Listening to Beethoven #192 – 6 Ländler WoO 15 (version for two violins and bass)

Wilhelm_Gause_Hofball_in_WienTwo ladies are presented to Emperor Franz Joseph at a ball in the Hofburg Imperial Palace, painting by Wilhelm Gause (1900)

6 Ländler WoO 15 for two violins and bass (1802, Beethoven aged 31)

Dedication unknown
Duration 6′

written by Ben Hogwood

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Background and Critical Reception

As we know from earlier examples, Beethoven often turned to the Ländler, a folk dance in 3/4 time, as a way of helping entertain his Viennese clientele. He was able to score them for different instrumental combinations, presumably in response to the circumstances of the entertainers. This set is originally for two violins and a bass instrument – but as with many of these dances was also reworked into a piano version.

Thoughts

D major was Beethoven’s ‘go-to’ key for Ländler – and five of the six examples in this small set are in that key. The only exception is no.4 in D minor, which works well as a ‘trio’ section if all six are played back to back. It is a frown in comparison to the other five, which are carefree examples of Beethoven fulfilling a function with ease.

The first is bright, and light on its feet, the fifth has an attractive flourish but feels half-finished. Typically the sixth and final dance, a simple arpeggiated affair, signs off with a coda.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Tristan Siegel, Noa Sarid (violins), Aleck Belcher (double bass) (Naxos)
Lukas Hagen, Rainer Schmidt (violins), Alois Posch (double bass) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Consortium Classicum (Warner Classics)

Some attractive versions – including an account for small string ensemble, nicely played by Consortium Classicum.

Also written in 1802 Förster 3 String Quartets Op.21

Next up 6 Ländler for piano WoO 15 (1802)

Listening to Beethoven #179 – Sonata for piano and violin no.8 in G major Op.30/3

op303-koch-ruth-boaz

Landscape with Ruth and Boaz (1823/5) by Joseph Anton Koch

Sonata no.8 for piano and violin in G major Op.30/3 (1802, Beethoven aged 31)

1. Allegro assai
2. Tempo di minuetto, ma molto moderato e grazioso
3. Allegro vivace

Dedication Tsar Alexander I
Duration 18′

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by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

For the third in his Op.30 set of violin sonatas, Beethoven moves from the turbulence of C minor to the fresh air of G major. This is a piece, in Gerald Abraham’s words, ‘so short and unpretentious that it can be easily undervalued. Yet there is no Beethoven sonata remotely like it, and it is one of his wittiest and most delightful works. Again he seems at once to revitalize the past and to point to the future.’

Abraham singles out the second movement, ‘an exceedingly beautiful slow minuet which, far from being old-fashioned…generates the sort of expressive warmth we have already found in the slow movement of Op.24 (the Spring sonata). Jan Swafford finds a lovely description of the opening of the piece, ‘a swirling unison followed by a lilting (and a touch tipsy) theme, complete with hiccup in the violin. The rondo of the G major is one of the most whimsical finales he ever wrote, its theme a spinning folk tune over a bagpipe drone, starting a brilliant and smile-inducing movement unlike anything else in his work. Call it Haydnesque wit and folksiness gone deliriously over the top.’

Thoughts

This is a fun piece and, as the commentators above have noted, a compact marvel. Not a note is wasted, from the exuberant beginning, where violin and piano toy with a phrase like a cat with a ball of string, to the airy slow movement, which has the air of a Bach sicilienne in its beautiful simplicity. Here the instruments finish each other’s sentences in an intimate setting.

Beethoven packs his faster music with good melodies, many of them derived from the opening mood. The second movement has a softer side but is warm with it, though a central section finds Beethoven moving to further and less certain keys and musical language.

The finale is as good as they say, high-spirited and bubbling with energy. It is essentially a jig, the ideas once again passed between the instruments, with bird-like calls from the violin recalling an early Haydn quartet from the Op.33 set, the Bird.

A lovely piece – and a guaranteed mood-lifter.

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)

Some very enjoyable recordings here, the approach again falling between the leaner sound of the period-instruments (Midori Seiler and Jos Van Immerseel) and the more overtly romantic approach of Suk and Panenka. Yehudi Menuhin and Wilhelm Kempff have fun, while Dumay and Pires enjoy the work’s exuberance too.

