Listening to Beethoven #89 – La Partenza WoO 124


Portrait of Italian poet Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782) Image used courtesy of Wikipedia

La partenza WoO 124 for voice and piano (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication not known
Text Pietro Metastasio
Duration 1’10”

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Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven joined a prestigious list of composers in setting Pietro Metastasio’s canzonetta from 1749. Paisiello and Mozart had already taken the text as inspiration, but now Beethoven – setting Italian again – took the plunge. This would appear to be a result of his continuing training with Salieri, who was encouraging the setting of songs in his native language.

Thoughts

Beethoven shifts from the G major of previous song Zärtliche Liebe to A flat major, a tonal centre that would inspire some of his best and most contemplative music over the years. It is a shift in mood, too – the previous song a declaration of love, this one (translating as The Departure) sat in the cloud of departure and loss.

It is a relatively simple setting, and a short one too at just over a minute. A flowing piano is the bedrock for a smooth, mid-range melody, but the overriding mood is sombre and relatively downcast.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Hartmut Höll (Warner Classics)

Hermann Prey, Leonard Hokanson (Capriccio)

Cecilia Bartoli, Andras Schiff (Decca)

Both Fischer-Dieskau and Prey give this song a good deal of gravitas, their pianists providing solid support. However the bright tones of Cecilia Bartoli and the light-fingered accompaniment of András Schiff give the song a new lease of life.

Also written in 1795 Salieri “Armonia per un tempio della notte” in E flat major for 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and 2 horns

Next up 12 German Dances WoO8 (piano version)

Listening to Beethoven #88 – Zärtliche Liebe WoO 123


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

Zärtliche Liebe WoO 123 for voice and piano (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication not known
Text Karl Friedrich Herrosee
Duration 2’20”

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Background and Critical Reception

The seemingly uncredited booklet-writer for Beethoven’s complete songs as released on the Capriccio label is unequivocal in their praise for this song for higher voice and piano. They describe it in the company of two others as “masterpieces in the restrained use of musical means, a particular feature applicable to more than merely a few of Beethoven’s songs for voice and piano. This characteristic is not easily incorporated in the prevalent image of Beethoven, but it is nonetheless indispensable if the full scope of Beethoven’s art is to be appreciated.”

Leslie Orrey, writing in The Beethoven Companion, sits firmly on the other side of the fence. “There could hardly be…a much less ardent protestation of love than Ich liebe dich…” which he describes with a number of other songs as “looking over their shoulders to another age, to the artificial Arcadian poetry of nymphs and shepherdesses”.

Thoughts

Less is indeed more where this song is concerned. The singer has the first note, an upbeat to a graceful song that proceeds smoothly and largely without incident. There is room to accommodate both the views above, though my thoughts fall with the ‘restraint saying more’ than the Orrey view that Beethoven’s version of love is completely removed.

The gently undulating piano as the singer grows more ardent helps the restrained approach, but does enhance the emphasis on the words and stepwise melody.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Jörg Demus (Warner Classics)

Ian Bostridge, Julius Drake (Warner Classics)

Fritz Wunderlich, Hubert Giesen (Deutsche Grammophon)

Fritz Wunderlich is the tenderest of the three male singers chosen here, his smooth line beautifully phrased. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sings down a tone and with characteristic strength of feeling. Ian Bostridge has a leaner tone but shapes the phrasing affectionately. All three are convincing advocates of a song dividing opinion.

Also written in 1795 Salieri Palmira

Next up La Partenza (Der Abschied)

Listening to Beethoven #74 – Seufzer eines Ungeliebten und Gegenliebe


Gottfried August Bürger

Seufzer eines Ungeliebten und Gegenliebe WoO 118 for voice and piano (1794-5, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication not known
Text Gottfried August Bürger
Duration 6’30”

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Background and Critical Reception

This is one of Beethoven’s biggest solo vocal works to date, setting a pair of poems by Gottfried August Bürger. The first, Seufzer eines Ungeliebten (Plaint of a Loveless Man), is set out as an operatic recitative, while the second, Gegenliebe (Requited Love) is more of an aria with a broad, flowing profile. Commentators immediately noted the similarity of the melody in the second poem not just to the Choral Fantasy Op.80 but to the Ode to Joy from the Choral Symphony.

