Listening to Beethoven – normal service will be resumed shortly!

from Ben Hogwood

Regular readers of these pages may have wondered what has happened to Arcana’s Beethoven listening project. I am very pleased to say that it has not finished, merely been put on pause – and will resume with the mighty Eroica symphony very soon! To whet your appetite, here is a 2016 concert performance from the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andrés Orozco-Estrada:

Listening to Beethoven #207 – Andante in F major, ‘Andante favori’ WoO 57

Commemorative medal for Ludwig van Beethoven, 1927 – Bronze medal from the Hungarian Ministry of Culture based on a design by József Reményi

Andante in F major WoO 57, ‘Andante favori’ for piano (1803, Beethoven aged 32)

Dedication not known
Duration 9′

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

The origins for this single-movement piece lie in Beethoven’s forthcoming Waldstein piano sonata. A substantial Andante was composed as the central movement for the piece, seemingly begun in late 1803 – but was thought by many of Beethoven’s contemporaries to be too long.

Lewis Lockwood gives interesting detail on the construction of the sonata, describing the movement as ‘smooth and ingratiating’. He considers the reasons for the movement’s omission…that ‘keeping this big Andante along with the finale would have resulted in two long rondos in succession. Another was that although this ornate and conventional Andante would have furnished a quiet contrast to the dynamic first and third movements, it fell below their level of interest’.

The piece was published as a standalone work in 1804/5, gaining its title Andante favori for a second release in 1807, and won critical acclaim even as a ‘bleeding chunk’. It was replaced with a much shorter – and highly original – Introduzione.

Thoughts

It seems a little unfair to describe the Andante as ‘conventional’ and as ‘below the level of interest’ of the other two Waldstein sonata movements. It does however suit its publication as a single work, standing on its own as a subdued but subtly emotional piece of work.

There is a prayerful quality to its slowly unfolding contours, Beethoven seemingly taking tame out for deep contemplation. Once again however he delivers a main theme of melodic interest that stays in the mind soon after the first hearing. Development of this theme is typically assured, and there are contrasting elements – a faster section moving towards C major, and another where Beethoven beautifully displaces the key in to B flat major and a brightly voiced theme in octaves. There is a ‘false’ end, too, where the piece threatens to finish but has one final statement to make.

It is easy to see why the Andante favori has become a popular piece, with its thoughtful undertones easy to interpret as romantic, lovelorn thoughts. It feels, even with the restraint on show here, as though we are close to the heart of Beethoven’s matter.

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Ronald Brautigam (BIS)
Jenő Jandó (Naxos)
Mikhail Pletnev (Deutsche Grammophon)
Alfred Brendel (Philips)
Sviatoslav Richter (Warner Classics)

Andras Schiff (ECM)

Boris Giltburg (Naxos)

There are some excellent recordings of this piece. Perhaps predictably Sviatoslav Richter finds an inner spirituality to the work, stretching it out in an almost imperceptible way. Alfred Brendel delivers a beautifully phrased and nuanced performance. Andras Schiff also finds the emotional centre of the piece, while Ronald Brautigam, playing on a ‘period’ instrument, plays more quickly but lovingly too.

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 Crusell Clarinet Concerto no.3 in B flat major

Next up Symphony no.3 in E flat major Op.55 ‘Eroica’

Listening to Beethoven #206 – Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives), Op.85

Jesus prays

Christ on the Mount of Olives by Giovanni (aka Josef Untersberger) Date unknown

Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives) Op.85 for soprano, tenor, baritone, chorus and orchestra (1803, revised 1811, Beethoven aged 32)

Dedication not known
Text Franz Xaver Huber

Duration 45′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

For the first time since the Joseph cantata of 1790, Beethoven was ready to write another large work for chorus and orchestra. This one was to be biblical, focusing in on a specific part of Christ’s Passion, where in the moment of greatest trial on the Mount of Olives, he begs God to relieve him of his suffering.

Lewis Lockwood tells how Beethoven wrote the work in two weeks, in close collaboration with Franz Xaver Huber, editor of the Wiener Zeitung and occasional librettist. He then writes how ‘Haste is evident in the inconsistent quality of the work, which ranges from routine recitatives and reasonably effective arias for Jesus and the Seraph, to bombastic choral writing for the warriors and youths. Revising it for publication at long last eight years later, he described it defensively and apologetically to Breitkopf & Härtel as ‘my first work of that kind’ (a sacred oratorio) and, moreover, an early work…written in a fortnight in all kinds of disturbances and other unpleasant and distressing events in my life (my brother happened to be suffering from a mortal disease).”

Jan Swafford writes engagingly on the premiere of Christus, the original form given on 5 April 1803 in Vienna, in the company of the first two symphonies and the Piano Concerto no.3. There were ‘tales of long rehearsals, players already fatigued by the other works in the program’…but ‘there was still a full house.’

Early reviews were relatively positive – but although the work ‘was good and contains a few first-rate passages…a number of ideas from Haydn’s Creation seem to have found their way into the final chorus’. Perhaps unexpectedly, Beethoven’s teacher Albrechtsberger was targeted by Gustav Nottebohm for Beethoven’s ‘failure to receive thorough training in the form of the fugue’  – a statement that flies in the face of the Eroica Variations.

Swafford notes the likelihood that ‘after his Heiligenstadt crisis of the precious Autumn, Beethoven felt a personal relationship to the suffering he was depicting. His final verdict, however, is damning. ‘Though Christus has its striking moments and is nothing but skillful, it was then and would remain one of the most misconceived, inauthentic, undigested large works Beethoven ever wrote.’