The Spotify playlist below does not contain the Barritt / Lisney version, but does also include a highly powered account by Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich, recorded for Deutsche Grammophon:

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 Samuel Wesley – Symphony in B flat major

Next up 7 Bagatelles Op.33

Listening to Beethoven #178 – Sonata for piano and violin no.7 in C minor Op.30/2

op302-koch-glacier

Grindelwald Glacier in the Alps (1823) by Joseph Anton Koch

Sonata no.7 for piano and violin in C minor Op.30/2 (1802, Beethoven aged 31)

1. Allegro con brio
2. Adagio cantabile
3. Scherzo: Allegro
4. Finale: Allegro; Presto

Dedication Tsar Alexander I
Duration 26′

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by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

Once again, a group of three instrumental pieces by Beethoven is found to contain a tempestuous piece in C minor, the Op.30 violin sonatas following in the footsteps of Op.1 (piano trios), Op.9 (string trios) and Op.10 (piano sonatas). Gerald Abraham, writing in The Beethoven Companion, says ‘one grows used to finding that the C minor work in a group is the outstanding piece’. He finds the first movement of this work to be ‘one of Beethoven’s grandest first movements to date in any medium’.

Jan Swafford is slightly less affected, declaring the sonata ‘only modestly fiery compared to the storms that that key usually roused in him’. He reserves greatest praise for the slow movement, ‘a touching Adagio cantabile with no lingering hints of the eighteenth-century galant but rather an inward and spiritual atmosphere of wonderful beauty’.

In this piece Beethoven reverts to a four movement structure, with the slow movement second and a scherzo placed third.

Thoughts

Beethoven is certainly a different animal when operating in C minor. Right from the off there is a tension about this piece, and added urgency to the material that follows. As in all his C minor works Beethoven uses silence to intense dramatic effect, the breaks between the notes as important as the notes themselves. There is a big-boned piano part, too, which could dominate due to its sheer weight, even though the violin has an equal share of the melodic material.

The slow movement lies in Beethoven’s familiar ‘slow movement’ key of A flat major, and has a calming introduction to the theme from the piano. The violin follows almost in step, but gradually the dialogue becomes more animated, especially in the central section.

The third movement is playful, a Scherzo choosing C major briefly as its home. The clipped delivery of its theme is shared between the two instruments, and for a while we are in sunnier climes. Yet the closing Allegro takes us back to more serious business, the instruments shadowing each other again before rushing to a close in the coda. Beethoven toys with a lighter ending but at the close he firmly shuts the door with an emphatic gesture.
This is Beethoven’s most dramatic violin sonata so far, the tension bubbling on the surface. Though it may not cut loose in the same way as his other C minor works there is a great deal of inner strength and a keen sense of purpose. Repeated listening only heightens the admiration for a fine piece of work.

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)

The drama of this piece is laid at its most bare by Midori Seiler and Jos Van Immerseel, and while some pianists exaggerate the forceful nature of their part, Yehudi Menuhin and Wilhelm Kempff strike the ideal balance. Dumay and Pires offer a very fine digital version too.

The Spotify playlist below does not contain the Barritt / Lisney version, but does also include a highly powered account by Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich, recorded for Deutsche Grammophon:

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 Krommer – Concerto for 2 Clarinets in E flat major Op.35

Next up Sonata no.8 for piano and violin in G major Op.30/3

Listening to Beethoven #177 – Sonata for piano and violin no.6 in A major Op.30/1

op301-koch-monastery

Monastery of San Francesco Di Civitella in the Sabine Mountains (1812) by Joseph Anton Koch

Sonata no.6 for piano and violin in A major Op.30/1 (1802, Beethoven aged 31)

1. Allegro
2. Adagio molto espressivo
3. Allegretto con variazioni

Dedication Tsar Alexander I
Duration 23′

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by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

The Op.30 violin sonatas stand at a crossroads in Beethoven’s output, drawing the early works to a close and beginning the more exploratory middle period. There is more evidence for the ‘equalising’ of the instruments, too, the violin on an equal footing with the keyboard instrument, now firmly established a fortepiano.

This set of three works was dedicated to Tsar Alexander I, in the view of Jan Swafford a convenient gesture ‘to a figure famously allied to enlightened ideals…who might also be moved to do something for a composer now and then’.

Commentators tend to gloss over this first work in the set and head for the stormy C minor work, placed second, or the bubbly third work in G major. However Gerald Abraham, writing in The Beethoven Companion, stops to take in the ‘beautiful three-part writing of the opening’ and the ‘violin cantilena of the slow movement’. Bernhard Uske, writing booklet notes for Deutsche Grammophon, exaggerates the violin-piano relationship. ‘The violin’s role is declamatory and evocative, the piano’s is to energize and keep things moving, as the need arises’.

Beethoven’s friend, fellow composer Carl Czerny, found ‘peaceful, tender seriousness’ in the first movement, described the second as ‘almost like a ballad’ and found the theme for the final movement variations ‘more speaking than sentimental’. In using this format Beethoven put aside his original version of the finale, saving it for another violin and piano work – the Kreutzer sonata, completed the following year.

Thoughts

Beethoven may be at a stylistic crossroads, moving on to something more forward-looking, but he certainly has control over his musical destination. This is fluent, attractive music, full of melody and good feeling.