Susan Youens, writing for the recording made by Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside for Signum Classics, notes that ‘if the prosody leaves something to be desired, it is nonetheless fascinating that this melodic idea was brewing in Beethoven’s brain literally for decades and that the song’s impulse gave rise to the mighty symphony’.

Amanda Glauert, in The Cambridge Companion to Beethoven, draws a strong parallel with the forthcoming concert aria Ah, Perfido! For her Beethoven ‘chose to adopt an exaggeratedly operatic idiom for his setting of the first poem’, concluding that ‘the gracious triple-meter melodies in E flat into which both song and aria resolve are so similar in contour that one can sense how Beethoven must have borrowed the style from his teacher (Salieri) or other Italianate models. In Gegenliebe, ‘the awkward text setting…when heard in context…becomes the natural consequence of the voice being pushed forwards by the piano’s rhythmic intensity.’

Meanwhile in The Beethoven Companion, Leslie Orrey finds the piano writing ‘suggests a transcription of an orchestral score.’

Thoughts

Just as his studies with Albrechtsberger have been blooming, so Beethoven’s education with Salieri appears to be bearing bigger and greater fruit. The songs we are hearing now are more substantial and adventurous, and this two-parter is one borne of the stage rather than the recital room.

From the first notes it is clear this is substantial and meaningful vocal work for Beethoven. There is an immediate sense of drama, maybe exaggerated a bit but ideally suited to the male singer. Tension surrounds the music from the off, but is resolved beautifully into the Requited Love, where we first hear the memorable theme. Its similarity to the Ode To Joy is uncanny, and as Susan Youens says it must have meant a lot to the composer, a melody whose profile stayed at the front of his thoughts for decades.

Once heard it is the tune that dominates, and the aria finishes in a resilient and triumphant mood.

Recordings used

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Jörg Demus (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Hermann Prey (baritone), Leonard Hokanson (piano) (Capriccio)

Peter Schreier (tenor), Walter Olbertz (piano)

Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Melvyn Tan (fortepiano) (Archiv)

An imperious performance from the great baritone Fischer-Dieskau, with a dramatic introduction and ideal phrasing on the big tune. Hermann Prey and Leonard Hokanson are even more expansive, clocking in at nearly seven minutes. Peter Schreier moves the music up in pitch (in C minor rather than B flat minor) but his version also carries a sense of occasion. Anne Sofie von Otter does too, though not quite as full bodied in tone. Melvyn Tan’s fortepiano provides ideal support.

Spotify links

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Jörg Demus

Hermann Prey, Leonard Hokanson

Peter Schreier & Werner Olbertz

Anne Sofie von Otter, Melvyn Tan

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 1795 Reicha –  Concerto Concertant Op.3

Next up O care selve (first version)

Listening to Beethoven #63 – O care selve WoO 119


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

O care selve WoO 119 for voice and piano (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication not known
Text Pietro Metastasio
Duration 1’30”

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Background and Critical Reception

This is Beethoven’s second song to be set in Italian, a possible side-product of his studies with Salieri. The Italian composer’s influence on his pupil extended to a more operatic approach.

Very little is known or written about this song, but it is part of a clutch of short works completed in Vienna in 1795. We are effectively peering into the engine room, beneath the bonnet of Beethoven’s large-scale works.

Thoughts

This is a short and tender song in a lilting triple time, with a winsome melody that is easy on the ear. O care selve (O beloved forests) is as dreamy as its words imply, quite a wistful number with a faraway mood.

In fact this is a surprisingly relaxed utterance from Beethoven, a lullaby in all but name.

Recordings used

Hermann Prey (baritone), Heinrich Schütz Kreis Berlin, Leonard Hokanson (piano) (Capriccio)
Peter Schreier (tenor), Walter Obertz (piano) (Brilliant Classics)

Two chaste accounts, especially from Hermann Prey by way of the Heinrich Schütz Kreis Berlin, dreaming of their escape.

