Listening to Beethoven #39 – 8 Variations on a Theme by Count Waldstein


Count Waldstein (left) and Ludwig van Beethoven aged approximately 25.

8 Variations on a Theme by Count Waldstein WoO 67 for piano duet (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

Dedication not known, but presumed to be Count Waldstein
Duration 8′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

The theme sounds quite quaint and a little rickety on the fortepiano. Its alternations between major and minor harmonies give it a bittersweet flavour.

Background and Critical Reception

This is another piece from Beethoven’s last days in Bonn that was not published in his lifetime – and another that has almost completely bypassed the writings of the composer’s scholars. Keith Anderson, writing booklet notes for the engaging release of Beethoven’s music for piano duet on Grand Piano Records, notes the piece was picked up by the publisher Nikolaus Simrock, but without initial consultation with the composer himself.

By now Beethoven was using the ‘theme and variations’ format as a way of flexing his muscles as a composer, trying out new and – in some cases – ever more daring feats. No doubt when making music with friends he got acquainted with the idea of piano duets – Mozart especially had written a number of pieces for the format – and this was his first, quite extravagant work for four hands.

Waldstein is recorded on Wikipedia as a ‘fairly good pianist and composer’ – so it is tempting to think Beethoven wrote the second part with him in mind. Certainly some of the prompting is easier for the second pianist, as the first part goes wild at the top end of the keyboard!

Thoughts

Beethoven has some fun with these variations, which seem to have been designed for lighthearted performance among friends. Certainly if the fourth variation is anything to go by, with its detached swoops from high down to low and back again. The second and fifth have a torrent of notes in the right hand, while the sixth is also pretty outrageous, an outgoing display piece. The seventh is po-faced, with a syncopation here and there disrupting the rhythms enjoyably, while the eighth variation switches to C minor, rich in harmonic flavour.

Then there is a really pronounced pause, Beethoven looking round at his audience with a tease or two – before a sizeable coda which could really be called a Fantasia. Where will the music go? Beethoven starts to go off at a number of tangents, recalling the unpredictable methods of C.P.E. Bach. The speeds vary wildly, as do the moods – and just as the direction seems uncertain, we head back to the main key through a series of heavy chords. Beethoven refuses to finish with a flourish though, a soft chord all he needs to bring the house down.

Ultimately this piece has a lot of signposts for the watching public, and they surely would have loved it in private performance – if indeed it got to see the light of day. It is a good deal of fun.

Recordings used

Amy & Sara Hamann (Grand Piano)
Arthur & Lucas Jussen (Deutsche Grammophon)

This piece is a riot in the hands of the Hamann sisters, who appreciate the rougher edges the fortepiano provides. They use this to their advantage, bringing out the contrasts between the variations. Their album of piano duets presents the pieces first on the fortepiano, and then on a modern Yamaha, giving the listener a great chance to compare and contrast. The modern version is cleaner and less ‘on the edge’, but still very entertaining.

Alongside this pair the Jussen brothers sound rather more chaste, though they too have some fun once the variations are into their stride.

Spotify links

Amy & Sara Hamann (Fortepiano after J.A. Stein, 1784)

Amy & Sara Hamann (modern Yamaha)

Arthur & Lucas Jussen

Also written in 1792 Gelinek 6 Variations on ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen

Next up 13 Variations on ‘Es war einmal ein alter Mann’

Listening to Beethoven #38 – Duo for two flutes in G major


A Man in Eighteenth Century Dress with a Flute, in His Study by (Henry Hetherington Emmerson) (1877)

Duo for two flutes in B flat major WoO 26 (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

1 Allegro con brio
2 Menuetto quasi allegretto

Dedication ‘for friend Degenharth’
Duration 6′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

This is the first of Beethoven’s chamber works not to include the piano – though it was not published until after his death. The dedication, ‘for friend Degenharth’, is to a lawyer, a member of Beethoven’s close circle of friends. It has prompted speculation that the piece may have been a commission or a present.

Either way, it is a short work in two movements of roughly equal length, and continues the close affinity Beethoven had with the flute at this time. Technical demands are thought to be few (according to Flutetunes.com at any rate!) so the music is suitable for most ability levels.

Thoughts

The two movements of the Duo are charming. The melodic parts are closely intertwined in the first section, like butterflies dancing in a breeze. Beethoven shifts to the minor key half way through, as though intending to move off on a set of variations. The music has a more graceful feel at this point, but then the dancing butterflies return.

The instruments stay close for the second movement, where the second flute has a simple arpeggio ‘Alberti’ figuration. There is more of a dance form evident here, in triple time.

Beethoven’s domestic side is on show here, with communal music making the main aim. As a result there is nothing too challenging here, but the charms are many.

Recordings used

Patrick Gallois, Jean-Pierre Rampal (DG)
Patrick Gallois, Kazunori Seo (Naxos)

Gallois and Rampal are brilliant together, and it proves almost impossible to tell their instruments apart at times!

