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

Listening to Beethoven #171 – String Quintet in C major Op.29

Carl_Schütz_Wien_Michaelerplatz

Der Michaelerplatz, die Kirche, die KK Reitschule und das KK National Theater, Wien, by Carl Schütz (late 18th century)

String Quintet in C major Op.29 (1801, Beethoven aged 30)

Dedication Count Moritz Fries
Duration 33′

1. Allegro moderato
2. Adagio molto espressivo
3. Scherzo: Allegro – Trio
4. Presto – Andante con moto e scherzoso – Tempo I

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written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s only original String Quintet was commissioned by Count Moritz Fries, and was completed towards the end of 1801. It gained immediate respect, with brother Carl describing it as ‘one of Beethoven’s most excellent’, placing it above the other works he was promoting, the Second Symphony and Third Piano Concerto.

Richard Wigmore is similarly convinced, declaring the quintet to be ‘the final phase of his so-called ‘first period’. This strangely neglected masterpiece is Janus-headed, at once retrospective and prophetic’. Special praise is reserved for the second movement, where Beethoven ‘never wrote a more voluptuously Mozartian slow movement than the Adagio molto espressivo. On the other hand, the tranquil expansiveness and harmonic breadth of the quintet’s first movement prefigure later masterpieces like the first Razumovsky string quartet and the Archduke trio.’

Jan Swafford also holds the quintet in high regard, describing it as ‘a warmly songful work that for all its lightness of spirit has a singular voice and some startling experiments – it amounts to a covertly radical outing’.

The finale has been nicknamed ‘The Storm’ in German speaking countries, due to its ‘tremolo shiver plus falling swoops in the violins’. ‘Twice in the course of the finale’, says Swafford, ‘a new piece of music turns up like an unknown guest at a wedding: a jaunty minuettish tune marked ‘Andante con moto e scherzoso’, the last word indicating ‘jokingly’.’

Thoughts

The String Quintet is indeed a very impressive and mature piece, and as commentators have noted it bears very little resemblance to the works of Mozart for the same instrumental combination. There is a lot going on in the course of its 33 minutes, and the listener is continually engaged and often impressed by the speed of Beethoven’s thoughts.

The first movement unfolds very naturally, with a flowing melody that expands into a substantial structure. The second theme is shared around all the parts and works its way into a lot of the musical arguments.

The beautiful slow movement has a passionate heart, glimpsed especially towards the end with a fiery episode in the minor key. Indeed during his development of the main material Beethoven moves to some very distant tonal areas, the piece losing sight of its centre ground for a while as though having taken a wrong turn. The return to the main theme features pizzicato – increasingly a part of Beethoven’s writing – and some rich, quasi-orchestral textures.

After two lengthy, quite dense movements a quick Scherzo is just the ticket, and this one knows where it wants to go – but has time to show off some witty musical dialogue. The last movement does indeed have a stormy façade, showing how Beethoven is increasingly bringing drama into his chamber music. The tremolos assigned to the strings as part of the ‘storm sequence’ create a few chills, while Beethoven’s part writing is impeccably worked out – and the big surprise, where the minuet-like music appears, is brilliantly stage-managed.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Nash Ensemble [Marianne Thorsen, Malin Broman (violins), Lawrence Power, Philip Dukes (violas), Paul Watkins (cello)] (Hyperion)
Endellion String Quartet, David Adams (viola) (Warner Classics)
Fine Arts Quartet, Gil Sharon (viola) (Naxos)
Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble [Kenneth Sillito, Malcolm Latchem (violins), Robert Smissen, Stephen Tees (violas), Stephen Orton (cello)] (Chandos, 1998)
Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble [Kenneth Sillito, Malcolm Latchem (violins), Robert Smissen, Stephen Tees (violas), Stephen Orton (cello)] (Philips, 1991)
WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne Chamber Players (Alpha)
Amadeus String Quartet, Cecil Aronowitz (Deutsche Grammophon)

There is a very impressive set of recordings of Beethoven’s String Quintet – and the listener cannot really go wrong with any of the above, from a classic and slightly luxurious Amadeus Quartet recording on Deutsche Grammophon to the most recent version, from the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne Chamber Players on Alpha, released in 2020.

Arguably the pick of the recordings comes from the Nash Ensemble, coupled with the Op.4 quintet.

The Nash Ensemble version on Hyperion can be heard here

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 1801 Wranitzky 3 String Quintets Op.8

Next up tbc

Listening to Beethoven #166 – Serenade in D major Op.25

A View of the Karlskirche, Vienna by Bernardo Bellotto

Serenade in D major Op.25 for flute, violin and viola (1801, Beethoven aged 30)

Dedication Countess Maria Wilhelmine von Thun
Duration 22′

1. Entrata, Allegro
2. Tempo ordinario d’un Menuetto
3. Allegro molto
4. Andante con Variazioni
5. Allegro scherzando e vivace
6. Adagio – Allegro vivace e disinvolto

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

This attractive trio was initially thought to have been written around the same time as Beethoven’s Trio for clarinet, cello and piano – but as Richard Wigmore observes, writing in a booklet note for Hyperion, its actual date is three years later.