Spotify links

Hermann Prey, Heinrich Schütz Kreis Berlin, Leonard Hokanson

Peter Schreier, Walter Obertz

Also written in 1795 Salieri Palmira

Next up 2 Triple Fugues

Listening to Beethoven #62 – Adelaide Op.46


Friedrich von Matthisson (1794) Portrait by Ferdinand Hartmann

Adelaide Op.46 for voice and piano (1794-5, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication Friedrich von Matthisson
Text Friedrich von Matthisson
Duration 5’30”

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Background and Critical Reception

This substantial setting of a text by Friedrich von Matthisson proved Beethoven’s most adventurous song to date. Commentators see Adelaide (pronounced A-del-eeder) as something of a watershed in his output, both in the prominence of the piano and its unusual, ‘through-composed’ structure.

By ‘through composed’ we mean a song that does not repeat itself in a recognisable way, though the four verses do each end with the beloved’s name. In this way the structure operates in the way a Baroque cantata might. Perhaps Beethoven was mindful of Handel’s vocal works when using this form.

Jan Swafford writes, ‘Beethoven obviously loved the sentimental verses of poet Friedrich von Matthisson. He labored on the setting of Adelaide for more than two years. Matthisson received the dedication and, in 1800, a copy of the song with an admiring and pleading letter from Beethoven: My most ardent wish will be fulfilled if my musical setting of your heavenly Adelaide does not altogether displease you and if, as a result, you should be prompted to write another similar poem…I will then strive to compose a setting of your beautiful poetry’.

Unfortunately the song confused some of his audience, including the poet himself, who found the song insensitive. Julian Haylock, writing in the Hyperion booklet for Stephan Ganz and Roger Vignoles’ recording, says ‘the solo-sonata style Beethoven adopts for the third verse in particular was perceived as overbalancing the text’, and that ‘the dramatic outpourings of the same verse, with its sudden changes of dynamic…were considered more suited to the opera house than the drawing room.’

Swafford speculates that ‘Adelaide might, in fact, have been written as part of Beethoven’s courting of Magdalena Willmann, a beautiful and talented contralto whom he had known in the Bonn Kapelle and who had come to Vienna to sing.’

The exact dates for the completion of the song are unknown, but it was published in 1797.

Thoughts

Something feels different and new about this song, right from the expansive piano introduction, which gives notice of a much bigger structure.

The song itself is a beauty, the most immediate we have yet heard from Beethoven as a songwriter. The dappled piano part flows in thrall to the vocal line, which is by turns lovelorn and optimistic.

For the third verse Beethoven shifts to a new key and outlook, reflecting the evening breezes through the piano and a slight shiver to the vocal line, which takes on a yearning quality as Adelaide’s name reappears.

The last of the four verses makes a decisive shift to the major key, a positive future on the cards as the singer declares Einst, o Wunder! entblüht auf meinem Grabe Eine Blume der Asche meines Herzens (One day, O miracle! there shall bloom on my grave A flower from the ashes of my heart).

Recordings used

Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Gerold Huber (piano) (Sony Classical)
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Jörg Demus (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Stephan Ganz (baritone), Roger Vignoles (piano) (Hyperion)
Matthias Goerne (baritone), Jan Lisiecki (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Fritz Wunderlich (tenor), Hubert Giesen (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Melvyn Tan (fortepiano) (Archiv)

Gerold Huber’s introduction for Christian Gerhaher is of the sort that makes the listener stop and pay attention; it sets the scene of the ‘magical sweet light that shimmers through the swaying boughs’ perfectly. Gerhaher himself is ideal. Similar praise can be directed to Stephan Ganz and Roger Vignoles, beautifully balanced and poised.

There is a recording from tenor Martyn Hill and Christopher Hogwood on the fortepiano that is unfortunately only available as part of a massive L’Oiseau-Lyre box set; happily the fortepiano of Melvyn Tan can be heard prompting Anne Sofie von Otter’s relatively urgent account.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is an ardent singer of this particular song, as is Fritz Wunderlich, moving up a few tones to sing in the tenor range.

Spotify links

The following playlist brings together six different versions of Adelaide, from Fritz Wunderlich to Matthias Goerne:

Meanwhile you can listen to a clip from the Stephan Genz & Roger Vignoles version at 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 1795 Reicha –  Concerto Concertant Op.3

Next up O care selve (first version)