Listening to Beethoven #190 – “Ne’ giorni tuoi felici”, WoO 93

Portrait of Pietro Metastasio, c1770, by Meytens or Batoni

“Ne’ giorni tuoi felici”, WoO 93, duet for soprano, tenor and orchestra (1802, Beethoven aged 31)

Dedication Not known
Text Pietro Metastasio
Duration 7′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Ne’ giorni tuoi felici (‘In your days of happiness’) uses text from Metastasio’s L’Olimpiade, with Beethoven becoming the third recorded composer to set these words behind Leonardo Leo and Florian Gassmann. Writing briefly about the duet in booklet notes for Hyperion, Nicholas Marston notes that two of the soloists at the premiere, which appears not to have taken place until 1814, were Anna Milder-Hauptmann and Carl Weinmüller. They helped create the roles of Leonore and Rocco respectively in the premiere of Fidelio later that year.

Very little is written about this piece, other than to note its position in Beethoven’s output as one of the last vocal works written under the tuition of Salieri.

Thoughts

We hear the tenor first, pleading, ‘in the days of your happiness remember me’ – and his lover, the soprano, answers in kind. Initially the mood is relatively calm, but as the duet progresses things become more agitated. The singers’ lines are deeply expressive, and initially slower that has perhaps been the norm in Beethoven’s vocal music with orchestra so far. The composer gives the voices plenty of room, the orchestra at a polite distance, but the violins have important counter melodies to contribute.

A quicker section arrives just over half way through, the singers ‘dying of jealousy’ as they experience considerable distress, not to mention ‘savage pain’. This sours the mood and tugs at the heartstrings, ending the duet on a fractious note. At this point it feels unfinished, with more of the story to play out – as though Beethoven could have continued to write a more expansive piece using Metastasio’s text.

The soprano writing often hits the heights, but in a way less concerned with overt display and more with lyrical passion. She leads the duet, which makes a powerful impression – and gives notice that Beethoven’s dramatic gifts will be more than capable of shifting to the operatic stage before too long.

Recordings used

Dan Karlström (tenor), Reetta Haavisto (soprano), Turku Philharmonic Orchestra / Leif Segerstam (Naxos)

Christopher Maltman (tenor), Janice Watson (soprano), English Chamber Orchestra / Matthew Best (Hyperion) (an excerpt can be heard here)

Arthur Apelt (tenor), Hannelore Kuhse (soprano), Staatskapelle Berlin / Eberhard Büchner (Eterna)

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 1802 Charles-Simon Catel Sémiramis

Next up Bagatelle in C major / minor ‘Lustig-traurig’

Listening to Beethoven #189 – “No, non turbarti”, WoO 92a

Portrait of Pietro Metastasio, artist unknown

“No, non turbarti”, WoO 92a, scene and aria for soprano and strings (1802, Beethoven aged 31)

1. Scena: No, non turbarti’…
2. Aria: Ma tu tremi, o mio tesoro

Dedication Not known
Text Pietro Metastasio
Duration 6′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

This scena and aria, setting text from Metastasio’s La tempesta, is for soprano and strings, and marks one of the final pieces of work completed by Beethoven when still under the tuition of Salieri.

The autograph manuscript has corrections from his teacher, from whom Beethoven had been learning vocal composition, pointing his efforts towards the stage. Andrew Stewart, notes that Beethoven did not completely finish the orchestration, and that the premiere of this relatively short piece did not take place until 1814 – by which time he had completed his opera Fidelio.

Soprano Chen Reiss, writing about the piece for her recent album Immortal Beloved, observes that the aria seems ‘to predict the misfortunes in love he was to experience later in life’. Using the manuscript, she restored the music to predate Salieri’s ‘corrections’, offering a more authentic account of the composer’s intentions.

Thoughts

A sad stillness inhabits the start of the recitative, but soon the music becomes agitated. When the text observes, “See how the entire sky now blackens; the wind stirs up the dust and the fallen leaves”, Beethoven takes his cue with a rush of strings, their tremolo figuration portraying the restless storm.

The aria itself feels higher in register, with a greater distance between the singer and the strings as a form of solace in pure C major. The poet, however, is after a little more, and as Ian Page says, ‘pursues more amorous intentions’. “When there’s thunder and lightning I shall be with you”, consoles the text – and this music, appearing to indulge Beethoven’s love of Handel, does likewise.

Spotify playlist and Recordings used

Sophie Bevan, The Mozartists / Ian Page (Signum Classics)
Chen Reiss, Academy of Ancient Music / Richard Egarr (Onyx)
Reetta Haavisto, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra / Leif Segerstam (Naxos)

Three excellent performances here, but those from Sophie Bevan and in particular Chen Reiss are to be heard again. The latter has a slightly fuller voice, especially lower in the register. Both are accompanied by instruments of the period and conductors using harpsichord – which perhaps brings out the Handelian connections. Reetta Haavisto gives a powerful interpretation, and together with Leif Segerstam takes a more expansive view of the pair, clocking in at nearly seven minutes in comparison to Bevan’s five.