This first of three sonatas does feel a little ‘older’, however – more Mozartian. The piano leads off and both instruments stay close together with elegant lines – though the violin begins to take its chances to sing more obviously. Things take a slightly darker turn in the middle as the music moves towards minor keys, but this proves to be a brief cloud on the horizon as the original material returns.

In the second movement the violin adopts the poise of a singer for a highly expressive solo, Beethoven taking an effective ‘less is more’ approach, lightly textured and relatively carefree.

The theme and variations begin with a simple melody shared by the violin, before a capricious first variation. Often the hands of the piano appear to be operating different instruments, with the left hand in triplets and the right using trills in Variation 3, before perky multiple notes in the fourth variation suggest the composer is exploring more of the violin’s capabilities. The minor key variation repeats into itself before a sprightly coda, Beethoven teasing the listener towards the end as the two instruments spar politely.

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)

Dumay and Pires come into their own in the slow movement of this work with a highly expressive performance, even though their tempo choice is on the fast side. As always the period instrument duo of Midori Seiler and Jos van Immerseel are illuminating, while the richer tones of Grumiaux, Suk and Menuhin are complemented by beautifully phrased piano playing from Haskil, Panenka and Kempff respectively. The newest version, from Frank Peter Zimmermann and Martin Helmchen, is among the finest.

The Spotify playlist below does not contain the Barritt / Lisney version, but does also include a highly powered account by Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich, recorded for Deutsche Grammophon:

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 Hummel – Piano Quintet in E flat major Op.87

Next up Sonata no.7 for piano and violin in C minor Op.30/2

Listening to Beethoven #173 – 7 Variations on ‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen’ WoO 46

Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (right, in a portrait by Johann Georg Edlinger)

12 Variations on ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte Op.66 for piano and cello (1796, Beethoven aged 26)

Dedication Count Johann von Brown-Camus
Duration 9′

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What’s the theme like?

The theme is a duet from Act 1 of Mozart‘s opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), between the characters Pamino and Papageno, as below. It is an attractive tune in triple time, shared between the piano and cello in its higher register.

Background and Critical Reception

This set of variations is the third and last from Beethoven for piano and cello – and the second to use a theme from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. The inspiration is thought to have been two new productions of the opera appearing in Vienna in 1801. Steven Isserlis notes that despite its equal writing for both instruments, the first edition of Beethoven’s new work ‘fails to even mention the cello on its title page: pianistic chauvinism’.

This is all the stranger given the cello’s elevated role in Beethoven’s writing. As Misha Donat observes, writing for Philips’ recording by Heinrich Schiff and Till Fellner, ‘for the first time the two players are treated very much as equals. Their equality is inherent in the theme itself, which is laid out in such a way that the piano takes the part of Pamina, and the cello the answering voice of Papageno.

Isserlis takes the variations ‘depict various aspects of romance – from excited gossip to lofty ardour’. Marc D. Moskovitz and R. Larry Todd, in their wonderful book Beethoven’s Cello, observe how the fourth variation travels through the ‘parallel, though remote and rare, key of E-flat minor’, and Beethoven ‘reaches for the extremes’, the piano in its high register and the cello down low. Then, the three final variations ‘further deconstruct Mozart’s theme’, the last with a coda.

Thoughts

As the authors observe, Beethoven is bringing his ‘duo’ works to an ever more even keel. The theme here is a case in point, piano and cello united in their sharing of melodic material, and some effortless dialogue. Soon Beethoven is working through a busy second variation, before spicing up the melody with some chromatic additions. The questions and answers between the instruments continue, before the striking fourth variation in the minor key – tricky tuning for the cello here!

The two instruments have a lot of fun, finishing each other’s sentences in the fifth variation. Variation 6 is a florid affair, first for piano then cello, before the substantial finale, with the exuberant interplay of its coda – which also goes on a forceful excursion into the minor key. On the music’s return ‘home’ there is a bit more sparkling interplay before the two instruments sign off convincingly.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Adrian Brendel (cello), Alfred Brendel (piano) (Decca)
Mischa Maisky (cello), Martha Argerich (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Miklós Perényi (cello), András Schiff (piano) (ECM)
Steven Isserlis (cello), Robert Levin (fortepiano) (Hyperion)
Nicolas Altstaedt (cello), Alexandre Lonquich (piano) (Alpha)

The Spotify playlist below includes all but one of the versions listed above – with the opportunity to hear a clip from Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin’s version on the Hyperion website

All versions are excellent, with operatic flair in evidence from Perenyi and Maisky. Once again though it is Robert Levin and Steven Isserlis who get to the heart of the piece and the enjoyment it can provide.

Also written in 1801 Woelfl Duo for cello and piano Op.31

Next up Lob auf dem dicken (musical joke) WoO100