Listening to Beethoven #24 – 6 Variations on a Swiss Song WoO54


Swiss and German folksong collector Johann Friedrich Reichardt (left, picture by
Carl Traugott Riedel) and the young Ludwig van Beethoven

6 Variations on a Swiss Song WoO 64 for piano (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

Dedication not known
Duration 3′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

The theme is a 17th-century Swiss song, Dursli and Babeli – which appears in the collections of old Swiss and German folk tunes, made by composers such as Reichardt, Herder and Müller. It is a simple but catchy tune that bears a resemblance to a hymn that followed a century or so later, This joyful Eastertide. The tune was a favourite of Goethe, who is said to have described it as ‘a charming story of peasant love’.

Background and Critical Reception

Very little is written about these variations. The short note for Cécile Ousset’s recording declares the variations ‘do not go any further than mere charm’. Meanwhile Barry Cooper, writing in his guide for the DG complete Beethoven edition, describes the variations as ‘relatively simple an unadventurous’.

It seems these variations are popular student pieces, the standard suitable for developing pianists and markedly different from the Righini variations we heard very recently.

Thoughts

The source material does at least ensure a memorable melody for the short series of variations, which feel more like a set of unfinished doodles. The hymn-like main theme slips into the minor key for a little while, its second variation given a sideways glance by the composer as he does so. There is a nice bit of humour here at times, but the piece does ultimately feel lightweight, more of a student exercise.

Recordings used

Cécile Ousset (Eloquence), Mikhail Pletnev (DG); Cyprien Katsaris (Piano 21)

Three fine recordings – but again it is Ousset who emerges with a greater poise, and less of a tendency to indulge than Pletnev. Ronald Brautigam takes a typically quick tempo in his sprightly version.

Spotify links

Mikhail Pletnev

Cécile Ousset

Ronald Brautigam

 

Also written in 1792 Hummel Piano Trio no.1 in E flat major Op.12

Next up Prüfung des Küssens

Listening to Beethoven #23 – Ritterballet WoO 1 (piano version)


Beethoven and Count von Waldstein. Artist unknown, Alamy stock photo

Dedication Count Waldstein
Duration 13′

1. March
2. Deutscher Gedsang: Allegro moderato
3. Jagdlied: Allegretto
4. Romanze: Andantino
5. Kriegslied: Allegro assai con brio
6. Trinklied: Allegro con brio – Trio
7. Deutscher Tanz: Walzer
8. Coda: Allegro vivace

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

We have already examined (and enjoyed) Beethoven’s Ritterballet in its orchestral form. It is the piece he was prepared to ‘hand over’ to Count Waldstein… but it is clear that the composer thought highly enough of the piece to transcribe it himself for solo piano. Beethoven retains the same format and order as the orchestral version, and the arrangement appears to be a completely faithful one.

Thoughts

Perhaps inevitably the piano version of Ritterballet loses a little of its colour, though the March does benefit from firmer rhythmic impetus. The German Song retains its charm and memorability, but does lose a little of its dance-like poise when transferred to the keyboard.

Recordings used

Cyprien Katsaris (Piano 21)

Cyprien Katsaris clearly enjoys the Ritterballet, and its abundance of good tunes. He can’t resist the chance to make the opening March flourish, with a lively left hand part, and his ‘war’ scene is suitably dramatic too.

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Cyprien Katsaris (Piano 21)

Also written in 1791 Mozart La clemenza di Tito

Next up 6 Variations on A Swiss Song WoO 64

Listening to Beethoven #22 – 24 Variations on ‘Venni amore’ WoO 65

Vincenzo Righini (left) and the young Beethoven (unattributed picture)
Dedication Countess of Hatzfeld
Duration 23′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s second set of variations for the keyboard is very different from the first. The Dressler Variations, his first published work, were effectively testing the water to see what the young composer could come up with. This set of 24 variations is a different animal entirely. Alexander Thayer‘s biography of Beethoven tells the story of its genesis:

‘Kapellmeister Vincenzo Righini, a colleague of Sterkel in the service of the Elector of Mainz, had published Dodeci Ariette, one of which, Vieni (venni) Amore was a melody with five vocal variations, to the same accompaniment. Beethoven, taking this melody as his theme, had composed, dedicated to the Countess of Hatzfeld and published 24 variations for the pianoforte upon it. Some of these were very difficult, and Sterkel now expressed his doubts if the author himself could play them.’

