Listening to Beethoven #188 – Symphony no.2 in D major Op.36


The Longing for Happiness. Left wall, detail from the Beethoven-Frieze (1902) by Gustav Klimt

Symphony no.2 in D major Op.36 for orchestra (1800-1802, Beethoven aged 31)

Dedication Karl Alois, Prince Lichnowsky
Duration 30′

1. Adagio molto – Allegro con brio
2. Larghetto
3. Scherzo: Allegro
4. Allegro molto

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s time in Heiligenstadt may have been difficult, but it yielded music of remarkable positivity in such testing situations. George Hall, writing booklet notes for Simax, sums up the situation neatly: ”What has proved remarkable to Beethoven’s biographers is that the (second) symphony, whose sketches date back to 1800 and whose finishing touches were probably added in 1803, was composed largely in the year that he wrote the famous Heiligenstadt testament. The fact that this document – in which Beethoven in his post-suicidal mood railed against his deafness and isolation in a letter – was conceived in the year of this predominantly happy and straightforward piece is considered paradoxical.’

‘Symphony no.2 is the main fruit of Beethoven’s labors in 1801-2 and is considered to be the culminating success of his early period’, writes Daniel Heartz. He gives an account of the premiere on 5 April 1803, which took place at the new Theater an der Wien, and included the hastily composed short oratorio Christus am Ölberge and also a new piano concerto, the third.

In a fascinating and detailed analysis, Heartz goes on to draw close links with Mozart‘s Symphony no.38, the Prague, which Beethoven greatly admired. Written in the same key, the two works share a broad Adagio introduction to the first movement, and a nearly identical instrumentation. The crucial difference here is that Beethoven adds clarinets in A, a distinctive part of the woodwind sound which makes such a difference to this symphony.

The second symphony would probably have been, to date, the longest symphony yet published – a quality acknowledged by Allegmeine Musikalische Zeitung of Leipzig, in their 1804 appraisal. ‘It is’, their critic wrote, ‘a noteworthy, colossal work (the biggest so far), whose profundity, strength and artistic understanding are very rare, and presents difficulties from the point of view of execution…that certainly no previous symphony has offered.’

Heartz identifies it as ‘a watershed for its composer, the last of his big works in which he looked to Haydn and Mozart for inspiration.’ Later, he notes that when ‘the London Philharmonic Society invited Beethoven to compose a symphony in the style of the first and second symphonies’, it was ‘an offer that deeply offended the composer, who indignantly refused. There can scarcely be more striking confirmation than this that a corner was turned after 1802.’

Thoughts

If you approached this piece cold, there is no way you would know it was written by a man whose grip on life itself was tenuous. In the midst of all the strife he was experiencing, Beethoven pulled out this sunny piece of beautifully joined-up thinking, giving the best possible response to his illnesses and impending deafness. If he was to be hindered, the music would see him through.

There is much to love about the Second Symphony. Its dimensions look front-loaded, with a substantial first and second movement and a shorter Scherzo and Finale placed third and fourth. These two, however, act as a combined pair – and so the feeling is of a trio of movements, as perfected by Mozart in the Prague symphony discussd above. The spirit of Mozart is present for sure, but so is the drive and energy of the younger composer, along with his ability to develop incredibly small melodic cells into material for whole movements.

His expertise in this is evident in those third and fourth movements. The scherzo’s seemingly throwaway phrase at the start is the block on which the whole movement rests, played by the orchestra but with the strings keeping busy in between. The finale follows on naturally, moving closer to ‘home’ with another clipped phrase from the full orchestra.

Before these two symphonic gems we have had the pleasure of an energy-filled first movement and a balletic second, a ‘slow’ movement with a good deal of poise. Here the clarinets make themselves known the most, and Beethoven’s writing for wind is a joy in which to indulge. The movement flows with a happy stream of invention, anticipating perhaps the outdoor vistas of the later Pastoral symphony.

