Listening to Beethoven #30 – 2 Sonatinas for Piano


Beethoven with lyre and scroll, alluding to god Apollo (1838-1842)
Reproduction of an old photography of Bläser’s draft, around 1920 (Beethoven-Haus Bonn, photo documentation Stephan Ley, Volume VIII, No. 78)

2 Sonatinas for Piano Anh.5 (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

Dedication unknown
Duration 4′ and 5′

Sonatina in G major Anh.5 no.1
1 Moderato
2 Romanze
Sonatina in F major Anh.5 no.2
1 Allegro assai
2 Rondo

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

These two works, of tiny dimensions, are attributed to Beethoven with a suspected year of composition between 1790 and 1792. The unusual numbering of Anh.5 comes from the 1955 catalogue of Beethoven works put together by Georg Kinsky and Hans Halm. ‘Anh’ is an abbreviation for ‘Anhang’, the German word for ‘appendix’, indicating that Beethoven’s authorship remains in doubt.

Were the pieces genuine they would fall towards the end of Beethoven’s time in Bonn. Both works are in two movements, and are mostly suitable for beginners.

Thoughts

Regardless of whether Beethoven wrote these pieces or not, they are a good deal of fun – and one (the F major work) contains a proper earworm.

The G major’s Moderato first movement flows easily on the ear, with a polite theme – and the Romanze, more obviously childlike, is equally easy to listen to.

The F major work appears to be in a bit of a hurry in its first movement, with a few lightly mischievous touches to its phrasing. It is in the second movement, a Rondo, where the earworm appears – and again there are a few mischievous touches round the end. With the emphasis almost entirely on that single tune it is well set in the inner ear by the end!

Recordings used

Tobias Koch (DG)
Ronald Brautigam (BIS)

Brautigam’s fortepiano can sound a little clinical with a harsher edge applied in the Romanze, but he gives charming accounts of both Sonatinas. Tobias Koch is also charming in his versions.

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Tobias Koch

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 1792 Haydn 12 Minuets, Hob.IX:11

Next up 2 Sonatinas for Piano Anh.5

Listening to Beethoven #29 – Two movements from a Piano Sonata in F major


Bust of Beethoven, by Franz Klein (1812)

2 Movements from a Piano Sonatina in F major WoO 50 (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

Dedication Franz Gerhard Wegeler
Duration 2′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Very little is known of this short pair of fragments, published long after Beethoven’s death in 1950. The apparent dedicatee is Franz Gerhard Wegeler, a German physician and one of the composer’s childhood friends.

The first movement has no tempo marking but its intentions appear to be quite fast, while the fragmented second movement is in triple time.

Thoughts

The first movement fragment flows smoothly over an oscillating left hand line. Beethoven’s theme is simplicity itself, but goes off at a tangent towards the end. The second movement really is gone before you know it – but has quite a crisp theme with a nice lilt to its rhythm.

Ultimately, both fragments are too short to make a lasting impact.

Recordings used

Gianluca Cascioli (DG)
Alessandro Deljaven (OnClassical)

Cascioli’s performances flow beautifully, while Deljaven’s feel rather more deliberate, the left hand accompaniment much more earthbound.

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Gianluca Cascioli

Alessandro Deljaven

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 1792 Haydn 12 Minuets, Hob.IX:11

Next up 2 Sonatinas for Piano Anh.5

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.

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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.

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Ronald Brautigam

Cécile Ousset

Mikhail Pletnev

Also written in 1791 Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A major K622

Next up Ritterballet WoO 1 (piano version)