The flute was a very bankable instrument thanks to Frederick The Great, and Wigmore describes how ‘the Serenade, like the Septet, is a delightful late offshoot of the eighteenth-century divertimento tradition’.

There are six movements in a piece which appears not to have been written with any particular person in mind, more for the Viennese domestic market.

Thoughts

Beethoven looks back to Mozart and Haydn with this piece, using the form of a Serenade to its full potential. Like Mozart he brings the most out of seemingly small forces. On the face of it the combination of flute, violin and viola is relatively slight, but not in Beethoven’s hands. Each of the instruments gets a thorough workout in music that is both vivacious and touching.

The air of Spring, so prevalent in the sonata for piano and violin of the same name, is here in abundance too. The bright sound of the flute is one of the reasons for this, but so are the busy parts Beethoven assigns to violin and viola. There are few if any breaks for the instruments, and because of the almost complete lack of a bass instrument the piece has the lightest of textures.

The first movement is fun, the flute imitating a piper with the catchy main theme, but in the second movement Beethoven brings through a number of dance rhythms, with a minuet and two contrasting trio sections. The third movement is a rustic dance, with busy strings and lively flute.

The centrepiece, however, is the theme and variations movement, the strings introducing the theme with double stopping that makes them sound like a full quartet. As the music progresses each of the three protagonists gets their turn in the spotlight, which the audience would have enjoyed.

There is more, too – a scherzo where the instrumentalists are all at play, and a final Rondo where Beethoven heightens the folksy mood with the use of open strings on the violin and viola. The abundance of tunes and good humour in this piece make it a treat for audiences and listeners alike.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Gaudier Ensemble (Jaime Martin (flute), Marieke Blankestijn (violin), Iris Juda (viola) (Hyperion)
Members of the Berliner Philharmoniker (Karlheinz Zoeller (flute), Thomas Brandis (violin), Siegbert Uebershaer (viola) (Deutsche Grammophon)
James Galway (flute), Joseph Swensen (violin), Paul Neubauer (viola) (RCA)
Emmanuel Pahud (flute), Daishin Kashimoto (violin), Amihai Grosz (viola) (Warner Classics)
Melos Ensemble of London (Richard Adeney (flute), Emmanuel Hurwitz (violin), Cecil Aronowitz (viola) (Eloquence)

There are some fine versions of this piece available, the musicians clearly enjoying Beethoven’s high spirits throughout. The two I enjoyed most are from members of the Gaudier Ensemble on Hyperion, beautifully recorded, and the bright tones of three members of the Berliner Philharmoniker on Deutsche Grammophon, a recording made in 1969 that stands up very well.

You can listen to these versions on the playlist below:

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 1801 Wranitzky 3 String Quintets Op.8

Next up Piano Sonata no.12 in A flat major Op.26

Listening to Beethoven #165 – Sonata for piano and violin no.5 in F major Op.24 ‘Spring’

joseph-anton-koch-serpentaralandschaft-mit-hirten-und-rindern-an-der-quelle.jpg!HalfHD

Serpentine landscape with shepherd and cattle at a spring (1832-4) by Joseph Anton Koch

Sonata no.5 for piano and violin in F major Op.24 (1801, Beethoven aged 30)

1. Allegro
2. Adagio molto espressivo
3. Scherzo: Allegro molto
4. Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo

Dedication Count Moritz von Fries
Duration 23′

Listen

by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

The so-called Spring sonata for violin and piano appears to have acquired its nickname quickly after composition. It is easy to hear why from the very start of the piece, the violin brimming with ideas and a fertile invention that it can barely contain, while the piano burbles its approval.

Simon Nicholls, writing booklet notes to accompany a fine recording from violinist Paul Barritt and pianist James Lisney, notes that the Spring was a partner for the recently-heard Sonata in A minor Op.23, and that its warm F major would ‘highlight the delicious relaxation of tension’ from the ‘winter’ of the earlier piece.

Commentators agree that the work is probably the best known of all Classical violin sonatas, though they note a subtle but telling shift towards the future. It is the first of Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and violin to adopt the four-movement framework, and it gives a noticeably more dominant part to the violin, taking the lead when a lot of the main tunes are heard for the first time.

Beethoven’s contemporary Carl Czerny described the work as ‘holy peace’, while Denis Matthews notes an identical relation between the tonality (F major) of this work and the much later Pastoral symphony. The slow movements, too, share the same key (B flat major), described by Nicholls as a ‘rapt nocturne’. Beethoven then introduces ‘possibly the briefest of scherzi’ before ‘an unfailing flow of melodic invention in the finale’.

All these elements have combined to make the sonata one of the most performed in concert halls today, audiences enjoying its frequent and often dazzling rays of sunshine.

Thoughts

Beethoven’s invention feels as fresh as a daisy when the Spring sonata begins. The violin sings like a bird with both the tunes given to it in the first movement, the first descending from high up, the second ready to take to the air from its perch. The open air calls loudly to the listener, and for the first time in these sonatas there is that shift towards the violin taking the lead, the piano depending on its every move.

