Listening to Beethoven #201 – 5 Variations on ‘Rule, Britannia’ WoO79

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Beethoven and Thomas Arne (a lithography caricature after Francesco Bartolozzi)

7 Variations on ‘God save the King’ WoO78 for two pianos (1799-1803, Beethoven aged 32)

Dedication George Thomson
Duration 5’30”

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What’s the theme like?

The theme is one of the best-known tunes in the British Isles today. Rule, Britannia! was written by James Thomson in 1740, and set to music by Thomas Arne the same year. It first appeared in Arne’s opera Alfred, but went on to gain its standing as one of Britain’s most patriotic songs through frequent performance at the Last Night of the Proms:

Background and Critical Reception

This is the second of two British national tunes taken up by Beethoven after an approach from George Thomson in 1803. Towards the end of the year Beethoven sent him the variations on God Save The King and this smaller set of five, taking its lead from Thomas Arne’s famous tune.

Angela Hewitt writes how the variations, ‘besides being a humorous offering from the composer, are also a great piece on which to work, and demand careful preparation’. After presenting such a rousing theme, Beethoven surprisingly gives us some rumbling in the bass (maybe a nod to the navy—it sort of sounds like being underwater), though we come out of it eventually. Variation 2 has a lovely lyrical, syncopated line, while variation 3 has typical Beethoven fingerwork. The fourth variation goes into an angry B minor and gives us the theme in recognizable form, again with those bass rumblings. Things lighten up for the last variation, onto which he tacks a very amusing coda. I hope your first reaction at the end will be to laugh!’

Thoughts

Once again Beethoven’s sense of humour comes to the fore in this variations set. It takes a little longer, however, for as the Rule, Britannia theme is presented the mood is chaste and respectful. The first variation does indeed sound mysterious, and the lilting second continues the watery association, a kind of barcarolle.

For the third variation the mood is busy and energetic, then the fourth puts on a stern countenance and heads for the lower reaches of the piano again. The slip back to D major from the darker B minor is effortlessly done – at which point the music races away to a sparkling fifth variation and impudent coda. Once again, beautifully and amusingly done!

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Cécile Ousset (Eloquence)
Rudolf Buchbinder (Teldec)
Ronald Brautigam (BIS)
John Ogdon (EMI)
Olli Mustonen (Decca)
Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)

The variations give a rousing finish to Angela Hewitt’s superb new disc of Beethoven variations on Hyperion, with the first variation appropriately strange as it plumbs the murky depths of the piano. Ousset is typically classy with her account, while Ronald Brautigam is very much outdoors in the full spray of the waves. His third variation in particular is a treat.

You can listen to an excerpt from the recording by Angela Hewitt, released in 2021, on the Hyperion website

Also written in 1803 Krommer Oboe Concerto in F major Op.37

Next up Serenade for piano and flute in D major Op.41

Listening to Beethoven #200 – 7 Variations on ‘God save the King’ WoO78

beethoven-kaiser-franz

Beethoven and Joseph Kreutzinger – Kaiser Franz I, ruler of Austria in 1803. Portrait by Joseph Kreutzinger c.1815

7 Variations on ‘God save the King’ WoO78 for two pianos (1799-1803, Beethoven aged 32)

Dedication George Thomson
Duration 9’30”

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Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven continued to use the variation form as something of a compositional playground, while on the other hand completing works of an ever-expanding structure, such as the Kreutzer Sonata we have just appraised.

His source material was imaginatively drawn, and on occasion to him suggested by others. As Angela Hewitt writes for Hyperion. ‘it probably comes as a surprise to many to know that Beethoven wrote variations on the current British national anthem….but indeed he did. In 1803 he was approached by George Thomson, a civil servant living in Edinburgh who was passionate about collecting folk songs from his own country. He wanted Beethoven to compose six sonatas on Scottish melodies—a project which never materialized, but which started a business relationship that lasted until 1820. For Thomson, Beethoven completed some 150 arrangements of Scottish, Welsh and Irish folk songs (including Auld lang syne). Towards the end of 1803, he sent him these two sets of variations for piano, saying they weren’t too difficult and hoping they would have much success.’

Beethoven was keen to ‘show the English what a blessing they have’ with that tune’, which had by 1795 found use in Prussia as a royal anthem.’.

Thoughts

It comes as no surprise to report that Beethoven has a good deal of fun with this tune. It is almost crying out for the slightly irreverent but highly musical treatment it gets at his hands, from the skittish rhythms of the second variation to the rumbling bass of the left hand in the third.

The fourth variation resorts to the minor key but is not as downcast as Beethoven has tended towards in previous variation sets. Soon we recapture the tongue in cheek mood through a march (variation six) and a mischievous coda, which runs from po-faced solemnity to outrageous gymnastics for the pianist.

