Jandó goes with the flow nicely. Ronald Brautigam’s version appears on volume 13 of his traversal of the complete Beethoven piano works. This performance, with various other Rondos and short pieces, is on the fortepiano and is slightly lower in pitch, in keeping with pianos of Beethoven’s time. He gives it plenty of character.

Spotify links

Mikhail Pletnev

Jenő Jandó

Ronald Brautigam

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/4BJCc2kWe7McJUVsR7t7bF?si=t8WaPuz4SIGhzDawjH2avA

Also written in 1783 Clementi 3 Sonatas for piano Op.9. You can read a little more about Clementi on Arcana here

Next up Piano Sonata in E flat major, ‘Electoral’

Listening to Beethoven #3 – Fugue for organ in D major


The organ of the Minorite Church in Bonn, which Beethoven played at the age of 12. Photograph from 1905, in the collection of the Beethoven-Haus Bonn

Fugue in D major WoO 31 for organ (1783, Beethoven aged 12)

Dedication not known
Duration 2’15

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Although Beethoven regularly played the organ in his years at the Bonn court, he wrote virtually no organ music – and what survives is certainly not well known. The DG notes for their complete Beethoven edition describe it as a ‘rather modest two-voice fugue in D, written at the age of 11 or 12’ – and that’s it.

Thoughts

Yes it may be modest – and in the end it is relatively unmemorable – but there is something very impressive about the sure-footed way this fugue goes about its business. The thematic entries are textbook, Beethoven following the rules when it comes to writing a fugue, but the arrival at the big held note on the pedals towards the end feels inevitable – as does the conclusion.

Recordings used

Simon Preston (DG), Janette Fishell (Naxos)

Whereas Simon Preston’s version keeps moving it has quite a remote tone, recorded at more of a distance. Janette Fishell (Naxos) gives the fugue a warmer registration on the organ and brings it to life more. The final cadence feels more impressive in her hands.

Spotify links

Simon Preston

Janette Fishell

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/4BJCc2kWe7McJUVsR7t7bF?si=yrxRSnPxTe6qtJRREUNSLQ

Also written in 1782 AlbrechtsbergerMass in D major Albrechtsberger was Beethoven’s teacher for a while, and you can read about him here

Next up Rondo in A major

Listening to Beethoven #2 – Schilderung eines Mädchens


This Peanuts strip was first published on December 16, 1977, drawn by Charles M. Schulz (c)PNTS

Schilderung eines Mädchens WoO 107 (“Schildern, willst du Freund, soll ich dir Elisen?”) for voice and piano (1783, Beethoven aged 12)

Dedication not known
Text Unattributed
Duration 0’35

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

In his landmark biography of Beethoven, Alexander Thayer tells of how, by the age of 12, he was the ‘cembalist in the orchestra’. This was an important position within the Bonn Court orchestra for keyboard – presumably harpsichord rather than fortepiano – from which Beethoven would conduct the orchestra in rehearsals, filling a gap while the Electoral Kapellmeister was absent on a journey ‘of several months’.

The suggestion is that in this position lies the root of Beethoven’s powerful music, where he had to play up in volume to make himself heard. It gave him little time for composition, however, until the Kapellmeister returned – whereupon this short song was written and printed.

Thoughts

The first of many brief forays into song for Beethoven, Schilderung eines Mädchens (loosely translated as Portrayal of a Maiden) is almost over before it begins. It has a relatively high line, and a bold and bright melody. The young composer may be just getting a feel for how the voice behaves, but his instincts already appear to be sound.

Recordings used

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone) and Jörg Demus (piano)
Peter Schreier (tenor) and Walter Olbertz (piano)
Hermann Prey (baritone) and Leonard Hokanson (piano)

All three recordings are in a different key. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is full-bodied in E major, but tenor Peter Schreier raises the tonality up to G with a brightly voiced account. Hermann Prey‘s account is very much slower (almost twice as long!). Luxurious in tone, it is beautifully sung but really stretches the words out. Leonard Hokanson shadows his every move.