Spotify links

Patrick Gallois, Jean-Pierre Rampal

Patrick Gallois, Kazunori Seo

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 1792 Haydn Piano Trio in G major HXV:32

Next up 8 Variations on a theme by Count Waldstein

Listening to Beethoven #36 – 14 Variations in E flat major Op.44


Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (left) and the young Ludwig van Beethoven

14 Variations in E flat major Op.44 for piano trio (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

Dedication not known
Duration 15′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

Very simple – but Dittersdorf‘s theme has comic potential, as you might expect from a humorous stage work. In the right (or wrong!) hands this could be a bit po-faced.

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven wrote a lot of chamber music for trio in his Bonn years – and a good deal in the key of E flat major too. This piece was not published until 1804, but is thought to have been completed in 1792 before he left for Vienna. Choosing a simple theme from a comic operetta by Dittersdorf, Das rote Käppchen (‘The little red cap’), he wrote 14 variations of varying character.

Writing to accompany the Florestan Trio recording of this piece on Hyperion, Richard Wigmore compliments Dittersdorf, whose ‘comically rudimentary tune is a vision of dry bones, as bare as the famous ‘Eroica’ theme which it faintly resembles.’ He also notes the glint in Beethoven’s eye and his predilection for mischief in several of these variations, most notably the ‘delicately tripping twelfth…’disrupted by an uncouth fortissimo outburst – Beethoven gleefully sticking out his tongue at rococo decorum’.

Thoughts

This set of variations is great fun, and you really get a sense of Beethoven flexing his compositional muscles and trying a few new things. From the first variation there are strong hints that he is going to have some fun with this theme – and so it proves. In the second variation the pianist enjoys the opportunity to flex the rhythms, bringing in the violin for a capricious third variation, before the baton passes to the cello for the benefit of its richer tone.

The ensemble passages have great energy, and for almost the first time we are getting a sense of the terrific forward drive in Beethoven’s music, especially in the propulsive movement of the sixth variation. A slow minor key deviation follows (variation 7), the cello and violin exchanging mournful thoughts, before the distant chugging of the violin and cello support a piano theme given in octaves. Variation 9 is lively and fun, while the syncopations of the tenth feel particularly advanced at this stage in Beethoven’s development.

As we approach the end, the second minor key variation (13) is even slower and more drawn out. This only makes the reappearance of the ‘home’ key all the happier, before a striking passage where the piano takes a sort of cadenza over the bare bones of the strings. Finally we return to the simplicity of the theme’s profile from the start, before a rush to the finish.

The variety and virtuosity of these variations is reminiscent of the earlier Venni Amore variations for piano, in their wide breadth of moods and techniques – and in their entertainment value, too.

Recordings used

Florestan Trio (Susan Tomes (piano), Anthony Marwood (violin), Richard Lester (cello) (Hyperion)
Wilhelm Kempff (piano), Henryk Szeryng (violin), Pierre Fournier (cello) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Daniel Barenboim (piano), Pinchas Zukerman (violin), Jacqueline du Pré (cello) (originally EMI Classics)

The superstar trio of Henryk Szeryng, Pierre Fournier and Wilhelm Kempff take their time with Dittersdorf’s theme in a very deliberate presentation, and Variation 2 finds Kempff in particularly airy mood – but it is really well judged. That said, they are still a good deal quicker than another superstar ensemble, including husband and wife team Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline du Pré.

The best modern version of the variations comes from the Florestan Trio on Hyperion, which enjoys not just the sparkling pianism of Susan Tomes but also the closely-matched Anthony Marwood and Richard Lester. They all embody the first principles of chamber music by clearly listening to each other and responding in kind. As a result their recording is instinctive and fun.

Spotify links

Wilhelm Kempff (piano), Henryk Szeryng (violin), Pierre Fournier (cello) (Deutsche Grammophon)

Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zukerman, Jacqueline du Pré

You can hear a clip from the Florestan trio version on the Hyperion website

Also written in 1792 Haydn Symphony no.73 in D major ‘La Chasse’

Next up An Minna

Listening to Beethoven #31 – Flute Sonata in B flat major


Gentleman walking a hound in a wooded landscape (Unknown, German school, late 18th century

Flute Sonata in B flat major Anh.4 (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

Dedication unknown
Duration 25′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

This substantial four-movement work was found amongst Beethoven’s papers after his death, and was not published until 1906. Despite its location, there are a number of doubts over the authorship of the piece – which appears not to have been in Beethoven’s own handwriting, according to biographer Alexander Thayer.

Barry Cooper, writing in the ‘Rarities’ booklet accompanying DG’s New Complete Edition of Beethoven, makes several useful points. He notes a ‘few awkward moments that could betray inexperience’, and says ‘its authenticity cannot yet be excluded completely, if it is a very early work’. Yet in the other corner there are ‘far fewer articulation markings than in even Beethoven’s earliest known works’, and the scribe ‘was also the composer’, which for Cooper offers the final proof that Beethoven was ultimately not involved.

