Listening to Beethoven #193 – 6 Ländler WoO 15 (piano version)

ein-landler

Ein Landler (anon, 1897)

6 Ländler WoO 15 for piano (1802, Beethoven aged 31)

Dedication unknown
Duration 6′

written by Ben Hogwood

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Background and Critical Reception

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

The piano version of these dance pieces brings out the ‘drone’ qualities in the accompaniment more. These can be heard on the first beat of the bar, where the left hand of the piano typically plays in intervals of a fifth, the support on which the more rhythmic elements of the dance can work their magic.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Jenő Jandó (Naxos)
Martino Tirimo (Hänssler)

Both versions are nicely played, bringing out the spring in Beethoven’s step.

Also written in 1802 Förster 3 String Quartets Op.21

Next up Graf, liebster Graf, liebstes Schaf WoO 101

Listening to Beethoven #191 – Bagatelle in C major WoO 54, ‘Lustig-Traurig’

Beethoven-Medaille, 1927

Bagatelle in C major WoO 54, ‘Lustig-Traurig’ for piano (1802, Beethoven aged 31)

Dedication not known
Duration 2′

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written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

Around his major compositions we will continue to find Beethoven’s miniatures. This piece, whose nickname translates as ‘happy-sad’, is thought by some to have originated in 1798 – and appears to have just missed out on inclusion in the Op.33 set published earlier in the year.

Perhaps because of its size, this piece is glossed over by Beethoven commentators in favour of its more substantial companions. It appears to have been written for pianists of moderate ability, as with many of the bagatelles.

Thoughts

The happy-sad elements of this bagatelle are all told through harmony. This short character piece follows the profile of its title – switching mood between happy (C major) and sad (C minor). It’s a little doubtful if the C minor is actually sad, as it sounds more agitated, and the C major sounds happy in a slightly wary way we might associate more with Schubert.

Yet here is an aspect of Beethoven’s genius, the ability to write for all levels – be it the advanced player or the occasional one – and leave each a memorable work, a catchy tune, an enjoyable piece to return to.

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Jenő Jandó (Naxos)
Olli Mustonen (Sony BMG)
Ronald Brautigam (BIS)

Three very different recordings. Olli Mustonen always has an individual take and this longer, stretched version is no exception. Brautigam is brisk, and Jandó nicely measured.

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 Reichardt Das Zauberschloss

Next up 6 Ländler WoO15

Listening to Beethoven #187 – 15 Variations and fugue on an original theme in E flat major Op.35 ‘Eroica’

Beethoven-eroica

Portrait of Beethoven as a young man by Carl Traugott Riedel and Prometheus Bound by Peter Paul Rubens

15 Variations and fugue on an original theme in E flat major Op.35 ‘Eroica’ for piano (1802, Beethoven aged 31)

Dedication unknown
Duration 25′

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What’s the theme like?

Although this piece is known as the Eroica Variations, the theme is taken from the finale to Beethoven’s music for Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus:

Background and Critical Reception

This substantial set of variations became known as the Eroica Variations because Beethoven used the tune in the finale of his third symphony, the Eroica.

Angela Hewitt describes the set as his most ‘bravura orientated’ variations, going on to illustrate how, before we even hear the main Eroica theme, Beethoven presents a theme in the bass and proceeds to unwind three variations on it. She notes how the theme and its fifteen variations ‘delight us with their compositional and pianistic fancies’.

Harold Truscott, writing in The Beethoven Companion, has some controversial views on Beethoven’s piano writing, branding it ‘on the borderline between difficulty and awkwardness. This is a quality frequently found in Beethoven’s keyboard writing’, he writes, ‘although no one ever mentions it’. He does, however, concede that ‘the Eroica set is a masterpiece for the most part unique in his work’.

Lewis Lockwood labels ‘this great work…the culmination of Beethoven’s early variations sets’. ‘In any case’, he writes, ‘Opus 35 is a milestone in the history of variation. Its introduction dramatically unfolds several elements in order, as if Beethoven, at the keyboard instead of writing in a sketchbook, was sequentially building the thematic material before the very ears of the listener.’

Thoughts

Where the previous set of variations in F major could be described as ‘not your typical set of variations’, this is something else. When you are done listening to the Eroica variations, this is a piece where you are left in no doubt that Beethoven has put his entire heart and soul into writing a piece, and has channelled some extraordinary powers of invention. By the end it is difficult to say exactly how many variations there are, as they seem to fuse into each other.

The introduction is pure drama – and Beethoven’s insistent B flats sound like a knock on the door, as though the theme is waiting to get in. When it does finally arrive the piece is already in full swing, and the mood is already buoyant. The theme and first variation have a spring in their step, the balletic origins laid clear – and as Beethoven gets to work, the dance gets faster.

