Listening to Beethoven #206 – 3 Marches for piano duet Op.45

ballesio-duet
The duet by Giuseppe Ballesio

3 Marches for piano duet Op.45 (1803, Beethoven aged 32)

Dedication Princess Esterházy
Duration 14′

no.1 in C minor
no.2 in E flat major
no.3 in D major

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s return to the piano duet came through a commission from Count von Browne, the dedicatee of his three String Trios Op.9. Peter Hill, writing booklet notes for one of his last recordings for Delphian in 2020 (with Benjamin Frith), refers to a story given by Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries. Ries had been entertaining the Browne house with music by Beethoven, and mischievously included a march of his own which he passed off as a piece by his teacher. It was well received, but the joke backfired when he had to repeat the piece in the company of Beethoven himself.

Fortunately Beethoven saw the funny side, and also got the commission. As Hill notes, the three marches bear no resemblance to another famous march from later in the year – the funeral march second movement of the Eroica symphony – being substantial works in their own right.

Thoughts

These are really meaty pieces, close on five minutes each in duration. They are clearly structured with bold, contrasting ‘trio’ sections, too – much more so than the relatively slight collections of dances we have had from Beethoven to date.

The first piece has a grand stature, very upright and noble as the first theme is vigorously announced. As it progresses, however, Beethoven introduces a few subtle doubts, playing with major and minor tonality in a way Schubert might have done. There is quite a substantial middle section, which possibly hints at the forthcoming Fifth symphony.

The second march retains a heroic air, due partly to its key of E flat major, though its trio moves into A flat major for a playful section powered entirely by a rumbling bass note low down in the register of the piano. There are some unpredictable, fantasia-like elements here, but the familiar rumble is never far away.

The bracing third march is also powered by the bass, Beethoven moving into D major for a triumphant finale which is notable for its staccato, sharply dotted rhythms.

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Peter Hill & Benjamin Frith (Delphian)
Amy and Sara Hamann (Grand Piano)
Jörg Demus & Norman Shetler (Deutsche Grammophon)

Amy and Sara Hamann have recorded the marches twice – once on a modern Yamaha instrument and again on an instrument from Nanette Streicher, née Stein, ca. 1815. Both interpretations are lively, though on the original instrument there is extra bite to the rhythms. Peter Hill and Benjamin Frith clearly enjoy their account, with a natural give and take between the two. Demus and Shetler go slower on the first march, to good effect, before an extra snap to the rhythms of the second and third.

Also written in 1803 Viotti Trio for two violins and cello in E major

Next up Der Wachtelschlag WoO 129

Listening to Beethoven #195 – 6 Variations on Ich denke dein WoO 74

beethoven-goethe-2

Beethoven and Goethe

6 Variations on Ich denke dein WoO 74 for two pianos (1799-1803, Beethoven aged 31)

Dedication Therese, Josephine and Charlotte von Brunsvik
Duration 5′

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Background and Critical Reception

Keith Anderson writes that in 1799, Beethoven ‘wrote a setting of Goethe’s Ich denke dein and four variations for piano duet on the theme for two pupils, the Countesses Therese and Josephine Brunsvik, daughters of a family with which Beethoven remained friendly through much of his life. In 1803 he added two more variations and the song and variations were published in 1805.

Pianist Peter Hill, writing for a recent recording he made with Benjamin Frith on the Delphian label, highlights Beethoven’s affection for Josephine, expressed in a passionate letter later in his life. He notes the romantic mood of the theme and its variations, pointing towards Mendelsssohn in the faster music especially.

Thoughts

As the story implies, this is a domestic piece for use among close friends. It certainly has that intimate, conversational feel, with less obvious opportunities for virtuosic display but plenty to keep the players occupied and impressed with Beethoven’s resourceful working.

The theme itself is warm hearted, the first variation too. Then Beethoven plays around with syncopations, the two players gainfully employed, before a thoughtful, slow third variation, which is unexpectedly deep in feeling. This time out enhances the fourth variation, a fizzy affair with exchanges between the two players which drew the Mendelssohn comparison from Peter Hill. Darker colours appear briefly for an instalment in the minor key, after which the sunlit textures of D major return and the piece ends calmly but warmly, providing a glimpse of an all-too rare warmth and tenderness in Beethoven’s life at the time.

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Peter Hill & Benjamin Frith (Delphian)
Amy and Sara Hamann (Grand Piano)
Louis Lortie & Hélène Mercier (Chandos)
Jörg Demus & Norman Shetler (Deutsche Grammophon)

All excellent versions, capturing the intimacy of Beethoven’s writing but also the glint in the eye as he writes.

Also written in 1803 von Pasterwicz 300 Themata und Versetten Op.42

Next up Piano Concerto no.3 in C minor Op.37

Listening to Beethoven #120 – Sonata for piano duet in D major Op.6


The duet by Arthur Devis. Photo credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sonata for piano (four hands) in D major Op.6 (1796-97, Beethoven aged 26)

Dedication not known
Duration 6′

1. Allegro molto
2. Rondo: Moderato

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

If it’s not too confusing a statement, Beethoven’s output for piano duet could be counted on the fingers of one of those four hands. We have already seen how imaginatively he writes for this combination in the Variations on a theme of Count von Waldstein, but here he returns for a short, two-movement sonata.

It is thought this brief piece, at little more than five minutes, was used for teaching. Peter Hill, who recorded the piece with Benjamin Frith for Delphian Records in 2019, writes that ‘the duet Sonata’s opening Allegro molto could be used as a textbook examples of how to write a classical first movement.’ He also writes affectionately of ‘the exchanges between the pianists that culminate (at the ends of the exposition and recapitulation) in arpeggios that ripple between and across the four hands.’ He also notes the ‘operatic feel’ of the second movement Rondo.

Thoughts

There is an impish quality about this piece, as though Beethoven wanted to have some fun with whoever was chosen to be by his side at the piano. A simple theme, a call to arms, leads to some fun between the parts in the first movement, with a few mischievous asides.

The Rondo has an elegant main subject, while its second theme is suddenly loud, as though it wants to grab your attention and talk over your conversation. It proceeds very naturally.

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Peter Hill & Benjamin Frith (Delphian)
Amy and Sara Hamann (Grand Piano)
Louis Lortie & Hélène Mercier (Chandos)
Lang Lang & Christoph Eschenbach (Deutsche Grammophon)

A stylish and fun interpretation from Hill and Frith. Even if you hadn’t seen the cover of their recording you would guess how much fun they had putting it together! The Hamann sisters are very good too, if a bit jarring with their dynamic contrasts in the second movement. Their second version, on a fortepiano after J.A. Stein from 1784, is almost comical as the ear adjusts – but ultimately good fun.

Also written in 1797 Eberl 2 Sonatas for piano four hands Op.7

Next up Kriegslied der Österreicher WoO 122