The below playlist collects all three recordings referred to above:

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 1802 Charles-Simon Catel: Sémiramis

Next up Ne’ giorni tuoi felici, WoO 93

Listening to Beethoven #188 – Symphony no.2 in D major Op.36


The Longing for Happiness. Left wall, detail from the Beethoven-Frieze (1902) by Gustav Klimt

Symphony no.2 in D major Op.36 for orchestra (1800-1802, Beethoven aged 31)

Dedication Karl Alois, Prince Lichnowsky
Duration 30′

1. Adagio molto – Allegro con brio
2. Larghetto
3. Scherzo: Allegro
4. Allegro molto

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s time in Heiligenstadt may have been difficult, but it yielded music of remarkable positivity in such testing situations. George Hall, writing booklet notes for Simax, sums up the situation neatly: ”What has proved remarkable to Beethoven’s biographers is that the (second) symphony, whose sketches date back to 1800 and whose finishing touches were probably added in 1803, was composed largely in the year that he wrote the famous Heiligenstadt testament. The fact that this document – in which Beethoven in his post-suicidal mood railed against his deafness and isolation in a letter – was conceived in the year of this predominantly happy and straightforward piece is considered paradoxical.’

‘Symphony no.2 is the main fruit of Beethoven’s labors in 1801-2 and is considered to be the culminating success of his early period’, writes Daniel Heartz. He gives an account of the premiere on 5 April 1803, which took place at the new Theater an der Wien, and included the hastily composed short oratorio Christus am Ölberge and also a new piano concerto, the third.

In a fascinating and detailed analysis, Heartz goes on to draw close links with Mozart‘s Symphony no.38, the Prague, which Beethoven greatly admired. Written in the same key, the two works share a broad Adagio introduction to the first movement, and a nearly identical instrumentation. The crucial difference here is that Beethoven adds clarinets in A, a distinctive part of the woodwind sound which makes such a difference to this symphony.

The second symphony would probably have been, to date, the longest symphony yet published – a quality acknowledged by Allegmeine Musikalische Zeitung of Leipzig, in their 1804 appraisal. ‘It is’, their critic wrote, ‘a noteworthy, colossal work (the biggest so far), whose profundity, strength and artistic understanding are very rare, and presents difficulties from the point of view of execution…that certainly no previous symphony has offered.’

Heartz identifies it as ‘a watershed for its composer, the last of his big works in which he looked to Haydn and Mozart for inspiration.’ Later, he notes that when ‘the London Philharmonic Society invited Beethoven to compose a symphony in the style of the first and second symphonies’, it was ‘an offer that deeply offended the composer, who indignantly refused. There can scarcely be more striking confirmation than this that a corner was turned after 1802.’

Thoughts

If you approached this piece cold, there is no way you would know it was written by a man whose grip on life itself was tenuous. In the midst of all the strife he was experiencing, Beethoven pulled out this sunny piece of beautifully joined-up thinking, giving the best possible response to his illnesses and impending deafness. If he was to be hindered, the music would see him through.

There is much to love about the Second Symphony. Its dimensions look front-loaded, with a substantial first and second movement and a shorter Scherzo and Finale placed third and fourth. These two, however, act as a combined pair – and so the feeling is of a trio of movements, as perfected by Mozart in the Prague symphony discussd above. The spirit of Mozart is present for sure, but so is the drive and energy of the younger composer, along with his ability to develop incredibly small melodic cells into material for whole movements.

His expertise in this is evident in those third and fourth movements. The scherzo’s seemingly throwaway phrase at the start is the block on which the whole movement rests, played by the orchestra but with the strings keeping busy in between. The finale follows on naturally, moving closer to ‘home’ with another clipped phrase from the full orchestra.

Before these two symphonic gems we have had the pleasure of an energy-filled first movement and a balletic second, a ‘slow’ movement with a good deal of poise. Here the clarinets make themselves known the most, and Beethoven’s writing for wind is a joy in which to indulge. The movement flows with a happy stream of invention, anticipating perhaps the outdoor vistas of the later Pastoral symphony.

Working backwards, the first movement has a good deal of drama in its introduction and a tautly argued Allegro section which frequently breaks into an unfiltered smile. Perhaps Mozart and a little of Haydn are most obvious in the music here, but again the material could not be from anyone else.

Many commentators declare the Second Symphony as the culmination of Beethoven’s first period. With music of such rich invention, such clever but instinctive development and such bright textures, it is to be savoured – and bodes extremely well for what is to come.