The second variation is effectively a cadenza, showing off Beethoven’s virtuosity to the full – not just as a performer but as a composer too. His writing is quasi-orchestral, the fourth variation depicting a lively bassoon giving out the variation and strings plucking in the middle ground. Calmer waters are found for the fifth, but soon the textures are full again and the ideas overflowing. The piano writing is remarkably dense and demanding, but thrilling too.

Variation 7, marked Canone all’Ottava, anticipates the fugue but practically stamps on the keyboard at times. What the audience would have made of Beethoven’s bravura and daring is anybody’s guess. Varation 9 picks up a similar theme, where it feels like the B flat has got stuck, while the tenth is like a blast of cold air, disappearing up some odd tonal alleyways. We return to the ballet for Variation 11, the keyboard opens out in the 12th, before the 13th reintroduces the ‘stuck’ B flat in a jarring upper register, in an act both maddening and humorous!

A much-needed respite arrives with Variation 14, where we move to the minor key for a reflective episode. Far from running out of ideas with the ‘final’ variation, Beethoven feels like he has only just got started, and the lead-up to the fugue acquires impressive gravitas. The fugue itself is symphonic, its tune unusually hummable, with a lot of action between the parts.

At the risk of sounding like a cracked record, what a remarkable piece this is. Beethoven’s powers of invention are truly stretched, but the feeling remains that he could have written enough for another half hour of music without flagging. We will see an awful lot more of that invention as his pieces move further and further away from the norm.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)
Cécile Ousset
(Eloquence)
Ronald Brautigam
(BIS)
Alfred Brendel
(Philips)
Rudolf Buchbinder
(Teldec)
Glenn Gould
(Sony)

Some very impressive recordings here, not least the newest – a dazzling but extremely musical account from Hewitt, whose musicality always comes before the virtuosity. Emil Gilels is masterly from the commanding first chord and thoughtful theme. Cécile Ousset conveys the scope of the piece immediately, inhabiting the drama of the introduction, and having a lot of fun with the dance variations.

The Spotify playlist below includes all but one of the versions listed above – with the opportunity to hear a clip from Angela Hewitt’s version on the Hyperion website

Also written in 1802 Samuel Wesley Symphony in B flat major

Next up Symphony no.2 in D major Op.36

Listening to Beethoven #186 – 6 Variations on an original theme in F major Op.34

Beethoven-op34

Beethoven: Bust en face in oval – ivory miniature, 1802 by Christian Hornemann, courtesy of Beethoven-Haus, Bonn

6 Variations on an original theme in F major Op.34 for piano (1802, Beethoven aged 31)

Dedication unknown
Duration 15′

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What’s the theme like?

The theme is Beethoven’s own, unusually – and is a slow, stately number with an expansive chord in the middle.

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s stay in the village of Heiligenstadt was a turning point in his life. The principal reason for this was the onset of his deafness, and he used the change of location as a time to come to terms with that, hence the Heiligenstadt Testament referred to previously.

Yet his increasingly original approaches to composition were there for all to see, not least in this set of variations from 1802. For the first time in a long while he did not use another composer’s music for the theme, writing one himself – and he proceeded to turn it into a number of very different variations, each one of the six in a different key.

Angela Hewitt has recently recorded the work for Hyperion, and writes a telling quote from the composer. ‘Usually I have to wait for other people to tell me when I have new ideas, because I never know this myself. But this time – I myself can assure you that in both these works the manner is quite new for me.’

The originality is also noted by Harold Truscott, writing about the piano music in The Beethoven Companion. ‘The whole outlook is utterly different from that of any first-period work’, he writes. ‘The Adagio theme has the luxurious sprawl of so many of his first-period slow movements – on the surface; in fact it is as tight as a drum, and there is not a note that does not contribute to the basic theme and harmonic texture essential for the variations.’

Hewitt identifies the penultimate variation as a key component. ‘What really makes this work is…a funeral march in C minor (foreshadowing his Eroica symphony). Nothing could be further from the mood of the original theme.’ She also points out how the sixth and ‘final’ variation actually contains a further two ‘bonus’ variations.

Thoughts

This is not your typical set of Beethoven variations. Right from the start it is clear something will be different, from the expansive theme that stresses the home key of F major – but presents some lavish, added-note chords as it does so. Beethoven then leaves said home key behind as he embarks on a harmonic and melodic adventure, having fun but preserving the musicality.

The appearance of D major for the first variation is a surprise, employing a very similar tactic to the fourth bagatelle of the Op.33 set he was working on at almost the same time. The B flat second variation feels like a piece of early Schumann, a rustic march-like affair, while the third in G major is an airy aside, operating in much longer melodic units.