If it was indeed Beethoven who wrote this work it is thought it would date between 1790 and 1792 – which would plausibly make the dedicatee the flautist son of the Westerholt-Gysenberg family, who Beethoven had included as part of his equally substantial Trio for Flute, Bassoon and Piano a few years earlier.

Thoughts

This substantial piece is quite hyperactive in its first few minutes, when it feels like there are too many notes, but the mood is bright and positive. The music gradually settles, passing through quite an adventurous development section where the dynamic changes, from quite a pastoral mood which then darkens as Beethoven shifts into the minor key.

The second movement, a Polacca, sets out on a strident path, in the same key of B flat major. Both instruments are close together, complementing each other’s melodic movements. The theme is a bit more rustic but the polonaise attributes are not obvious.

The slow movement brings the music to rest, and offers a change of scenery in E flat major. The final movement finds the players close again for a bright theme on which the players then expand with four variations. Even the minor key variation, the third, doesn’t really cloud the sunny exterior too much. By Beethoven’s standards so far it does feel like a relatively standard theme and variations, but they end with a flourish and a relatively restful coda.

Recordings used

Michel Debost (flute), Christian Ivaldi (piano) (Warner Classics)
Emmanuel Pahud (flute), Eric Le Sage (piano) (Auvidis Valois)
Severino Gazzelloni (flute), Bruno Canino (piano) (DG)

A trio of excellent performances here, each of which serves the sonata very well. The top choice by a whisker would be the ever-stylish Emmanuel Pahud and Eric Le Sage, though Severino Gazzelloni and Bruno Canino run them close with their close-knit partnership, which is particularly beautiful in the slow movement.

Spotify links

Michel Debost, Christian Ivaldi

Emmanuel Pahud, Eric Le Sage

Severino Gazzelloni, Bruno Canino

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 1792 Haydn Symphony no.98 in B flat major

Next up Primo amore piacer del ciel

Listening to Beethoven #20 – Piano Trio in E flat major WoO 38


Piano trio – an image used by the Viennese music publisher Artaria on the title page of several of its publications of the mid-1780s

Piano Trio in E flat major WoO 38 for piano, violin and cello (1790-91, Beethoven aged 19)

Dedication not known
Duration 17′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

The piano trio was a growing form in the latter part of the 18th century, thanks principally to the work of Haydn and Mozart. Haydn tended towards works which gave the piano most prominence, with violin and particularly cello in a more accompanying role. Mozart was a little more lenient with the stringed instruments, but as we will see it was Beethoven who fully freed up the form.

This early work, however, stays true to the example of its predecessors, a mark in the sand if you will. Richard Wigmore, writing for Hyperion’s fine cycle of the piano trios from the Florestan Trio, sums it up. He describes the E flat work as a work that was ‘doubtless played with members of the Elector’s orchestra. This slender, amiable three-movement work seems almost tentative beside the ambitious Opus 1 trios. But it contains much charming, unassuming music, together with occasional prophetic touches’.

Wigmore delights in the subtle inventions of the third movement in particular, including a ‘quiet sideslip to a surprise key in the coda’…an ‘early example of a Haydnesque gambit which Beethoven would fruitfully exploit in the years to come’.

Thoughts

The piano leads off, setting the scene for a work where the violin and cello play largely second fiddle, so to speak, to the keyboard. It is an attractive theme, and Beethoven develops it in a relatively safe way.

However the second movement, subtitled as a ‘Scherzo’, is also in E flat major – and does not really exhibit the qualities of a scherzo as we might expect, with not a great deal of wit or daring, which Beethoven would later introduce to the form. The trio feels like a much safer composition as a result.

With no slow movement, the third movement is also based in E flat major, by which time we have pretty much had enough of this key, despite the attractive, open writing. There are some more adventurous moments in this movement, a couple of moves towards the minor key and some lower and quite intriguing murmuring in the inner parts that Wigmore highlights – but these are all relative.

Beethoven has got the form of the piano trio under his pen with relative comfort, but the feeling persists there will be many more radical statements to come in this form.

Recordings used

Florestan Trio (Hyperion)

Beaux Arts Trio (Philips)

Wilhelm Kempff (piano), Henryk Szeryng (violin), Pierre Fournier (cello) (Deutsche Grammophon)

ALl three recordings are excellent, though perhaps inevitably the superstar trio of Kempff, Szeryng and Fournier bring impressive gravitas to even the slightest of music in this piece. They also employ a couple of daring held passages, pulling back the reins on the tempo before moving off again. Either of the three performances has much to recommend it – the Beaux Arts are charming and light footed, while the Florestan Trio are affectionate.

Spotify links

Beaux Arts Trio (Philips)

Wilhelm Kempff (piano), Henryk Szeryng (violin), Pierre Fournier (cello) (Deutsche Grammophon)

Also written in 1791 Mozart Piano Concerto no.27 in B flat major K595

Next up Musik zu einem Ritterballet WoO 1