He could indeed – and ‘went on with a number of others no less difficult, all to the great surprise of the listeners’. Harold Truscott is impressed. Writing in The Beethoven Companion, he declares the work ‘has a strong claim to be considered Beethoven’s earliest masterpiece’. He goes further, noting anticipations of Brahms’s variation technique, and a fade out of ‘imaginative power which would not be out of place in mature Beethoven and which also anticipates one of Schumann’s favourite coda devices’.

Thoughts

Truscott is right. This piece takes Beethoven’s writing for piano up several levels, both technically and emotionally. Righini’s them has basic outlines, which are perfect for the variation treatment – and Beethoven wastes no time in getting to work with his interpretations on the theme, picking up momentum quickly.

The sheer variety of his variations are dazzling – the trills of the fourth variation, the triplet figures of the fifth and the free, almost improvised nature of the eighth. There is plenty of humour here too, Beethoven enjoying the chromatic ninth variation, but darkening the mood considerably with two minor key variations. The first (no.12 is mysterious and uncertain; the second powers through the octaves.

The fascinating drama continues, with every variation raising the question in the listener’s mind as to what might be next! In no.14 Beethoven plays around with the tempo and mood, almost as though the composer is scratching his head as he considers his next move. In no.15, an emphatic volley of notes, we find out. Towards the end the drama heightens again, with the impish no.20, the big octaves of no.21 and the flowing no.22. The profound thoughts of the 23rd are blown out of the water by an almost violent final variation, but despite the virtuosity and drama, Beethoven opts for a quiet and thoughtful coda which is all the more meaningful and leaves the listener lost in thought.

This set of variations is a fascinating and totally absorbing journey, with thrills, spills and unexpected turns on its route. Beethoven’s unpredictable streak has truly arrived.

Recordings used

Ronald Brautigam (BIS), Cécile Ousset (Eloquence), Mikhail Pletnev (DG)

Three excellent recordings – though Mikhail Pletnev’s is a little more mannered with a clipped delivery of the main theme and some interesting ideas of playing around with the tempo of the music. Most are in line with Beethoven’s thoughts – but even he is not quite as impressive as Cécile Ousset, who delivers a compelling performance of virtuosity and thoughtful insight. The quiet passages of her playing will have you leaning in towards the speaker.

Meanwhile Ronald Brautigam is typically incisive with his fortepiano version, and the flicks he achieves on the second variation are really well done, but he is a bit breathless at times, finishing almost two minutes clear of the others.

Spotify links

Ronald Brautigam

Cécile Ousset

Mikhail Pletnev

Also written in 1791 Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A major K622

Next up Ritterballet WoO 1 (piano version)

Listening to Beethoven #15 – 2 Preludes through all the major keys


Portrait statue of Beethoven along the balustrade. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. (photo: Carol Highsmith)

2 Preludes in C major Op.39 (through all the major keys) for keyboard (1789, Beethoven aged 18)

Dedication not known
Duration 9′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

As Jan Swafford notes, Beethoven’s mid to late teens were spent perfecting his art as a pianist, and so his attention was fully focused on performance at the expense of composing. In this period he was playing Mozart piano concertos in Bonn, as well as playing viola in the court orchestra.

There were a few exceptions however, notably this intriguing pair of preludes, published later in his life as Op.39. There is very little written about the pieces but Barry Cooper, writing in the Decca / DG complete Beethoven notes, says how they ‘attempt to outdo Bach’s famous sets of preludes in every key, by modulating rapidly through every major key within the space of about 100 bars’. Keith Anderson, writing for Naxos’ release from Jenő Jandó, notes how the first prelude proceeds ‘through all the major sharp keys, making use of a repeated formula’, then makes its way ‘back, through the flat keys, to its original starting point of C major’. The second prelude, he notes, does this with greater economy.