Spotify playlist and Recordings used

NBC Symphony Orchestra / Arturo Toscanini (RCA)
Cleveland Orchestra / George Szell (Sony Classical)
Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century / Frans Brüggen (Philips)
Berliner Philharmoniker / Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Claudio Abbado (Deutsche Grammophon)
Danish Chamber Orchestra / Ádám Fischer (Naxos)
Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä (BIS)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Rafael Kubelik (Deutsche Grammophon)
Anime Eterna Brugge / Jos Van Immerseel (ZigZag Territories)

Performances on ‘period’ instruments or modern interpretations are both to be lauded in this piece. The former camp contains really fine versions from Anime Eterna Brugge and Jos van Immerseel, or the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century and Frans Brüggen, to name just two thoroughly enjoyable accounts. The latter gives great enjoyment thanks to the batons of Harnoncourt, Kubelik and Szell, not to mention many, many others!

To listen to clips from the recording from the Scottih Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras 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 1802 Haydn Mass in B flat major Hob. XXII:14 ‘Harmoniemesse’

Next up No, non turbarti, WoO 92a

Listening to Beethoven #187 – 15 Variations and fugue on an original theme in E flat major Op.35 ‘Eroica’

Beethoven-eroica

Portrait of Beethoven as a young man by Carl Traugott Riedel and Prometheus Bound by Peter Paul Rubens

15 Variations and fugue on an original theme in E flat major Op.35 ‘Eroica’ for piano (1802, Beethoven aged 31)

Dedication unknown
Duration 25′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

Although this piece is known as the Eroica Variations, the theme is taken from the finale to Beethoven’s music for Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus:

Background and Critical Reception

This substantial set of variations became known as the Eroica Variations because Beethoven used the tune in the finale of his third symphony, the Eroica.

Angela Hewitt describes the set as his most ‘bravura orientated’ variations, going on to illustrate how, before we even hear the main Eroica theme, Beethoven presents a theme in the bass and proceeds to unwind three variations on it. She notes how the theme and its fifteen variations ‘delight us with their compositional and pianistic fancies’.

Harold Truscott, writing in The Beethoven Companion, has some controversial views on Beethoven’s piano writing, branding it ‘on the borderline between difficulty and awkwardness. This is a quality frequently found in Beethoven’s keyboard writing’, he writes, ‘although no one ever mentions it’. He does, however, concede that ‘the Eroica set is a masterpiece for the most part unique in his work’.

Lewis Lockwood labels ‘this great work…the culmination of Beethoven’s early variations sets’. ‘In any case’, he writes, ‘Opus 35 is a milestone in the history of variation. Its introduction dramatically unfolds several elements in order, as if Beethoven, at the keyboard instead of writing in a sketchbook, was sequentially building the thematic material before the very ears of the listener.’

Thoughts

Where the previous set of variations in F major could be described as ‘not your typical set of variations’, this is something else. When you are done listening to the Eroica variations, this is a piece where you are left in no doubt that Beethoven has put his entire heart and soul into writing a piece, and has channelled some extraordinary powers of invention. By the end it is difficult to say exactly how many variations there are, as they seem to fuse into each other.

The introduction is pure drama – and Beethoven’s insistent B flats sound like a knock on the door, as though the theme is waiting to get in. When it does finally arrive the piece is already in full swing, and the mood is already buoyant. The theme and first variation have a spring in their step, the balletic origins laid clear – and as Beethoven gets to work, the dance gets faster.

The second variation is effectively a cadenza, showing off Beethoven’s virtuosity to the full – not just as a performer but as a composer too. His writing is quasi-orchestral, the fourth variation depicting a lively bassoon giving out the variation and strings plucking in the middle ground. Calmer waters are found for the fifth, but soon the textures are full again and the ideas overflowing. The piano writing is remarkably dense and demanding, but thrilling too.

Variation 7, marked Canone all’Ottava, anticipates the fugue but practically stamps on the keyboard at times. What the audience would have made of Beethoven’s bravura and daring is anybody’s guess. Varation 9 picks up a similar theme, where it feels like the B flat has got stuck, while the tenth is like a blast of cold air, disappearing up some odd tonal alleyways. We return to the ballet for Variation 11, the keyboard opens out in the 12th, before the 13th reintroduces the ‘stuck’ B flat in a jarring upper register, in an act both maddening and humorous!

A much-needed respite arrives with Variation 14, where we move to the minor key for a reflective episode. Far from running out of ideas with the ‘final’ variation, Beethoven feels like he has only just got started, and the lead-up to the fugue acquires impressive gravitas. The fugue itself is symphonic, its tune unusually hummable, with a lot of action between the parts.