A thoroughly entertaining ten minutes offering the firmest possible proof of Beethoven’s sense of humour. A good one to pull out at dinner parties, too!

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Cécile Ousset (Eloquence)
Rudolf Buchbinder (Teldec)
Ronald Brautigam (BIS)
Alfred Brendel (Regis)
John Ogdon (EMI)
Olli Mustonen (Decca)
Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)

There are some very entertaining versions in the list above. If anything Beethoven’s humour sounds most brazen on a fortepiano, giving Ronald Brautigam’s version extra edge. Cécile Ousset  is typically classy, Buchbinder too, while Hewitt’s new recording shows how much she clearly loves Beethoven’ send-up of one of the world’s most famous tunes.

You can listen to an excerpt from the recording by Angela Hewitt, released in 2021, on the Hyperion website

Also written in 1803 Pierre Rode Violin Concerto no.7 in A minor Op.9

Next up 5 Variations on Rule Britannia WoO79

On record – Ronald Center: Chamber and Instrumental Music Volume 2 – String Quartets 1-3 (The Fejes Quartet) (Toccata Classics)

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Robin Center
String Quartet no.1 (c1955)
String Quartet no.2 (1962-4)
String Quartet no.3 (1967)

Fejes Quartet [Tamás Fejes and Yoan Hlebarov (violins), Theodore Chung Lei (viola), Balázs Renczés (cello)

Toccata Classics TOCC0533 [70’34”]

Producer / Engineer Michael Ponder

Recorded 29 June – 2 July 2019 at RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics continues its coverage of the Chamber and Instrumental Music by Ronald Center (1913-73) with this release of his three string quartets, written over his final 12 years of creativity and illustrating in full measure the strengths and weaknesses of his composing.

What’s the music like?

Born in Aberdeen then resident in the town of Huntly during his final three decades, Center was evidently a circumspect and retiring figure – if a hard taskmaster for those who studied with him. His modest output includes the powerful cantata Dona nobis pacem (issued on LP by Altarus back in the 1980s and well worth a new recording) and three string quartets – the first being the only work of his which saw publication in his lifetime. Taken as a whole, they epitomize an idiom that is trenchant and idiosyncratic, but often touching in its vulnerability.

The First Quartet is launched by an introduction whose dense textures duly set up the main Allegro by turns forthright and acerbic, its dissonance imbued with stealthy onward motion. There follows a scherzando-like movement whose tensile rhythms underpin ideas of a folk-inflected vitality, then an Adagio where facets of chorale and canon merge into a plangent and haunting threnody. After its equivocal opening bars, the final Allegro maintains a keen impetus – spurred on by pronounced ostinato patterns – through to its curtly decisive close.

The Second Quartet is on an incrementally larger scale, the opening movement setting forth with a proclamatory summons which the main Allegro unfolds in varied and often ingenious ways – not least the way its deceptively episodic trajectory evolves a long-term momentum. There follows a Vivace whose waspish demeanour is by no means devoid of humour, then a Mesto whose modal inflection and wistful central section make it the work’s emotional heart. Dance elements pervade the finale, an Allegro of headlong and ultimately unresolved energy.

The Third Quartet is outwardly more exploratory in its intensive use of serial elements and a seven-movement format, out of which larger sub-groupings emerge. Hence the opening two movements outline a methodical then ruminative first part; balanced by the speculative then quizzical, and impetuous then halting character of those which follow. That leaves the final Allegro to provide its forceful if increasingly eloquent and not a little fatalistic conclusion to a work which, though he was to live for a further six years, proved to be the composer’s last.

Does it all work?

Almost. Center was evidently a composer fully aware of what had been written in Europe up to the Second World War and after 1945, yet his three quartets suggest an ongoing struggle to redefine the possibilities of Bartók and Shostakovich et al in his own terms – hence leading to a sense of frustration, even inhibition, which is reflected in the frequent formal and expressive discontinuities of each piece. Qualities that come over in these excellent accounts by the Fejes Quartet, whose interpretative equivocation is – necessarily? – bound up with that of the music.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The first two quartets have been recorded (by the Saltire and Isla Quartets respectively) but having all three in first-rate sound with insightful notes by Alasdair Grant can only be to Center’s benefit. Might it be possible to record the music for string orchestra in due course?