Spotify links

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Jörg Demus:

Peter Schreier and Walter Olbertz:

Hermann Prey and Leonard Hokanson:

 

Also written in 1783 Mozart Duos for violin and viola, K423 & K424

Next up Fugue in D major

Listening to Beethoven #1 – 9 Variations on a March by Dressler


Ernst Dressler (left) and the young Ludwig van Beethoven

9 Variations on a March by Dressler WoO 63 for piano (1782, Beethoven aged 12)

Dedication not known
Duration 7′ (13’30 with repeats included)

Listen

What’s the theme like?

Dressler’s theme is serious in tone, and foursquare. The march is a slow one but it gives plenty of room for the young composer to work with his source material.

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s first published work was released into the public domain when the composer was barely 12 years old. Its release was accompanied with a glowing reference from his teacher at the time, Christian Neefe. Jan Swafford takes up the story in his recent Beethoven biographer. ‘He plays the clavier very skillfully and with power, reads at sight very well, and…plays chiefly The Well Tempered Clavier of Sebastian Bach…He (Beethoven) has had nine variations for the pianoforte engraved in Mannheim. This youthful genius…would surely become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were he to continue as he has begun.’

The variation form was a good way of exercising students; seeing how inventive they could be when given a theme as a starting point. Talking with Arcana about the Dressler variations, pianist Cyprien Katsaris notes how “this piece is variations by a kid, and it could be considered in the beginning a little bit boring. His teacher probably told him to keep the same tempo, but I think there is a probability that if Beethoven played that piece as an adult he would play it in a different way to when he was under the guidance of that teacher. What a pity we didn’t have recordings earlier!”

Barry Cooper‘s booklet note for DG’s New Complete Edition of Beethoven notes how variations of the time were usually in a major key, and the adoption of C minor ‘feels like something of a statement’. It is a key we will traverse many more times as Beethoven’s portfolio unfolds. Swafford interprets the choice of C minor and its serious material ‘might form a memorial for the boy’s recently passed, still-lamented teacher and friend Franz Georg Rovantini‘, and that the final variation is a ‘triumph over sorrow’.

Thoughts

The young Beethoven takes the relatively basic Dressler theme and works nine variations from it, beginning in serious mood but gradually loosening his approach to explore different techniques.

For eight of the nine variations we keep the darker colour of the minor key, staying true to the mood of the theme but gradually adding more to it, with a few grace notes (variation 1), relatively polite sequential figures (2), then extra arpeggios in the middle parts (3), and chromatic inflections in the right hand (4). The fifth variation is more playful.

The sense of a composer running with greater freedom is clear, as the fifth variation is really let off the leash, the right hand roaming as it wishes. Variation six exchanges trills and more playful melodies between the two hands, while the seventh is in lilting triple time. The eighth feels like music we have heard already, with flowing arpeggios. Until now all variations have remained in the minor key, but this heightens the moment Beethoven switches to the major for the last variation, a terrific flurry of notes for the right hand which show off his technical prowess. Not many 12-year-olds could play music like this!

Recordings used

Cécile Ousset (Eloquence), Mikhail Pletnev (DG); Cyprien Katsaris (Piano 21)

Cécile Ousset includes all of Beethoven’s repeat markings, so each half of each variation is repeated, the piece extended to 13 minutes. Hers is a gracious account, brilliantly executed at the end.
Pletnev is very straight-faced initially, and plays around with the tempo a good deal, but goes for broke at the end to make the final variation sound like a piece of C.P.E. Bach.
Katsaris, including revised material by Beethoven, is in a room with a good deal of reverberation, heightening the serious theme and quite deliberate initially – but with terrific excitement generated in the fifth and final variations.

Spotify links

Mikhail Pletnev

Cécile Ousset

Cyprien Katsaris

 

Also written in 1782 Haydn Symphony no.73 in D major ‘La Chasse’

Next up Schilderung eines Mädchens

You can read Cyprien Katsaris’ full interview about Beethoven with Arcana soon.