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

Listening to Beethoven #197 – Polyphonic Italian Songs WoO 99

Portrait of Antonio Salieri by Joseph Willibrord Mähler, 1815 Polyphonic Italian Songs for largely unaccompanied voices (1801-1803, Beethoven aged 32) 1. Bei labbri che amore (duet) 2. Ma tu tremi, o mio tesoro (trio) 3. E pur fra le tempeste (solo) 4. Sei mio ben (duet) 5. Giura il nocchier: trio (5a), quartet (5b), quartet (5c) 6. Ah rammenta (duet) 7. Chi mai di questo core (trio) 8. Scrivo in te (duet) 9. Per te d’amico aprile (trio) 10. Nei campi e nelle selve: quartet (10a), quartet (10b) 11. Fra tutte le pene: duet (11a), trio (11b), quartet (11c) 12. Salvo tu vuoi lo sposo: solo (12a), duet (12b) 13. Quella cetra ah pur tu sei: trio (13a), quartet (13b), quartet (13c) 14. Già la notte s’avvicina: trio (14a), quartet (14b) 15. Silvio amante disperato (quartet) Dedication not known Duration most songs between 1′ and 1’30” Listen Background and Critical Reception This collection of Italian songs provides us with a fascinating insight into Beethoven’s studies with Antonio Salieri, while also closing this particular chapter in his career. All the settings are of texts by Pietro Metastasio, whose poetry Beethoven was already familiar with. Keith Anderson writes for Naxos that the exercises provide a substantial collection of songs in varied form, in many cases offering Beethoven’s original version, followed by Salieri’s corrected version. They have been brought together under the number WoO 99, with a series of numbering from Beethoven compiler Willy Hess for each item. These settings offer varied insights into Salieri’s teaching methods and Beethoven’s achievements in these years. The unaccompanied Italian settings were written during Beethoven’s early days in Vienna, generally between 1793 and 1797 and those with accompaniment up to 1802. The listings and earlier complete recordings are discussed in full by Mark S. Zimmer in The Unheard Beethoven. Jan Swafford gives valuable insight into Beethoven’s manner as a student. “As with his counterpoint masters, in his dealings with Salieri Beethoven was a wilful student even as he dutifully set his assigned old-fashioned Italian texts in a suitable style. One day Beethoven ran into Salieri in the street after the teacher had thrashed one of rhose efforts. Salieri complained that he hadn’t been able to get the tune out of his head. “Then, Herr von Salieri,” Beethoven grinned, “it can’t have been so utterly bad.” Thoughts These songs give fascinating insights into Beethoven’s development as a composer. The music feels much ‘older’, with the overriding impression that the pupil is diligently aiming for a style coveted by his teacher, rather than breaking particularly new ground – bolstering his abilities and covering perceived weaknesses. The first of these settings, Bei labbri, che amore, is a chaste two-parter for male and female voice in close harmony. Ma tu tremi is initially similar but there is a slightly more awkward top line in the middle section. E pur fra le tempest is a short setting of just under a minute, for solo voice and flowing piano, moving to an unaccompanied and quite serene Sei mio ben for three voices. It is interesting to hear three versions of Giura il nocchier, the second of which is much fuller in texture than the first, while the third shifts the pitch down a tone. The four-part Chi mai di questo core is the fullest song here, and features a nice dialogue between the voices, if still polite and functional. Some of the arrangements are written for full, choral textures, such as the second and third short arrangements of Giura il nocchier. There are no fewer than six versions of Fra tutte le pene availble, each of the three originals with revisions by Salieri to make the part movements a little more logical. Other songs include the pure C major of Scrivo in te, a minute-long setting in three parts, and the fuller choral songs Per te d’amico aprile and Nei campi e nelle selve, in two versions – the second of which has a mournful edge. Also in two versions are Salvo tu vuoi lo sposo, and Gia la notte savvicina, which has a feather light choral setting for its alternative. Meanwhile the choral Quella cetra ah pur ti sei has three – and sounds rather like Haydn in the first. Spotify playlist and Recordings used Soloists, Ensemble Tamanial, Cantus Novus Wien / Thomas Holmes (Naxos)
The Naxos recordings are very well delivered, with the caveat that it is difficult to convey emotion in songs that are so short. The solo items have the necessary intimacy, while the choral numbers have a nice space surrounding the textures in the recording picture. Occasionally the top edges of the soprano lines feel like a bit of a strain, but that could be as much due to the composer’s writing as anything else! 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 Boieldieu Clarinet Concerto no.1 in E flat major Op.36 Next up Bei labbri, che Amore WoO 99/1