At the risk of sounding like a cracked record, what a remarkable piece this is. Beethoven’s powers of invention are truly stretched, but the feeling remains that he could have written enough for another half hour of music without flagging. We will see an awful lot more of that invention as his pieces move further and further away from the norm.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)
Cécile Ousset
(Eloquence)
Ronald Brautigam
(BIS)
Alfred Brendel
(Philips)
Rudolf Buchbinder
(Teldec)
Glenn Gould
(Sony)

Some very impressive recordings here, not least the newest – a dazzling but extremely musical account from Hewitt, whose musicality always comes before the virtuosity. Emil Gilels is masterly from the commanding first chord and thoughtful theme. Cécile Ousset conveys the scope of the piece immediately, inhabiting the drama of the introduction, and having a lot of fun with the dance variations.

The Spotify playlist below includes all but one of the versions listed above – with the opportunity to hear a clip from Angela Hewitt’s version on the Hyperion website

Also written in 1802 Samuel Wesley Symphony in B flat major

Next up Symphony no.2 in D major Op.36

Listening to Beethoven #186 – 6 Variations on an original theme in F major Op.34

Beethoven-op34

Beethoven: Bust en face in oval – ivory miniature, 1802 by Christian Hornemann, courtesy of Beethoven-Haus, Bonn

6 Variations on an original theme in F major Op.34 for piano (1802, Beethoven aged 31)

Dedication unknown
Duration 15′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

The theme is Beethoven’s own, unusually – and is a slow, stately number with an expansive chord in the middle.

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s stay in the village of Heiligenstadt was a turning point in his life. The principal reason for this was the onset of his deafness, and he used the change of location as a time to come to terms with that, hence the Heiligenstadt Testament referred to previously.

Yet his increasingly original approaches to composition were there for all to see, not least in this set of variations from 1802. For the first time in a long while he did not use another composer’s music for the theme, writing one himself – and he proceeded to turn it into a number of very different variations, each one of the six in a different key.

Angela Hewitt has recently recorded the work for Hyperion, and writes a telling quote from the composer. ‘Usually I have to wait for other people to tell me when I have new ideas, because I never know this myself. But this time – I myself can assure you that in both these works the manner is quite new for me.’

The originality is also noted by Harold Truscott, writing about the piano music in The Beethoven Companion. ‘The whole outlook is utterly different from that of any first-period work’, he writes. ‘The Adagio theme has the luxurious sprawl of so many of his first-period slow movements – on the surface; in fact it is as tight as a drum, and there is not a note that does not contribute to the basic theme and harmonic texture essential for the variations.’

Hewitt identifies the penultimate variation as a key component. ‘What really makes this work is…a funeral march in C minor (foreshadowing his Eroica symphony). Nothing could be further from the mood of the original theme.’ She also points out how the sixth and ‘final’ variation actually contains a further two ‘bonus’ variations.

Thoughts

This is not your typical set of Beethoven variations. Right from the start it is clear something will be different, from the expansive theme that stresses the home key of F major – but presents some lavish, added-note chords as it does so. Beethoven then leaves said home key behind as he embarks on a harmonic and melodic adventure, having fun but preserving the musicality.

The appearance of D major for the first variation is a surprise, employing a very similar tactic to the fourth bagatelle of the Op.33 set he was working on at almost the same time. The B flat second variation feels like a piece of early Schumann, a rustic march-like affair, while the third in G major is an airy aside, operating in much longer melodic units.

The fourth variation is a bit more playful, its roots in the dance, while the fifth probes deeper, as Hewitt identifies, with raw emotion and full, red-blooded chords as punctuation. The sixth variation turns out to be a remarkable section showing Beethoven’s fearsome powers of invention. Lasting one third of the work, it starts with a long build-up on a ‘C’ chord before playfully throwing the theme around back in the ‘home’ key. This leads to a section of trills, like an elaborate cadenza in a piano concerto, before a relatively calm, measured finish.

Full of invention and unpredictability, this is without doubt one of Beethoven’s finest variation sets to date – and yet it is still not well known! Something to put right…

Recordings used and Spotify links

Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)
Cécile Ousset
(Eloquence)
Ronald Brautigam
(BIS)
Alfred Brendel
(Philips)
Rudolf Buchbinder
(Teldec)
Glenn Gould
(Sony)

The Spotify playlist below includes all but one of the versions listed above – with the opportunity to hear a clip from Angela Hewitt’s version on the Hyperion website

There are some terrific versions of this piece, led by Angela Hewitt’s new recording for Hyperion, which shows just how much she loves the work with some wonderful characterisations. Cécile Ousset is also outstanding in her flowing account, as is Rudolf Buchbinder, who contributes a steely funeral march. Ronald Brautigam has a great deal of bravura and punch in his account on the fortepiano.

Also written in 1802 Clementi Piano Sonata in G major Op.40/1

Next up 15 Variations on an Original Theme in E flat major Op.35 ‘Eroica’