Listening to Beethoven #199 – Sonata for piano and violin no.9 in A major Op.47 ‘Kreutzer’

beethoven-kreutzer

Landscape with Noah, Offering a Sacrifice of Gratitude (1803) by Joseph Anton Koch

Sonata no.9 for piano and violin in A major Op.47 ‘Kreutzer’ (1803, Beethoven aged 32)

1. Adagio sostenuto – Presto
2. Andante con variazioni
3. Presto

Dedication Rodolphe Kreutzer
Duration 40′

Listen

by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s biggest violin sonata has a curious back story. Its dedication to Rodolphe Kreutzer, who never played the piece, masks its intention as a performing vehicle for George Bridgetower, a violinist with whom Beethoven had recently become good friends. A charismatic child prodigy of mixed race, the violinist ultimately settled in Britain but left his mark all over the piece, due in part to a West Indian heritage that was exotic to those he encountered. Simon Nicholls, writing booklet notes for the recording by Paul Barritt and James Lisney on Woodhouse Editions, writes how Beethoven’s friend and contemporary Carl Czerny described Bridgetower as a ‘bold, extravagant’ virtuoso.

The change in dedication allegedly came after the two had rehearsed the piece. Bridgetower had shown his prowess in an early concert performance, particularly in the slow movement, but soon after he and Beethoven quarrelled over a female friend, and the dedication was altered.

The musical style, however, reflects the original violinist’s technical ability and ambition, confirmed in its labelling ‘scritta in uno stilo, molto concertante quasi come d’un concerto’ (written in a highly concert-like style, almost in the manner of a concerto’). It is in a sizeable three movements, lasting around 40 minutes – almost double the length of any of the other violin sonatas. Beethoven wrote the Rondo finale before the other two movements, originally intending it as the finale of the sonata Op.30 no.1. In writing the Kreutzer, he ensured the other two movements’ themes were still related to this Rondo.

Lewis Lockwood writes that ‘with Op.47 we reach the summit of Beethoven’s early violin sonata style, now raised to a brilliant pitch of virtuosity in the most difficult violin writing of the period’. He notes Berlioz’s opinion of the Kreutzer as ‘one of the most sublime of all violin sonatas’, and that Leo Tolstoy, who wrote a short story entitled The Kreutzer Sonata, described the work as ‘the supreme example of the power of music’.

Kreutzer Sonata, painting by René François Xavier Prinet (1901), based on Leo Tolstoy’s 1889 novella, ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’

Thoughts

Right from the start it is clear we are on different ground with the Kreutzer sonata. The dramatic chord from the violin beginning the piece is on a grand scale, a cadenza in all but name. The violin takes much more of the lead in proceedings, much more so than in the previous works, dominating the introduction of the first movement. When the Allegro arrives, however, both instruments share the theme. As the work unfolds so too does a tension between the ‘home’ key of A major and A minor, where a lot of the music sits. This abates a little with the serene second theme, but the first movement nonetheless ends emphatically in the minor key.

The second movement, a theme and variations of consistently high quality, starts sweetly from the violin before the two instruments engage in close conversation. They exchange a wealth of melodic ideas, and both have fun once Beethoven starts flexing his muscles. Variation IV in particular would present a lot of fun for the piano with the trills, once the techniques are mastered! The variations are closely stitched together and flow almost seamlessly, their sentences entwined, leading to a closing paragraph of great serenity.

After the contented finish to the theme and variations, the third movement bursts out of the blocks with vim and vigour. The music is quite rustic, with dotted rhythms from the violin and a bubbly stream of harmony from the piano. The lively exchanges continue, the violin’s bird-like figurations restless and unwilling to settle. This being a rondo, the principal theme becomes engrained in the mind, and the virtuoso profile continues through to the exuberant finish. Major key just about triumphs over minor too, the sparring between the two having been one of the principal dramatic features. Little wonder that some – such as Kreutzer – did not fully understand the piece, for its forward thinking nature is unlike anything written for the two instruments together to this point.

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)

There are several recordings of the Kreutzer sonata to have gained ‘classic’ status, including (but not restricted to) Arthur Grumiaux and Clara Haskil, David Oistrakh and Lev Oborian and Nathan Milstein and Artur Balsam. The three I found myself engaging with most were Yehudi Menuhin with Wilhelm Kempff – with compelling chemistry and total control of Beethoven’s ensemble work – then Mayumi Seiler and Jos van Immerseel, for their brio and verve on period instruments. The newest recording, too, made a strong impact, with Frank Peter Zimmermann and Martin Helmchen delivering a reading of poise and power for BIS.