Listening to Beethoven #196 – Piano Concerto no.3 in C minor Op.37

piano-concerto-3
Beethoven (1987) by Andy Warhol – colour screenprint on Lenox Museum Board

Piano Concerto no.3 in C minor Op.37 for piano and orchestra (1796-1803, Beethoven aged 32)

Dedication Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia
Duration 37′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven is thought to have begun the third piano concerto as early as 1796, finishing the majority of the work in 1800 but waiting until 5 April 1803 for the first performance at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. It was quite a concert, beginning with the Symphony no.2 and ending with the newly composed Christus am Ölberge, in its first version.

Beethoven had to rush the concerto to get it ready in time, and as a result the solo part was unfinished. An account from the composer’s friend and page turner Ignaz von Seyfried found him effectively turning empty pages during the first concert, Beethoven having committed the solo part to memory.

Many writers recognise the lineage of this work. Charles Rosen, in The Classical Style writes, “The C minor is full of Mozartean reminiscences, in particular of the concerto in the same key, K491, which Beethoven is known to have admired.” Barry Cooper, writing for Hyperion, notes that ‘there is little, if any, direct influence from Mozart’s work, although the similarities show how thoroughly Beethoven had absorbed Mozart’s style.’

The first movement is Beethoven’s weightiest movement yet, clocking in at over 17 minutes in some performances. It is followed by a Largo in the unexpectedly remote key of E major, which would have come as a surprise to the audience in 1803. This tonality is referred to in a ‘dream-like recall’ in the finale (writes William Kinderman). This movement is a Rondo, where after some tense episodes in the minor key, Kinderman writes how “comic wit and jubilation crown the dénouement of this drama in tones”.

Perhaps surprisingly, one of the most guarded verdicts on the third concerto came from Brahms. Comparing it to the Mozart, “a marvellous work of art and filled with divine ideas”, he said “I admit that the Beethoven concerto is more modern…but it is not significant!”

Thoughts

The third of Beethoven’s five published piano concertos is a different animal entirely from the first two. Confirmation of this is felt in the opening bars, with a tense first theme outlined by the strings. Whereas the first two concertos were light on their feet and relatively frothy, this one has a serious countenance, like its counterpart C minor concerto from Mozart in 1784.

The comparisons made between the two are certainly valid, for they occupy a similar emotional space and use almost identical orchestral forces. Beethoven tends to focus in on daring harmonies, creating tension between his much-used C minor and the major key. The soloist has some juicy discords too, to keep the listener on the edge of their seat.

The drama starts with that first theme on the strings and does not let up in the first movement, which despite its length is tautly argued. The arrival of the piano, with stern scales in C minor, is arresting, and in his own written-out cadenza completed in 1808 Beethoven brings in the intimacy of his sonatas, before a series of trills lead to a sparse conclusion from the orchestra. I think Brahms was doing it a disservice!

Perhaps the biggest raise of the eyebrows, however, comes with the first notes of the slow movement, which introduces a whole new key of E major. It is a surprise to the ear which, taking previous examples from the composer, might expect A flat major or F. Beethoven uses this new area to explore a thoughtful, tender side, giving himself and the solo pianist free reign. There is mystery and poetry here, and some sublime contributions from the orchestra.

The final movement is where Beethoven and Mozart are closer aligned, with quite an oblique melody that becomes surprisingly catchy – and which completes its own ‘darkness to light’ journey in the closing passages. The composer even works in a short fugal episode to the energetic movement with effortless ease. In this piece Beethoven has served notice of his intentions to move the piano concerto on to more Romantic territory, both in musical style and emotion.

