Listening to Beethoven #197 – Polyphonic Italian Songs WoO 99

Portrait of Antonio Salieri by Joseph Willibrord Mähler, 1815 Polyphonic Italian Songs for largely unaccompanied voices (1801-1803, Beethoven aged 32) 1. Bei labbri che amore (duet) 2. Ma tu tremi, o mio tesoro (trio) 3. E pur fra le tempeste (solo) 4. Sei mio ben (duet) 5. Giura il nocchier: trio (5a), quartet (5b), quartet (5c) 6. Ah rammenta (duet) 7. Chi mai di questo core (trio) 8. Scrivo in te (duet) 9. Per te d’amico aprile (trio) 10. Nei campi e nelle selve: quartet (10a), quartet (10b) 11. Fra tutte le pene: duet (11a), trio (11b), quartet (11c) 12. Salvo tu vuoi lo sposo: solo (12a), duet (12b) 13. Quella cetra ah pur tu sei: trio (13a), quartet (13b), quartet (13c) 14. Già la notte s’avvicina: trio (14a), quartet (14b) 15. Silvio amante disperato (quartet) Dedication not known Duration most songs between 1′ and 1’30” Listen Background and Critical Reception This collection of Italian songs provides us with a fascinating insight into Beethoven’s studies with Antonio Salieri, while also closing this particular chapter in his career. All the settings are of texts by Pietro Metastasio, whose poetry Beethoven was already familiar with. Keith Anderson writes for Naxos that the exercises provide a substantial collection of songs in varied form, in many cases offering Beethoven’s original version, followed by Salieri’s corrected version. They have been brought together under the number WoO 99, with a series of numbering from Beethoven compiler Willy Hess for each item. These settings offer varied insights into Salieri’s teaching methods and Beethoven’s achievements in these years. The unaccompanied Italian settings were written during Beethoven’s early days in Vienna, generally between 1793 and 1797 and those with accompaniment up to 1802. The listings and earlier complete recordings are discussed in full by Mark S. Zimmer in The Unheard Beethoven. Jan Swafford gives valuable insight into Beethoven’s manner as a student. “As with his counterpoint masters, in his dealings with Salieri Beethoven was a wilful student even as he dutifully set his assigned old-fashioned Italian texts in a suitable style. One day Beethoven ran into Salieri in the street after the teacher had thrashed one of rhose efforts. Salieri complained that he hadn’t been able to get the tune out of his head. “Then, Herr von Salieri,” Beethoven grinned, “it can’t have been so utterly bad.” Thoughts These songs give fascinating insights into Beethoven’s development as a composer. The music feels much ‘older’, with the overriding impression that the pupil is diligently aiming for a style coveted by his teacher, rather than breaking particularly new ground – bolstering his abilities and covering perceived weaknesses. The first of these settings, Bei labbri, che amore, is a chaste two-parter for male and female voice in close harmony. Ma tu tremi is initially similar but there is a slightly more awkward top line in the middle section. E pur fra le tempest is a short setting of just under a minute, for solo voice and flowing piano, moving to an unaccompanied and quite serene Sei mio ben for three voices. It is interesting to hear three versions of Giura il nocchier, the second of which is much fuller in texture than the first, while the third shifts the pitch down a tone. The four-part Chi mai di questo core is the fullest song here, and features a nice dialogue between the voices, if still polite and functional. Some of the arrangements are written for full, choral textures, such as the second and third short arrangements of Giura il nocchier. There are no fewer than six versions of Fra tutte le pene availble, each of the three originals with revisions by Salieri to make the part movements a little more logical. Other songs include the pure C major of Scrivo in te, a minute-long setting in three parts, and the fuller choral songs Per te d’amico aprile and Nei campi e nelle selve, in two versions – the second of which has a mournful edge. Also in two versions are Salvo tu vuoi lo sposo, and Gia la notte savvicina, which has a feather light choral setting for its alternative. Meanwhile the choral Quella cetra ah pur ti sei has three – and sounds rather like Haydn in the first. Spotify playlist and Recordings used Soloists, Ensemble Tamanial, Cantus Novus Wien / Thomas Holmes (Naxos)
The Naxos recordings are very well delivered, with the caveat that it is difficult to convey emotion in songs that are so short. The solo items have the necessary intimacy, while the choral numbers have a nice space surrounding the textures in the recording picture. Occasionally the top edges of the soprano lines feel like a bit of a strain, but that could be as much due to the composer’s writing as anything else! 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 1803 Boieldieu Clarinet Concerto no.1 in E flat major Op.36 Next up Bei labbri, che Amore WoO 99/1