The fourth variation is a bit more playful, its roots in the dance, while the fifth probes deeper, as Hewitt identifies, with raw emotion and full, red-blooded chords as punctuation. The sixth variation turns out to be a remarkable section showing Beethoven’s fearsome powers of invention. Lasting one third of the work, it starts with a long build-up on a ‘C’ chord before playfully throwing the theme around back in the ‘home’ key. This leads to a section of trills, like an elaborate cadenza in a piano concerto, before a relatively calm, measured finish.

Full of invention and unpredictability, this is without doubt one of Beethoven’s finest variation sets to date – and yet it is still not well known! Something to put right…

Recordings used and Spotify links

Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)
Cécile Ousset
(Eloquence)
Ronald Brautigam
(BIS)
Alfred Brendel
(Philips)
Rudolf Buchbinder
(Teldec)
Glenn Gould
(Sony)

The Spotify playlist below includes all but one of the versions listed above – with the opportunity to hear a clip from Angela Hewitt’s version on the Hyperion website

There are some terrific versions of this piece, led by Angela Hewitt’s new recording for Hyperion, which shows just how much she loves the work with some wonderful characterisations. Cécile Ousset is also outstanding in her flowing account, as is Rudolf Buchbinder, who contributes a steely funeral march. Ronald Brautigam has a great deal of bravura and punch in his account on the fortepiano.

Also written in 1802 Clementi Piano Sonata in G major Op.40/1

Next up 15 Variations on an Original Theme in E flat major Op.35 ‘Eroica’

Listening to Beethoven #185 – Piano Sonata no.18 in E flat major Op.31/3

Evening by Caspar David Friedrich (1824)

Piano Sonata no.18 in E flat major Op.31/3 for piano (1802, Beethoven aged 31)

1. Allegro
2. Scherzetto: Allegretto vivace

3. Menuetto: Moderato e grazioso
4. Presto con fuoco

Dedication unknown
Duration 23′

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written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

The third of Beethoven’s Op.31 trilogy is in four movements – the last of his piano sonatas to be structured in this way. It returns to happier climes after the darkness of The Tempest, but does so in wholly original ways.

Critics are united in their praise for this work, with Jan Swafford taking up the story. ‘Beethoven begins Op.31 no.3 in E flat with a harmony so strange that it would have earned him more cries of bizarre from critics if it did not commence a work of surpassing warmth, wit and winsomeness. The beginning is an invitation, like a hand extended in friendship or love.’ The importance of positive feeling is stressed. ‘Following the scherzo, most unexpectedly, comes a graceful and lyrical minuet – he wanted no slow movement to trouble the warm weather of this sonata. For conclusion, a tarantella marked Presto con fuoco, with the fire appropriate to that old whirling dance in which, once upon a time, you hoped to survive the bite of the tarantula by dancing to exhaustion.’

For Sir András Schiff, ‘the third sonata, in E flat major, is probably the hardest one to paraphrase in words: on the one hand it seems tender, entreating and pleading, with a lyrical basic mood strongly in evidence; and on the other hand, in the scherzo and finale it maintains a high spirited and urgent sense of motion.’

The nature of the finale earned the sonata a nickname of The Hunt in some quarters – and many admirers, including Angela Hewitt, who found that ‘Beethoven is in his element, for sure’.

Thoughts

Op.31/3 starts with a gentle question; a chord that is the musical equivalent of a bird unexpectedly landing on a small branch. It is the most unusual beginning to a sonata yet, and opens up a beautifully paced story, Beethoven’s invention bubbling up and down the keyboard. The chord itself is the sort you could easily play over and over again on the piano, creating an oasis of calm and positivity.

After this fascinating and elusive first movement, Beethoven has fun with the martial rhythms of the second. Back in A flat major, this is far removed from the stillness of the Pathétique slow movement, with the composer intent on making his audience smile and jump with the suddenly loud interjections. As a complement, a softer side in the form of a charming minuet, flowing nicely but with just a touch of shade in the form of some unusual harmonies – Beethoven’s second theme has a slight shiver running through it.

The last movement is a canter – as Angela Hewitt says, a bit fast for a hunt, but with a galloping gait. Beethoven builds up terrific momentum here, and some of the bigger chords would surely have been stretching the pianos of the day. The good feeling is irrepressible, in complete contrast to the end of the Tempest, and the sonata finishes with a winning flourish. Beethoven’s strength of feeling wins the day.

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)
Daniel Barenboim (Deutsche Grammophon)

Some wonderful recordings to savour here – with Sir András Schiff, Stephen Kovacevich and Alfred Brendel particularly enjoyable. Yet the most enjoyable guide, and a regular late night companion for this listener, is Emil Gilels, who gets a perfect balance between the delicacy and determined optimism at the heart of this work.

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 1802 Hummel Piano Quintet in E flat major Op.87

Next up 6 Variations in F major Op.34