The slow movement is indeed rather special, and in a good performance radiates pure musical enjoyment, the two protagonists enjoying spending time together. Soft piano arpeggios complement a hushed melody from the violin, after which Beethoven enjoys moving to keys farther afield. A few shadows reveal themselves in the process but are dissipated by the return to the first theme.

You will blink and miss the scherzo if you are not careful, which would be a shame as it is rather beautifully woven together, with a spring in its step if you pardon the pun! Meanwhile the finale has a lovely theme too, the violin still in songful mood and the rippling piano providing a flowing accompaniment. Some spiky interaction between the two instruments in the develop leads to a return of the theme with pizzicato violin, almost absentmindedly strumming before normal service is resumed. Beethoven can’t resist a few more unusual modulations to far-flung keys before returning to the familiarity of these particularly green pastures.

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)

Both Josef Suk and Arthur Grumiaux are notable for the full tone of their interpretations, which suits the Spring sonata rather nicely – as does the florid input of their pianists, Josef Hala and Clara Haskil respectively. Midori Seiler and Jos Van Immerseel give a lovely account of the piece, enjoying the open textures but with the mottled sound of the fortepiano an attractive complement to Seiler’s bright tone. Also of great note in a crowded field is an excellent new version from Frank Peter Zimmermann and Martin Helmchen, bubbling over with enthusiasm.

The Spotify playlist below does not contain the Barritt / Lisney version, but does 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 1801 John Marsh – Symphony no.30 in E minor

Next up Serenade in D major Op.25

Listening to Beethoven #164 – Sonata for piano and violin no.4 in A minor Op.23

joseph-anton-koch-mountain-scene

Mountain Scene (1796) by Joseph Anton Koch

Sonata no.4 for piano and violin in A minor Op.23 (1801, Beethoven aged 30)

1. Presto
2. Andante scherzoso, più allegretto
3. Allegro molto

Dedication Count Moritz von Fries
Duration 20′

Listen

by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

A relatively quick return for Beethoven to the duo sonata, with a pair of works for piano and violin. He worked first on Op.23 and then immediately began Op.24, the Spring sonata, its much more famous sibling. The two works were published together, like the Op.12 trio of sonatas, but due to an error in the engraving they were assigned separate opus numbers. Both pieces were written for Count Moritz von Fries, a banker who was an important patron to Beethoven around this time.

Many see the separate publication of the two works as an appropriate move, for commentators regard the Op.23 sonata as the chalk to the Spring sonata’s cheese. Daniel Heartz gives Op.23 a surprisingly wide berth, and his detailed examination of early Beethoven only finds one short paragraph for the work. ‘It seems dour and astringently contrapuntal compared to the lushly endowed siren before us in Op.24’, he writes. ‘In competition with alluring beauties, overt sagacity has rarely won the day, nor does it do so here’. He does however point out that ‘it was the composer’s habit to work simultaneously on works of disparate character’.

William Drabkin is more complimentary, marking the influence of Mozart throughout. Writing in The Beethoven Companion, Nigel Fortune notes the rarity of A minor in Beethoven’s output, before observing that the sonata ‘is unique, too, in being dominated by so much tense and bare linear movement’.

The outer movements are prime examples of this, he says, while the ‘slow’ movement includes – exceptionally – ‘a fugato on a theme that contrasts vividly with the slurred and halting motion of the opening idea’.

Thoughts

This unusual piece has the feeling of a work Beethoven had to get out of his system. The key of A minor was one he very seldom used – nor, incidentally, did Haydn – and in fact this violin sonata is his only large-scale work to use the key. There is a marked tension between A minor and A major throughout, the sort of duel that would become a feature of the mature works of Schubert, who often used ‘A’ as a centre.

The bare opening of the first movement finds both instruments in unison, and though it looks like it should be playful on the page it proves rather acerbic. The movement proceeds with a stern dialogue, unwieldly but still effective.

Signs of warmth appear in the slow movement, where Beethoven switches to the major key. Rhythmically the two instruments are very much in step, with a stop-start feel to the tune, and as Beethoven constructs variations on it the music becomes a little more flowing. The unusual fugue passage would have been a big surprise to the audience of the time, and still feels a little odd here.

The third movement bursts out of the blocks in the same spirit of the first, and again feels more like a duel than a collaboration – but the simplicity of the second theme brings a tender contrast, a reminder of the warmth that can still be found in spite of Beethoven’s lean and slightly mean approach in this piece.

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)

Once again the fresh approach of Midori Seiler and Jos van Immerseel is invigorating, and the relative lack of vibrato from Seiler’s violin suits the character of the music without making it too dark. Yehudi Menuhin has a much fuller sound by contrast, but this brings a welcome warmth to the slow movement in particular, as does the responsive playing of Wilhelm Kempff. Josef Suk and Jan Panenka have a similar profile, while the newest version – from Frank Peter Zimmermann and Martin Helmchen – is quite a powerhouse, sweeping forward impressively.

The Spotify playlist below does not contain the Barritt / Lisney version, but does 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 1801 Vanhal – Clarinet Sonata in C major

Next up Sonata for piano and violin no.5 in F major Op.24 ‘Spring’