Listening to Beethoven #162 – Piano Sonata no.11 in B flat major Op.22

Abend am Fluss (Evening on the River) by Caspar David Friedrich (c1820-5)

Piano Sonata no.10 in B flat major Op.22 for piano (1800-01, Beethoven aged 30)

1 Allegro con brio
2 Adagio con molta espressione
3 Minuetto

4 Rondo: Allegretto

Dedication Baroness Josephine von Braun
Duration 27′

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written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

This is the last piano sonata thought to belong to Beethoven’s so-called ‘early period’ – and it is one of the least known. Its neglect is mysterious, as the composer himself thought highly enough of the work to declare it ‘really something’ when writing to his publisher Hoffmeister. Donald Tovey agreed, the respected musicologist viewing it as ‘exemplifying early Beethoven at its best’.

His enthusiasm is not universally shared by fellow scholars. Daniel Heartz concludes the work is ‘hardly the winner Beethoven claimed. Of its four movements, only the last is undeniably superior in quality’. The first movement is ‘meant to impress by its feats of pianism’…but ‘on closer acquaintance, the movement seems somewhat lacking in content’.

Angela Hewitt fights her corner against the sceptics, waxing lyrical on the first movement as ‘a brilliant Allegro con brio‘, and on the operatic style of the second, which her favourite of the four. The last movement Rondo, she concedes, needs ‘a good technique combined with an equally good imagination’ to hold it together.

William Drabkin, writing for Deutsche Grammophon’s Complete Beethoven Edition, arrives at a striking conclusion. ‘With Op.22 the classical piano sonata has not only ‘washed itself’, it has also exhausted itself. It was now time for Beethoven to try out new external designs as well as exploring new internal means of expression.’

Thoughts

Perhaps inevitably my thoughts are somewhere in between the opinions of Heartz and Tovey, yet the feeling persists that this is a work that could grow in stature with repeated listening and insight. Having heard it several times I can say the themes do stick in the head, and that Beethoven’s way in developing them makes for a very fluent piece of work.

The innocuous, slightly playful theme of the opening is deceptive, but its mood prevails and a hint of humour can be felt throughout. The slow movement is subdued but elegant, with a freely expressive line in the right hand giving it the operatic air observed by Angela Hewitt.

Like the first movement, the third initially seems innocuous, but its theme is attractive until countered by the nagging second idea. Again the themes of the finale seem slight, but have staying power after a few listens. Things take a darker turn as the movement develops, as B flat major becomes B flat minor, but the clouds clear with the reappearance of the main themes. In this movement Beethoven finds close links with Bach, an early premonition of the great fugue he will use in the Hammerklavier sonata, ironically in the same key. Here the writing is less substantial and has less of an impact, but it does nonetheless get Beethoven to the right place for his next stylistic developments to begin.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Emil Gilels (Deutsche Grammophon)
Alfred Brendel (Philips)
András Schiff (ECM)
Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)
Paul Badura-Skoda (Arcana)
Stephen Kovacevich (EMI)
Igor Levit (Sony Classical)
Claudio Arrau (Philips)

Angela Hewitt’s enthusiasm transfers to her recording, which is thoroughly enjoyable and brings out a stage-like element of Beethoven’s writing. It helps that she is flexible with her choices of tempo, letting the music breathe for a little longer when it needs to. There are notable versions from Gilels, who gives the slow movement a lot of room without dropping the tension, and Brendel who is characteristically fluid.

You can hear clips of Hewitt’s recording 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 1801 John Marsh Symphony no.30 in E minor

Next up The Creatures of Prometheus Op.43

Listening to Beethoven #161 – 6 Easy Variations on an original theme in G major, WoO 77

Ludwig van Beethoven – portrait by Gandolph Ernst Stainhauser

6 Easy Variations on an original theme in G major WoO 77 for piano (1800, Beethoven aged 29)

Dedication unknown
Duration 7′

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What’s the theme like?

Unusually, the theme appears to be Beethoven’s own. It is an ‘easy to play’ number, simply structured but ripe for development. There is just the hint of a dance round the edges.

Background and Critical Reception

So far in his Viennese career Beethoven has not gone long without dashing off another theme and set of variations – and even with so many important pieces and premieres around him, the year of 1800 was no exception. Despite their title, these ones have meaning though. The educational intent behind the Easy Variations on an original theme,writes Jean-Charles Hoffelé, ‘should not distract the listener from what is daring about the music: the expressive power of the Poco sostenuto creates an astonishing effect at the centre of the set.’

The variation to which he refers is the fourth, set in a minor key and providing a striking contrast to those around it.

Thoughts

These are beautifully crafted variations, and as is suggested they prove far more emotive than the title suggests. They are a good showpiece for a pianist, with elements of soft and loud, delicate and heavy, often within the same variation. After a simple beginning Beethoven puts the pianist through their paces with a terrifically pacy second variation them an ultra-solemn fourth, which really delves deep into the heart. Set in the minor key, the music withdraws to a simple unison statement, the hands one octave apart and trapped further down on the keyboard.