Thoughts

From the outset of Christus, Beethoven’s intentions are very clear. This is to be a serious and dramatic work, showing its composer’s abilities at writing for large forces and showing off his operatic credentials. Its impact, however, is a little more patchy. The solemn, slow introduction sets the scene and holds the tension, maintained with the arrival of the tenor, who pleads for the ‘cup of suffering’ to be taken from him in an extended solo detailing his pain in long notes.

The arrival of the seraph raises the stakes still higher, and the soprano role really hits the heights in its first aria. By this point Beethoven is in the key of A flat major, a familiar centre for profound solo movements such as that written for the Pathétique sonata, with prominent parts for the wind in counterpoint. The two duet, though the operatic style is relatively jaunty for music depicting intense suffering

The intervention of Christ’s faithful disciple Peter is a dramatic statement of allegiance, and the baritone role adds real gravitas to the piece. We lead to an exultant final chorus is especially Handelian, with strong parallels to Zadok the Priest in its hymn of praise.

Beethoven’s frame of mind when writing Christus would surely have been uneven, his illnesses and deafness at the forefront. The work is a powerful reaction, and feels like a composition Beethoven needed to get out of his system. In spite of its perceived imbalances and flaws it has some powerful music, the composer searching for – and increasingly pinpointing – his voice as a ‘big work’ composer.

Recordings used

Hanna-Leena Haapamäki, Jussi Myllys, Niklas Spångberg, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra, Chorus Cathedralis Aboensis, Leif Segerstam (Naxos)
Elsa Dreisig (soprano), Pavol Breslik (tenor), David Soar (bass-baritone), London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (LSO Live)
Luba Orgonasova (Seraph), Plácido Domingo (Jesus) & Andreas Schmidt (Petrus), Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin & Rundfunkchor Berlin, Kent Nagano (Harmonia Mundi)
James King (tenor), Elizabeth Harwood (soprano), Franz Crass (bass (vocal)), Helmut Froschauer (chorus master), Wiener Symphoniker, Wiener Singverein, Wiener Symphoniker / Bernhard Klee

Recordings of Christus are thin on the ground, and in spite of some spirited accounts it perhaps needs the attention of an established ‘period’ conductor like John Eliot Gardiner. The soloists elevate Kent Nagano’s version, while the recent live account from Sir Simon Rattle and LSO forces is a dramatic one.

Also written in 1803 Salieri Gesù al limbo

Next up Andante favori in F major, WoO 57

Listening to Beethoven #205 – Der Wachtelslag WoO 129

peanuts-birds

Peanuts comic strip, drawn by Charles M. Schulz (c)PNTS

Der Wachtelslag WoO 129 for voice and piano (1803, Beethoven aged 32)

Dedication not known
Text Samuel Friedrich Sauter

Duration 3’45”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

The guide to this song on the website of the Beethoven-Haus Bonn lists it as a ‘box office hit’. Certainly Beethoven was aware of the popularity of Der Wachtelschlag (The Call of the Quail), informing the publisher Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig, “I am offering you the following works for 300 gulden: A quail song, the text of which you may know. It consists of three verses, but my setting is entirely durchkomponiert (through-composed)”

For some reason the publishers did not take the song and it was released the following year by Kunst- und Industrie-Comptoir in Vienna. The autograph score hints at another dedication to Count Browne, but this did not carry over to the original.

For Susan Youens, writing booklet notes for Signum Classics, the song “belongs to the antique tradition of bird calls in music…a bird whose calls invoke God”. She compares Beethoven’s setting with a later one from Schubert. “Both men inevitably devised the same dotted rhythmic figure for the quail’s calls”. Beethoven, however, “takes the poem far more seriously and from the perspective of the human being who listens to these worshipful injunctions. Ranging farther afield tonally than his younger contemporary, Beethoven’s storms are more tempestuous (the low bass rumble of thunder is a particularly wonderful detail), his acclamations of God’s praise grander, and his pleas for God’s aid more plangent.”

Thoughts

This is surely one of Beethoven’s most descriptive and dramatic songs – and is an indication of his development into a song composer of greater experimentation. The form of the song is quite unusual, being through-composed and taking an operatic air at times. Beethoven also brings the piano and voice close together in a shared depiction of the source material.

As Youens notes above, the rumble of the piano, low in the left hand, is a brilliant dramatic touch, while the ‘recitative’ nature of some of his vocal writing brings Handel to mind (to this ear at least!). Around the time of this song Beethoven had been working on a large, dramatic score (Christus am Ölberge, to be covered shortly) and this may be a fruitful result of the inspiration from that stage work.

It certainly makes a strong impact!

Recordings used

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Jörg Demus (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Peter Schreier (tenor), András Schiff (piano) (Decca)
Barbara Hendricks (soprano), Love Derwinger (piano) (Arte Verum)
Christopher Maltman (baritone), Iain Burnside (piano) (Signum Classics)
Hermann Prey (baritone), Leonard Hokanson (Capriccio)

Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau is the ideal singer for this song, forcefully bringing it to life with the equally fervent tones of Jörg Demus. Yet his is not the only way to express Beethoven’s thoughts – Peter Schreier and András Schiff may be higher up the register (F major rather than D), and they glower less, but they still invest plenty of feeling in the text. The other versions listed are also very fine – including soprano Barbara Hendricks and Love Derwinger, at the same higher pitch but with a sharper tone from the singer. Christopher Maltman and Hermann Prey complete a formidable discography.

Also written in 1803 Krommer Symphony no.2 in D major Op.40

Next up Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives), Op.85

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