Working backwards, the first movement has a good deal of drama in its introduction and a tautly argued Allegro section which frequently breaks into an unfiltered smile. Perhaps Mozart and a little of Haydn are most obvious in the music here, but again the material could not be from anyone else.

Many commentators declare the Second Symphony as the culmination of Beethoven’s first period. With music of such rich invention, such clever but instinctive development and such bright textures, it is to be savoured – and bodes extremely well for what is to come.

Spotify playlist and Recordings used

NBC Symphony Orchestra / Arturo Toscanini (RCA)
Cleveland Orchestra / George Szell (Sony Classical)
Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century / Frans Brüggen (Philips)
Berliner Philharmoniker / Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Claudio Abbado (Deutsche Grammophon)
Danish Chamber Orchestra / Ádám Fischer (Naxos)
Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä (BIS)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Rafael Kubelik (Deutsche Grammophon)
Anime Eterna Brugge / Jos Van Immerseel (ZigZag Territories)

Performances on ‘period’ instruments or modern interpretations are both to be lauded in this piece. The former camp contains really fine versions from Anime Eterna Brugge and Jos van Immerseel, or the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century and Frans Brüggen, to name just two thoroughly enjoyable accounts. The latter gives great enjoyment thanks to the batons of Harnoncourt, Kubelik and Szell, not to mention many, many others!

To listen to clips from the recording from the Scottih Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras on Hyperion, head to their 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 Haydn Mass in B flat major Hob. XXII:14 ‘Harmoniemesse’

Next up No, non turbarti, WoO 92a

Listening to Beethoven #182 – Romance no.1 in G major Op.40

Violin from Beethoven’s possession, one of four instruments Beethoven received as a gift from Prince Karl von Lichnowsky around 1800 (image from the Beethoven-Haus Bonn)

Romance no.1 in G major Op.40 for violin and orchestra (1800-02, Beethoven aged 31)

Dedication unknown
Duration 7′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s first published Romance for violin and orchestra was written after the second, which we have already appraised. It is seen by commentators as part of his preparation for a full-scale violin concerto, having attempted such a work ten years previously.

Once again there is a surprising lack of prose written about this piece, which is odd given its popularity on classical music radio. It is written for a ‘classically sized’ orchestra, the violin teamed with strings, flute, oboes, bassoons and horns.

Thoughts

Beethoven starts his Romance with the solo instrument alone, a striking move. It would have been relatively conventional for a piano to start such a piece on its own, but not the violin – which starts here with soft, plaintive chords, like a drone. The mood is slightly folksy.

Gradually the orchestra join the soloist, and as they do the mood becomes more warm-hearted, the theme heard several times and finished off with a decisive cadence. The violin goes on to lead quite an assertive section in the minor key, before returning to sing the main theme in a higher register.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin), New York Philharmonic Orchestra / Kurt Masur (Deutsche Grammophon)
Thomas Zehetmair (violin), Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century / Frans Brüggen
Itzhak Perlman (violin), Berliner Philharmoniker / Daniel Barenboim
Arthur Grumiaux (violin), Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Sir Colin Davis

Thomas Zehetmair gives an attractive introduction with the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century under Frans Brüggen, with a fast tempo choice that results in a swift performance time of five and a half minutes. Perhaps not surprisingly Anne-Sophie Mutter lingers longer, hers a luxurious but tender account with Kurt Masur. Arthur Grumiaux has the ideal singing tone for this piece, while Itzhak Perlman also finds great sensitivity.