When all seems lost a brighter passage appears on cue, a real ‘darkness to light’ moment where the music looks outwards and upwards. Beethoven can’t then resist a final flourish before the end, signalling his determination to push on.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Olli Mustonen (piano) (Decca)
Cécile Ousset (piano) (Eloquence)
Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano) (BIS)
Alfred Brendel (piano) (Vox)
John Ogdon (piano) (EMI)

Some really fine versions here. Olli Mustonen’s is spring-loaded to begin with but hurtles through a quick fourth variation which is far from anything easy! He is a terrific entertainer, whereas John Ogdon and Alfred Brendel are both superb but have a measured control. The variations transfer well to fortepiano, and are clearly enjoyed by 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 1800 Campagnoli 6 Fugues for Solo Violin Op.10

Next up Piano Sonata no.11 in B flat major Op.22

Listening to Beethoven #148 – 7 Ländler for piano WoO 11 (1799)

Der Kinderreigen (1872) by Hans Thoma

7 Ländler WoO 11 (1799) for piano (1799, Beethoven aged 28)

Dedication unknown
Duration 4’30”

written by Ben Hogwood

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Background and Critical Reception

As part of his composing role in Vienna Beethoven did on occasion write dance music for the ball. We have already encountered sets of Minuets, written for the annual Redoutensaal balls, a discipline the composer seemed to warm to. This set of Ländler (a folk dance in 3/4 time) is thought to originate for 1798, and, writes Keith Anderson in booklet notes for Naxos, was presumably scored for two violins and bass.

That version is missing, but a piano version was published in Vienna the year after. All seven dances are in the same key, with a short coda added on the end.

Thoughts

The dances are charming and simple in their construction. Beethoven warms to the form with easy, hummable melodies and basic accompaniments often resembling drones. Harmonies are safe, and the rhythms have a nice lilt – ideal for moving easily around a crowded dancefloor. The seventh dance goes slightly offbeat, putting the emphasis on the second rather than the first beat in the bar, before a coda reinforces the drone and ends the dance with a trill.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Olli Mustonen (piano) (Decca)
Jenő Jandó (piano) (Naxos)

Olli Mustonen gives ideal account of these short, winsome pieces – and Jandó, a little faster, is enjoyable too.

Also written in 1799 Benjamin Carr Dead March and Monody

Next up tbc

Listening to Beethoven #147 – 10 Variations on ‘La stessa, la stessissima’, WoO 73

beethoven-salieriLudwig van Beethoven and Antonio Salieri (right)

8 Variations on ‘Tändeln und Scherzen’ WoO 76 for piano (1799, Beethoven aged 28)

Dedication unknown
Duration 9′

written by Ben Hogwood

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What’s the theme like?

The theme is taken from a duet in Salieri‘s opera Falstaff, premiered on 3 January 1799 in Vienna’s Theater am Kärntnertor.

Background and Critical Reception

The variations that Beethoven dashed off after hearing Salieri’s Falstaff in January 1799 earned him a drubbing from critics, writes Jean-Charles Hoffelé. ‘Herr Beethoven may know how to improvise, but he is unable to create good variations’, wrote the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung.

Hoffelé speculates on the cause of the journalist’s irritation, suggesting it might be ‘the tone of pure entertainment, the impertinent giocoso manner’. He notes however that Beethoven is enjoying himself, citing ‘the distilled Adagio in the top register of the keyboard’.

Thoughts

A strident theme sets out its stall, before Beethoven takes it for a walk in the first variation and then a quicker, propulsive jog in variation two. Again this is a composer working instinctively, the feeling being this composition may well have been written in one sitting at the keyboard.

Beethoven has fun with the offbeat comments of the third variation, while things take a sombre tone in the minor key with the fifth. The music springs out of this with an upright gait, and a fugal episode, then a terrific flurry of notes in the seventh and tenth variations, which no doubt impressed or infuriated the Viennese audience!

The final variation, the tenth, is a tour de force of athletic prowess in the right hand before adding on a coda, as so many of Beethoven’s variation sets do. This one, however, is by turns violent, amusing and touching, channelling the spirit of C.P.E. Bach as it changes mood almost by the bar. Final resolution is forcefully achieved.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Gianluca Cascioli (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Cécile Ousset (piano) (Eloquence)
Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano) (BIS)

If you are happy to listen to the relatively taut sound of Ronald Brautigam’s fortepiano, you will find much to enjoy in his version, a thoroughly entertaining and dramatic reading of Beethoven’s mood changes. Cécile Ousset, perhaps inevitably, has greater elegance but also enjoys the playful aspects, not to mention the outrageous final variation.

Also written in 1799 Benjamin Carr Dead March and Monody

Next up 10 Variations on ‘La stessa, la stessissima’ WoO 73

Listening to Beethoven #146 – 8 Variations on ‘Tändeln und Scherzen’, WoO 76

beethoven-sussmayrLudwig van Beethoven and Franz Xaver Süssmayr  (right)

8 Variations on ‘Tändeln und Scherzen’ WoO 76 for piano (1799, Beethoven aged 28)

Dedication unknown
Duration 9′

written by Ben Hogwood

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What’s the theme like?

The theme is taken from a trio in the opera by Soliman oder die drei Sultaninnen by Franz Xaver Süssmayr. A popular Austrian composer at the time of composition, Süssmayr is not a familiar name in the concert hall nowadays, except for his completion of Mozart’s Requiem.

Background and Critical Reception

Thoughts

This is pure, instinctive inspiration – and is quite stop-start as a result. Yet just as Beethoven has a lot of fun with these variations, so does his listener. The fourth variation is especially brilliant, the hands tumbling down the keyboard like a waterfall.

An elegant seventh variation, the one about which Hoffelé writes, leads to a run of trills, like the end of a cadenza, which look set to complete the set – until a twist in the tale appears in the form of a fugue, crisply executed in the form of a Bach invention.

Beethoven switches unexpectedly to D major near the end, yet this is wholly in keeping with the free running approach throughout this entertaining set.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Alfred Brendel (piano) (Vox)
Cécile Ousset (piano) (Eloquence)
Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano) (BIS)

Cécile Ousset is a model performer in these variations, with enviable dexterity and a good deal of humour. Ronald Brautigam enjoys the more brash, unscripted moments and the piece sounds great on the fortepiano. Brendel is excellent too.

Also written in 1799 Benjamin Carr Dead March and Monody

Next up 10 Variations on ‘La stessa, la stessissima’ WoO 73