Listen

Buy

You can discover more about this release at the Toccata Classics website, where you can also purchase the recording. To find out more about the composer, visit the Ronald Center website, while you can click on the links for more on the Fejes Quartet and Deveron Projects

Listening to Beethoven #199 – Sonata for piano and violin no.9 in A major Op.47 ‘Kreutzer’

beethoven-kreutzer

Landscape with Noah, Offering a Sacrifice of Gratitude (1803) by Joseph Anton Koch

Sonata no.9 for piano and violin in A major Op.47 ‘Kreutzer’ (1803, Beethoven aged 32)

1. Adagio sostenuto – Presto
2. Andante con variazioni
3. Presto

Dedication Rodolphe Kreutzer
Duration 40′

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by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s biggest violin sonata has a curious back story. Its dedication to Rodolphe Kreutzer, who never played the piece, masks its intention as a performing vehicle for George Bridgetower, a violinist with whom Beethoven had recently become good friends. A charismatic child prodigy of mixed race, the violinist ultimately settled in Britain but left his mark all over the piece, due in part to a West Indian heritage that was exotic to those he encountered. Simon Nicholls, writing booklet notes for the recording by Paul Barritt and James Lisney on Woodhouse Editions, writes how Beethoven’s friend and contemporary Carl Czerny described Bridgetower as a ‘bold, extravagant’ virtuoso.

The change in dedication allegedly came after the two had rehearsed the piece. Bridgetower had shown his prowess in an early concert performance, particularly in the slow movement, but soon after he and Beethoven quarrelled over a female friend, and the dedication was altered.

The musical style, however, reflects the original violinist’s technical ability and ambition, confirmed in its labelling ‘scritta in uno stilo, molto concertante quasi come d’un concerto’ (written in a highly concert-like style, almost in the manner of a concerto’). It is in a sizeable three movements, lasting around 40 minutes – almost double the length of any of the other violin sonatas. Beethoven wrote the Rondo finale before the other two movements, originally intending it as the finale of the sonata Op.30 no.1. In writing the Kreutzer, he ensured the other two movements’ themes were still related to this Rondo.

Lewis Lockwood writes that ‘with Op.47 we reach the summit of Beethoven’s early violin sonata style, now raised to a brilliant pitch of virtuosity in the most difficult violin writing of the period’. He notes Berlioz’s opinion of the Kreutzer as ‘one of the most sublime of all violin sonatas’, and that Leo Tolstoy, who wrote a short story entitled The Kreutzer Sonata, described the work as ‘the supreme example of the power of music’.

Kreutzer Sonata, painting by René François Xavier Prinet (1901), based on Leo Tolstoy’s 1889 novella, ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’

Thoughts

Right from the start it is clear we are on different ground with the Kreutzer sonata. The dramatic chord from the violin beginning the piece is on a grand scale, a cadenza in all but name. The violin takes much more of the lead in proceedings, much more so than in the previous works, dominating the introduction of the first movement. When the Allegro arrives, however, both instruments share the theme. As the work unfolds so too does a tension between the ‘home’ key of A major and A minor, where a lot of the music sits. This abates a little with the serene second theme, but the first movement nonetheless ends emphatically in the minor key.

The second movement, a theme and variations of consistently high quality, starts sweetly from the violin before the two instruments engage in close conversation. They exchange a wealth of melodic ideas, and both have fun once Beethoven starts flexing his muscles. Variation IV in particular would present a lot of fun for the piano with the trills, once the techniques are mastered! The variations are closely stitched together and flow almost seamlessly, their sentences entwined, leading to a closing paragraph of great serenity.

After the contented finish to the theme and variations, the third movement bursts out of the blocks with vim and vigour. The music is quite rustic, with dotted rhythms from the violin and a bubbly stream of harmony from the piano. The lively exchanges continue, the violin’s bird-like figurations restless and unwilling to settle. This being a rondo, the principal theme becomes engrained in the mind, and the virtuoso profile continues through to the exuberant finish. Major key just about triumphs over minor too, the sparring between the two having been one of the principal dramatic features. Little wonder that some – such as Kreutzer – did not fully understand the piece, for its forward thinking nature is unlike anything written for the two instruments together to this point.

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Midori Seiler (violin), Jos van Immerseel (fortepiano) (Zig Zag Classics)
Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Wilhelm Kempff (Deutsche Grammophon)
Josef Suk (violin), Jan Panenka (piano) (Supraphon)
Alina Ibragimova (violin), Cédric Tiberghien (Wigmore Hall Live)
Tasmin Little (violin), Martin Roscoe (piano) (Chandos)
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), Martin Helmchen (BIS)
Paul Barritt (violin), James Lisney (piano) (Woodhouse Editions)
Arthur Grumiaux (violin), Clara Haskil (piano) (Philips)
Augustin Dumay (violin), Maria João Pires (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)

There are several recordings of the Kreutzer sonata to have gained ‘classic’ status, including (but not restricted to) Arthur Grumiaux and Clara Haskil, David Oistrakh and Lev Oborian and Nathan Milstein and Artur Balsam. The three I found myself engaging with most were Yehudi Menuhin with Wilhelm Kempff – with compelling chemistry and total control of Beethoven’s ensemble work – then Mayumi Seiler and Jos van Immerseel, for their brio and verve on period instruments. The newest recording, too, made a strong impact, with Frank Peter Zimmermann and Martin Helmchen delivering a reading of poise and power for BIS.