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 Blasius Clarinet Concerto no.1

Next up Piano Sonata no.16 in G major Op.31/3

Listening to Beethoven #163 – Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus) Op.43

Maria Casentini, Beethoven’s prima ballerina for The Creatures of Prometheus. Used courtesy of Beethoven-Haus Bonn

Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus) Op.43 for orchestra (1801, Beethoven aged 30)

Dedication Salvatore Viganò & Empress Maria Theresa
Duration 60′

Music and reconstruction of the plot (from Wikipedia)

Overture
Act 1
Introduction
Poco adagio
Adagio – allegro con brio
Minuetto
Act 2
Maestoso – Andante
Adagio – Andante quasi allegretto
Un poco adagio – Allegro
Allegro con brio – Presto
Adagio – Allegro molto
Pastorale
Andante
Maestoso (also known as “Solo di Gioia” for solo dancer Gaetano Gioia) – Procession of Silenus
Allegro – Comodo – Dance of Pan and two fauns or nymphs
Andante – Adagio (also known as Solo della Casentini, written for Beethoven’s prima ballerina, Maria Casentini)
Andantino – Adagio (also known as Solo di Viganó)
Finale- Wedding

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Ballet had been a central feature of entertainment in Vienna’s court theatres for several generations prior to Beethoven’s arrival, and after a fallow period under Joseph II, Leopold II restored it to a higher standing in the 1790s. Beethoven had just one encounter with the stage in Bonn, his music for the Ritterballet, but as Daniel Heartz points out many of the piano variations he wrote in Vienna were based on dances or arias, showing he was keeping abreast of new works for the stage.

The celebrated choreographer Salavtore Viganò was asked to premiere a new work each year in Vienna from 1799, and in 1801 he chose to focus on the story of Prometheus. With the intention to honour Empress Marie Therese, Beethoven was invited to write the music, and the hour-long score occupied him up to the premiere in the Burgtheater on 28 March 1801.

Anthony Burton, writing in the Deutsche Grammophon Complete Beethoven, remarks that ‘The Creatures of Prometheus is a work of unusual interests in two respects. It consists of over an hour of mature Beethoven…which is virtually unknown apart from a short overture and one tune in the finale. And it is one of only two extended ballet scores by major composers of the Classical period (the other is Gluck’s Don Juan) to have survived intact. After its first performance the piece became wildly popular, receiving another 28 performances before the end of the following year.

Summarising the plot, he writes, ‘The demigod Prometheus creates two human figures out of clay and brings them to life with the aid of fire stolen from heaven. Finding them lacking in any emotion, he leads them to Parnassus, where they are instructed in the arts by Apollo, Bacchus and the Muses, and through the power of harmony made susceptible to all the passions of human life.’

Heartz describes the structure of the ballet as a ‘heroic-allegorical’ story with the heroism in Act 1 and the allegorical work in Act II, a much longer structure’. The overture, with its close links to the Symphony no.1 in C major, is often performed separately as a concert-opener. Act II is described as ‘more pageant than action ballet’.

Heartz picks out three numbers for special attention. No.8 is described as ‘an impressive rondo in martial style’, no.10 ‘a lovely Pastorale’, and no.16 ‘the great Finale’, where Beethoven writes a theme later used in his Eroica Variations Op.35, and the finale of the Eroica symphony. No.14 in F is the big solo for the celebrated Signora Casentini, playing the first woman created.’

Anthony Burton’s conclusion is striking. ‘Prometheus caught and enhanced the dramatic fire of which Beethoven was capable. It emboldened him to attempt more daring orchestral feats in Symphony no.2. Experience in theatre helped him when he returned to the dramatic stage with his Leonore in subsequent years.

With all that said, audiences were disappointed, in spite of Beethoven’s prowess as a composer. As he wrote just three weeks after the premiere, ‘I have made a ballet, but the ballet master did not make the very best of his end of the job’.

Thoughts

Most concert-goers encounter just five minutes of Beethoven’s music for The Creatures of Prometheus, through the Overture. It is often chosen as an opening piece by orchestras because of its abrupt start, a chord hewn from the rock face. Like the beginning of the first symphony it is a C major chord with an added seventh (B flat) but this time the added note is at the bottom of the texture. The sharp attack no doubt stifles conversation among even the most disruptive audience members! Beethoven’s expert use of silence around the first few chords heightens the drama.