Thoughts

The first prelude has a distinctive theme but it never settles, always moving on to the next chord. The piece feels more fluid when heard played on the organ. There is some restless experimentation and some quite jaunty moves, with Beethoven using daring harmonies to move through the keys at speed. Some of those harmonies feel bound for future compositions.

Ultimately though the two pieces feel like an attempt to emulate Bach in the shortest amount of time possible. An affectionate tribute, perhaps, but you can almost hear the boxes being ticked in the composer’s mind as he negotiates each key. Because of that it is hard to love either piece, but you can’t fail to be impressed by their execution – and perhaps in proving he could do it, Beethoven showed himself a bit more of what he was capable of!

The second prelude feels more comfortable, and its movements are more subtle until it comes to a distinctly clunky false stop on A flat before the end – which would I’m sure be deliberate. Having done this, Beethoven shows how easy it is for him to resolve into the ‘home’ key, back in C major.

Recordings used

Jenő Jandó (Naxos); Simon Preston (DG)

Jenő Jandó plays both preludes really nicely, with a line in clarity that makes it easy to follow Beethoven’s workings. However Simon Preston’s version for organ is more effective, as he uses some lovely registration choices – especially in the low but very sonorous chord at the end of the first prelude.

Spotify links

Jenő Jandó

Simon Preston

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 1789 Mozart Clarinet Quintet in A major K581

Next up Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II

Listening to Beethoven #9 – Rondo in C major


Beethoven statuette – plaster cast by Gebrüder Micheli based on an original by Gustav Adolf Landgrebe (Beethoven-Haus, Bonn)

Rondo in C major WoO 48 for piano (1783, Beethoven aged 12)

Dedication not known
Duration 2’40

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

March 1783 saw a tragic time for the Beethoven family, as a younger brother to Ludwig, Franz Georg van Beethoven, died at the age of two. This precipitated a family visit from Rotterdam of the dead child’s sister, Maria Magdalena, who arranged for a return visit from Beethoven and the opportunity to perform new works.

With the three Electoral sonatas on the table Beethoven was really hitting his stride with writing for the piano, and with a first concerto just around the corner he produced another short Rondo for solo piano. Its exact composition date is not known, only that Beethoven was ‘around 12’.

Daniel Heartz describes the Rondo as having a ‘catchy and quite folk-like theme’. He says that ‘the model is clearly the second and last movement of Mozart’s Violin and Piano Sonata in G major K301’. Explaining in detail, he declares ‘The correspondence is evident not only in the theme but also in the way it is treated to rapid alternation of major and minor forms. Beyond looking up to Mozart as a legendary performer, Beethoven obviously took him as a model for composition. You can compare for yourself here:

Thoughts

Daniel Heartz’s observation is a fascinating one, and on listening it rings true. The purity of Beethoven’s theme is closely aligned to Mozart’s, though there is a slight glint in the eye at times, especially with one or two of its harmonic shifts. The use of C major is also in line with one of Mozart’s most popular piano sonatas.

Again, this is very surefooted music for a 12-year-old boy to be writing!

Recordings used

Mikhail Pletnev (DG); Jenő Jandó (Naxos), Ronald Brautigam (BIS)

Jenő Jandó takes the ‘Allegretto’ tempo marking more to heart with a slower reading which initially sounds quite pedestrian but makes sense when it has settled down. Ronald Brautigam goes for a very similar approach, adding a little more mystery to the middle section. Mikhail Pletnev is quite light hearted, and affectionate at the end – but his tempo choice is much faster than Beethoven indicates.

Spotify links

Mikhail Pletnev

Jenő Jandó

Ronald Brautigam

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 1783 Paisiello La passione di Gesù Cristo

Next up Piano Concerto in E flat major WoO 4