Spotify playlist and Recordings used

Wilhelm Kempff, Berliner Philharmoniker / Ferdinand Leitner (Deutsche Grammophon)
Robert Levin, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (Arkiv)
Mitsuko Uchida, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / Kurt Sanderling (Philips)
Rudolf Serkin, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / Rafael Kubelik (Orfeo)
Claudio Arrau, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Bernard Haitink (Philips)
Ronald Brautigam, Die Kölner Akademie / Michael Alexander Willens (BIS)
Stephen Hough, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra / Hannu Lintu (Hyperion)
Stephen Kovacevich, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Colin Davis (Philips)

There are some wonderful accounts of this piece. While writing about the work I have especially enjoyed the versions with soloists Mitsuko Uchida, Wilhelm Kempff and Stephen Kovacevich, while on the fortepiano Robert Levin creates lean drama with Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Uchida is magical at the beginning of the slow movement, which becomes the dream Beethoven surely meant it to be.

To listen to clips from Stephen Hough’s new recording on Hyperion, head to their 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 1803 Boieldieu Clarinet Concerto no.1 in E flat major Op.36

Next up Bei labbri, che Amore WoO 99/1

Listening to Beethoven #195 – 6 Variations on Ich denke dein WoO 74

beethoven-goethe-2

Beethoven and Goethe

6 Variations on Ich denke dein WoO 74 for two pianos (1799-1803, Beethoven aged 31)

Dedication Therese, Josephine and Charlotte von Brunsvik
Duration 5′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Keith Anderson writes that in 1799, Beethoven ‘wrote a setting of Goethe’s Ich denke dein and four variations for piano duet on the theme for two pupils, the Countesses Therese and Josephine Brunsvik, daughters of a family with which Beethoven remained friendly through much of his life. In 1803 he added two more variations and the song and variations were published in 1805.

Pianist Peter Hill, writing for a recent recording he made with Benjamin Frith on the Delphian label, highlights Beethoven’s affection for Josephine, expressed in a passionate letter later in his life. He notes the romantic mood of the theme and its variations, pointing towards Mendelsssohn in the faster music especially.

Thoughts

As the story implies, this is a domestic piece for use among close friends. It certainly has that intimate, conversational feel, with less obvious opportunities for virtuosic display but plenty to keep the players occupied and impressed with Beethoven’s resourceful working.

The theme itself is warm hearted, the first variation too. Then Beethoven plays around with syncopations, the two players gainfully employed, before a thoughtful, slow third variation, which is unexpectedly deep in feeling. This time out enhances the fourth variation, a fizzy affair with exchanges between the two players which drew the Mendelssohn comparison from Peter Hill. Darker colours appear briefly for an instalment in the minor key, after which the sunlit textures of D major return and the piece ends calmly but warmly, providing a glimpse of an all-too rare warmth and tenderness in Beethoven’s life at the time.

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

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

All excellent versions, capturing the intimacy of Beethoven’s writing but also the glint in the eye as he writes.

Also written in 1803 von Pasterwicz 300 Themata und Versetten Op.42

Next up Piano Concerto no.3 in C minor Op.37

Listening to Beethoven #194 – Graf, liebster Graf, liebstes Schaf, WoO 101

graf-grafPeanuts comic strip, drawn by Charles M. Schulz (c)PNTS

Graf, liebster Graf, liebstes Schaf WoO 101 for three voices (1802, Beethoven aged 31)

Dedication Count Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovecz
Text Beethoven
Duration 0’45”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

This is one of Beethoven’s early musical jokes, which he included in a letter to his friend, Count Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovecz. The short text translates as ‘Count, Count, dear Count, best sheep!’

Thoughts

Literally scribbled on the back of an envelope, this is a charming fragment – cleverly working the pronunciations into the melody. Very much a case of less is more!

Recordings used

Cantus Novus Wien / Thomas Holmes (Naxos)

Coro della Svizzera / Diego Fasolis (Arts Music)

Also written in 1802 Reichardt Das Zauberschloss

Next up 6 variations on Ich denke dein WoO 74