If the Overture is the only part of the ballet you have heard, then you have been missing out. The Creatures of Prometheus might not be a forsaken masterpiece, but it has a lot of good tunes, imaginative orchestration and some very positive music. The relative lack of plot does play a part at times, meaning there is not quite as much contrast in the music of Act 2 as there might have been, but Beethoven’s writing more than compensates.

The orchestration feels heavier than the first symphony, both in the overture and in the bright and breezy section where the statues come to life. The harp playing of Amphion is a striking beginning to the fifth number, which also has a striking cello solo (Orpheus) whose cadenza is followed by a soft-hearted theme as the creatures are presented to Apollo.

There is an impressive heft to the section where the two humans are taught martial arts, while the Pastorale is rather lovely. The prima ballerina solo is elegant and beautifully scored, with solos for basset horn and oboe. The penultimate number begins in subdued fashion but breaks out into a vigorous exchange. Finally we turn to one of Beethoven’s favourite keys, E flat major, for the wedding and celebration of Prometheus’ mission. The important theme ends the ballet in celebratory mood, with a spring in the step and some bracing orchestral figures.

A highly enjoyable hour in Beethoven’s company, then – and an energising one too.

Spotify playlist and Recordings used

Orchestra of the 18th Century / Frans Brüggen (Philips)
Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)
Freiburger Barockorchester / Gottfried von der Goltz (Harmonia Mundi)

After the opening chords ricochet, the sound of the Freiburger Barockorchester is unexpectedly rich in the lower end, before a headlong rush through the first Allegro. Their approach is a vigorous one, and highly enjoyable in the faster music where a gutsy orchestral sound is revealed.

Frans Brüggen conducts another ‘period instrument’ version with real panache, his Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century not quite as bombastic as their counterparts from Freiburg but giving a classy interpretation nonetheless. Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducts a version with plenty of character from the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, while the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra impress with their control and depth, if not quite as much evident excitement as the period versions.

To listen to clips from the recording from the Scottih Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras on Hyperion, head to their 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 Haydn The Spirit’s Song, Hob.XXVIa:41

Next up Sonata for piano and violin no.4 in A minor Op.23

Listening to Beethoven #160 – Symphony no.1 in C major Op.21

Gustav Klimt, Beethovenfries (Detail): Poesie
Poesie, detail from the Beethoven-Frieze (1902) by Gustav Klimt

Symphony no.1 in C major Op.21 for orchestra (1799-1800, Beethoven aged 29)

Dedication Baron Gottfried van Swieten
Duration 30′

1. Adagio molto – Allegro con brio
2. Andante cantabile con moto
3. Menuetto: Allegro molto e vivace
4. Adagio – Allegro molto e vivace

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven took his time before setting down his first symphonic work. Aware of the prowess already shown by Haydn and Mozart, he wanted to be on a sure footing with his first contribution to the form, and used a big concert in Vienna to make his move. The concert contained a major Mozart symphony – thought to be the Prague or the Jupiter – an aria from Haydn’s The Creation, and three major Beethoven works. The first was the Septet, fresh off the page, thought to have been followed by the First Piano Concerto and, finally, this new Symphony.

Reaction was favourable, the only slight criticism an observation that the wind section enjoyed a much higher profile than previously. Beethoven’s other formal inventions were subtle enough to ease the audience into the first part of a transition – with the most inventive tactic deployed early on. The very first chord is the key – C major, but with an added B flat – the seventh – pointing the music towards F major. It may not seem a massive switch but listen to the first chord and you will hear just how different its emphasis is, the first time a composer had tried such a trick in a symphony.

Having pointed this out Jan Swafford is keen to emphasise the traditional aspects of the symphony, the first movement proceeding with ‘a vigorous, military-toned Allegro con brio, its phrasing foursquare, its modulations modest, its development and coda not excessively long’. Similar observations are made on the cautious aspects of the other three movements, though the Minuetto is noted to be a ‘dashing’ scherzo. Overall, for Swafford, ‘as a composer of symphonies and concertos he would rest patiently in the shadow of Haydn and Mozart and experiment with voices while he waited for his muse to show him a more adventurous path.’