 

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 Haydn – String Quartet in D minor. Op.103

Next up 7 Variations on ‘God Save the King’, WoO78

Listening to Beethoven #198 – Trio in E flat major Op.38

A view over Vienna river and St. Charles’s cathedral by Franz Gerasch (before 1906)

Trio in E flat major Op.38 for clarinet / violin, cello / bassoon and piano (1803, Beethoven aged 32)

  1. Adagio – Allegro con brio
  2. Adagio cantabile
  3. Tempo di menuetto
  4. Tema con variazioni: Andante
  5. Scherzo: Allegro molto e vivace
  6. Andante con moto alla marcia – Presto

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s Septet was a considerable success on its appearance in 1799, creating demand for the work to be arranged in a number of other instrumental combinations. Beethoven produced two trio versions, just as he did with the Op.11 Clarinet Trio – one for clarinet, cello and piano, with a substitution for cello with bassoon encouraged, and another for the more conventional piano trio (violin, cello and piano).

Writing for Hyperion Records, bassoonist Laurence Perkins details the specifics of the arrangement. The re-voicing gives (for the most part) the septet’s string parts to the piano, while much of the original clarinet part is preserved. A good deal of the cello line comes from the bassoon part of the septet, with occasional additions from the cello and horn parts. Perkins observes that there were far fewer bassoonists around than cellists in those times, but that offering the different choices of instrumentation would help the selling potential of the music. As he says, there is a strong case for performing this version with bassoon rather than cello, for “it restores that very special link between the clarinet and bassoon which is such a special feature of the original septet.”

He goes on to praise Beethoven’s achievement in the arrangements. “By transcribing the string parts with Beethoven’s characteristic pianistic style, it sounds totally convincing, as if it had been originally conceived in this form. From the spacious elegance of the adagio introduction to the first movement, leading into the energy, expression and momentum of the allegro con brio, we are on a very similar musical journey to the septet itself. The slow movement, adagio cantabile, remains as a wonderfully melodic vehicle for the clarinet’s lyrical qualities, while the minuet and trio is every bit as characterful, the bassoon adding its own brand of wit in the cheeky horn passages of the trio section. The theme and variations is particularly effective with lots of imaginative interplay between the three instruments, and the scherzo retains all the energy and excitement of the original version. The dark introduction to the final movement leads into the vibrant, energetic presto with the famous violin cadenza faithfully reproduced on the piano.”

Thoughts

If I were listening to this work cold, I would think it to be a substantial new piano trio almost in the form of a serenade. However with the knowledge that it is in effect another version of the Septet, it is easy to pine for the colours Beethoven uses in his expert blending of the seven different players. That said, this is an extremely effective arrangement, with or without clarinet and bassoon, and the three parts are ideally balanced. The music never feels too congested, and there is room for the wit and charm of the original to come through at every turn.

The bassoon / cello has an attractive solo to carry the second movement Adagio Cantabile to a higher plane, ably supported by the other two instruments. The cheeky subject of the Tempo di Menuetto isn’t quite as effective without the rhythmic prompting of the double bass, but leaves its witty mark nonetheless.

My personal preference would be for the clarinet / bassoon / piano version, going in line with Perkins’ argument and because the melodic ideas translate really nicely to the wind instruments. The conventional piano trio would not have to wait long for another original piece!

Recordings used and Spotify Links

Martin Roscoe (piano), Sarah Watts (clarinet), Laurence Perkins (bassoon) (Hyperion)
Judith Kent Stillman (piano), Richard Stoltzman (clarinet), Michael Reynolds (cello) (KidsClassics)
Adrian Brendel (piano), Pascal Moraguès (clarinet), Filipe Pinto-Ribeiro (cello) (Paraty)
Beaux Arts Trio [Menahem Pressler (piano), Isidore Cohen (violin), Peter Wiley (cello)] (Philips)

This delightful piece translates well to its smaller medium, and is served by some thoroughly enjoyable performances. Perkins’ own, with clarinettist Sarah Watts and pianist Martin Roscoe, is a treat – while Richard Stoltzmann overseas a bright reading on KidsClassics. The Beaux Arts Trio give a good performance on Philips with the piano trio version, but the clarinet really does help preserve the spirit of Beethoven’s original melodies. You can hear the Roscoe / Watts / Perkins version on the Hyperion 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 1799 Haydn String Quartet in G major Op. 77/1

Next up Sonata for piano and violin no.9 in A major Op.47 ‘Kreutzer’

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′

Listen

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′

Listen

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