 

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 1803 Haydn – String Quartet in D minor. Op.103

Next up 7 Variations on ‘God Save the King’, WoO78

In concert – CBSO / Eduardo Strausser – Viennese New Year

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Johann Strauss II Die Fledermaus (1874) – Overture; Tritsch-Tratsch, Op. 214 (1858)
Johann Strauss II / Josef Strauss Pizzicato Polka, Op. 335 (1869)
Lehár Die lustige Witwe (1905) – Vilja
Johann Strauss II Vergnügungszug, Op. 281 (1863-4); Im Krapfenwald’l, Op. 336 (1869); Frühlingsstimmen, Op. 410 (1882); Die Zigeunerbaron (1885) – Einzegsmarsch
Lehár Giuditta (1934) – Meine Lippen sie küssen so heiss
Johann Strauss II Wiener Bonbons, Op. 307 (1866)
Josef Strauss Feuerfest!, Op. 269 (1869)
Johann Strauss II Die Fledermaus (1874) – Mein Herr Marquis; Unter Donner und Blitz, Op. 324 (1868); An der schönen, blauen Donau, Op. 314 (1866)
Johann Strauss I Radetzky Marsch, Op. 228 (1848)

Jennifer France (soprano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Eduardo Strausser

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Sunday 9 January 2022

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The global reach of the Vienna Philharmonic’s annual event, not to mention the world-wide jamborees masterminded by André Rieu, may have rendered the Viennese New Year concert  from a wholly new perspective, but its content and purpose remain essentially the same – as was evident in this concert by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which has long emerged from its Christmas break with such a programme as was performed this afternoon; a smattering of novelties complementing the evergreens whose absence would be unthinkable.

His introductions may have been intermittent, but Brazilian conductor Eduardo Strausser was an engaging exponent of Johann Strauss II’s music – not least the overture to his operetta The Bat that, after a halting start, unfolded with a sure sense of where this ingenious medley of its main items was headed. The rhythmic verve of the Tritsch-Tratsch polka was exactly caught, as also the nonchalance of the Pizzicato polka (in collaboration with Josef Strauss, too often neglected next to his famous sibling). Jennifer France joined the CBSO for a winning take on the ‘Vilja’ aria from Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow, hearing it in English a reminder of this operetta’s massive success on both sides of the Atlantic. Following the heady élan of Strauss’s Excursion Train polka then the rustic charm of his In Krapfen’s Woods polka – its plethora of birdcalls effortlessly dispatched by the orchestra’s percussion – she returned for the Voices of Spring waltz, heard in its unexpected while effective vocal guise with verse by Robert Genée which made for a concert aria such as brought this first half to its close in impressive fashion.

The Entrance March from Strauss’s operetta The Gypsy Baron provided a suitably rousing entrée into the second half, Jennifer France duly raising the stakes with her sensual reading of the aria My lips give so fiery a kiss from Léhar’s musical comedy Giuditta, then Strausser drew unexpected pathos from Strauss’s Vienna Bonbons waltz – its title belying the music’s elegance and subtlety; quite a contrast, indeed, with Josef Strauss’s roof-raising Anvil polka-française (and a favourite of this writer since first encountering it on an anthology from the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra decades ago). The scintillating repartee of My lord marquis (aka Adele’s Laughing Song) from The Bat enabled Jennifer France to bow out in fine style, then it was on to the rip-roaring swagger of the Thunder and Lightning polka that once more kept the percussion section fully occupied.

The advertised programme came to an end with On the Beautiful Blue Danube waltz – a piece which never quite measures up to its evocative opening, even though Strausser drew enticements aplenty from the CBSO players. There followed the inevitable encore of Johann Strauss I’s Radetzky March, early regarded as having immortalized the Field Marshal who, as a master tactician (and putative war criminal) helped to maintain the Habsburg Empire’s dominance longer than might otherwise have been the case. Not an issue for those who clapped along to Strausser’s alert prompting, rounding off in fine style the start to this second half of the CBSO’s season which continues this Thursday with Ryan Bancroft for a programme featuring Coleridge-Taylor, Mendelssohn and Sibelius.

For more information on the forthcoming Ryan Bancroft concert, you can visit the orchestra’s website. Meanwhile click on the links for information on Eduardo Strasser and Jennifer France.