Daniel Heartz is more complimentary, though also notes how ‘the symphony as a whole does not reach the level of Haydn and Mozart at their best. All praise to Beethoven, nevertheless, for having the courage to essay a genre that did not come easily to him, and to persevere over four or five years until he was ready to brave public appearance as a symphonist.

A final word to Brahms. ‘I also see that Beethoven’s First Symphony seemed so colossal to its first audiences. It has indeed a new viewpoint. But the last three Mozart symphonies are much more significant. Now and then people realise that this is so’.

Thoughts

While all the critical observations note Beethoven’s caution and respect of tradition in the First Symphony, it is still a remarkable work for its time. It also has great invention, and in a sense Beethoven’s work as an original thinker was already done by the time the first chord had been intoned. Using that particular chord, the C major seventh, would have been a real eyeopener for anybody of the time, a tactic not yet tried that suggested a composer ready to take risks.

As it proceeds the first movement is full of vigorous debate and fulsome writing for wind, an enjoyable dialogue with bags of positive energy. Beethoven writes with great assurance, the dynamic is often loud and the mood upbeat throughout.

In the second movement a tender side is revealed, along with a little wit resembling Haydn – it has a similar profile to the slow movement of his teacher’s Symphony no.100, the ‘Clock’. It also slips into the distant key of D flat major, wholly typical of Beethoven to be thinking further afield with his harmonies, but from here he fashions an effortless return ‘home’.

It may be marked ‘Minuetto’ but there is no way the third movement is anything other than a scherzo. It has a very simple profile – an upwardly rising scale – but Beethoven typically works it into something meaningful. Only 25 seconds in and he’s back in D flat major, showing once again the skill with which he can move between keys. With syncopations and catchy exchanges this is a compact marvel. The trio section is also incredibly straightforward, a series of repeated chords from the woodwind, but once again very effective.

The way Beethoven introduces his main tune in the finale is also very clever, stepping up a ladder one step at a time, returning to earth, then rushing up to the top for the full tune. It generates a good deal of momentum to power this substantial movement, which as Daniel Heartz says represents a desire on the part of the composer to give his works more impetus at the end rather than the beginning. As the symphonies progress we will see this more and more.

Spotify playlist and Recordings used

NBC Symphony Orchestra / Arturo Toscanini (RCA)
Cleveland Orchestra / George Szell (Sony Classical)
Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century / Frans Brüggen (Philips)
Berliner Philharmoniker / Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Claudio Abbado (Deutsche Grammophon)
Danish Chamber Orchestra / Ádám Fischer (Naxos)
Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä (BIS)

To listen to clips from the recording from the Scottih Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras on Hyperion, head to their 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 1800 Weber Das stumme Waldmädchen

Next up 6 Easy Variations on an Original Theme WoO 77

Listening to Beethoven #159 – Piano Concerto no.2 in B flat major Op.19

beethoven-393
Beethoven (1987) by Andy Warhol – screenprint on Lenox Museum Board

Piano Concerto no.2 in B flat major Op.19 for piano and orchestra (1787-1800, Beethoven aged 29)

Dedication Karl Nickl von Nickelsberg
Duration 30′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s ‘second’ piano concerto has a detailed history, and is actually his first in order of composition, completed some distance before the official no.1.

Thought to have been started in Bonn as far back as 1787, when the composer was just 16, it underwent several revisions, with the first movement the only survivor from the original edition. Beethoven had an original version of the Rondo in B flat major in place for a performance in Prague in 1798, but this was ‘upgraded’ later that year.

When he presented the concerto to his publisher Hoffmeister, on 15 January 1801, Beethoven introduced the second concerto as a piece ‘which I do not claim to be one of my best’. Jan Swafford, while agreeing the first movement is ‘one of the most routine orchestral movements Beethoven ever published’, goes on to note that ‘…beneath a not particularly bold surface, his searching nature can’t help showing itself’. He highlights the ‘startling tonal excursions’ of the first movement, and the ‘more mature, more Viennese’ nature of the second and third. A link is also drawn to ‘the lofty choruses of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte’ in the Adagio.

Barry Cooper, in his notes for the recent recording by Stephen Hough, Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra on Hyperion, describes the ‘strange, off-beat theme’ of the finale, ‘that adds a great sense of humour to the movement – especially when it returns near the end in a remote key (G major), with the rhythm shifted slightly so that the long notes now fall on the beat instead of after it.’

Thoughts

This is Beethoven with bright eyes and a bushy tail, though throughout the Piano Concerto no.2 there is often a sense of politeness, as though the composer is keen to establish himself in the form before doing anything too outlandish.

The first movement is the most expansive, and there are some lovely moments, particularly the way the piano floats in on the back of the orchestral introduction. Soon the keyboard is dominating with flourishes for both hands, exchanging thoughts with the orchestra.

Beethoven enjoys moving into distant keys – thematic material appears in D flat major and then in the beautifully hushed tones of G flat. Other than that he has a lot of fun, and when the movement hints at a soft ending the piano bubbles up to lift the energy and cross the line at a faster pace.

The heart of this piece, however, lies in the second movement Adagio. The breathy introduction from the strings is a magical moment, Beethoven in one of his favourite keys (E flat major) but writing music of an operatic dimension, an aria for piano and orchestra. His studies with Salieri may well have informed this.

As with the first concerto, the best tune is saved for the last movement – and again it is a Rondo, giving concert-goers an earworm for the interval – and just about trumping the original Rondo that Beethoven had written, which now survives as a standalone piece. This one is particularly upbeat, and there are elements of the military march. The third theme, in G minor, has a rustic quality with its ornamentation.

The B flat concerto would surely have been the ideal vehicle for Beethoven as he gradually left his musical mark on Viennese concert life. On occasion it resembles Mozart’s last concerto, in the same key, but there are original elements that could only be by Beethoven, who has fun with virtuosity at the keyboard, unexpected harmonic shifts and a dialogue with the orchestra that is never less than genial. It is a fresh and invigorating piece.

Spotify playlist and Recordings used

Wilhelm Kempff, Berliner Philharmoniker / Ferdinand Leitner (Deutsche Grammophon)
Robert Levin, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (Arkiv)
Mitsuko Uchida, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / Kurt Sanderling (Philips)
Rudolf Serkin, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / Rafael Kubelik (Orfeo)
Claudio Arrau, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Bernard Haitink (Philips)
Martha Argerich, Philharmonia Orchestra / Giuseppe Sinopoli (Deutsche Grammophon)
Ronald Brautigam, Die Kölner Akademie / Michael Alexander Willens (BIS)
Stephen Hough, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra / Hannu Lintu (Hyperion)
Stephen Kovacevich, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Colin Davis (Philips)

The B flat concerto is a particularly fresh piece of work in the hands of Stephen Kovacevich, with bright accompaniment from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sir Colin Davis. Robert Levin and John Eliot Gardiner’s account is very nicely judged, and there is a magical moment towards the end of the slow movement when the main theme returns in hushed strings. Boris Giltburg has a light touch in the first movement of his recording with the RLPO and Petrenko, and the orchestra respond to his airy approach, making the music sound fresh. The tender slow movement is beautifully poised. Mitsuko Uchida brings balance and a light touch to her recording with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Kurt Sanderling, who are occasionally expansive in their accompaniment.

To listen to clips from Stephen Hough’s new recording on Hyperion, head to their 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 1800 Boieldieu Harp Concerto in C major

Next up Symphony no.1 in C major Op.21