Listening to Beethoven #196 – Piano Concerto no.3 in C minor Op.37

piano-concerto-3
Beethoven (1987) by Andy Warhol – colour screenprint on Lenox Museum Board

Piano Concerto no.3 in C minor Op.37 for piano and orchestra (1796-1803, Beethoven aged 32)

Dedication Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia
Duration 37′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven is thought to have begun the third piano concerto as early as 1796, finishing the majority of the work in 1800 but waiting until 5 April 1803 for the first performance at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. It was quite a concert, beginning with the Symphony no.2 and ending with the newly composed Christus am Ölberge, in its first version.

Beethoven had to rush the concerto to get it ready in time, and as a result the solo part was unfinished. An account from the composer’s friend and page turner Ignaz von Seyfried found him effectively turning empty pages during the first concert, Beethoven having committed the solo part to memory.

Many writers recognise the lineage of this work. Charles Rosen, in The Classical Style writes, “The C minor is full of Mozartean reminiscences, in particular of the concerto in the same key, K491, which Beethoven is known to have admired.” Barry Cooper, writing for Hyperion, notes that ‘there is little, if any, direct influence from Mozart’s work, although the similarities show how thoroughly Beethoven had absorbed Mozart’s style.’

The first movement is Beethoven’s weightiest movement yet, clocking in at over 17 minutes in some performances. It is followed by a Largo in the unexpectedly remote key of E major, which would have come as a surprise to the audience in 1803. This tonality is referred to in a ‘dream-like recall’ in the finale (writes William Kinderman). This movement is a Rondo, where after some tense episodes in the minor key, Kinderman writes how “comic wit and jubilation crown the dénouement of this drama in tones”.

Perhaps surprisingly, one of the most guarded verdicts on the third concerto came from Brahms. Comparing it to the Mozart, “a marvellous work of art and filled with divine ideas”, he said “I admit that the Beethoven concerto is more modern…but it is not significant!”

Thoughts

The third of Beethoven’s five published piano concertos is a different animal entirely from the first two. Confirmation of this is felt in the opening bars, with a tense first theme outlined by the strings. Whereas the first two concertos were light on their feet and relatively frothy, this one has a serious countenance, like its counterpart C minor concerto from Mozart in 1784.

The comparisons made between the two are certainly valid, for they occupy a similar emotional space and use almost identical orchestral forces. Beethoven tends to focus in on daring harmonies, creating tension between his much-used C minor and the major key. The soloist has some juicy discords too, to keep the listener on the edge of their seat.

The drama starts with that first theme on the strings and does not let up in the first movement, which despite its length is tautly argued. The arrival of the piano, with stern scales in C minor, is arresting, and in his own written-out cadenza completed in 1808 Beethoven brings in the intimacy of his sonatas, before a series of trills lead to a sparse conclusion from the orchestra. I think Brahms was doing it a disservice!

Perhaps the biggest raise of the eyebrows, however, comes with the first notes of the slow movement, which introduces a whole new key of E major. It is a surprise to the ear which, taking previous examples from the composer, might expect A flat major or F. Beethoven uses this new area to explore a thoughtful, tender side, giving himself and the solo pianist free reign. There is mystery and poetry here, and some sublime contributions from the orchestra.

The final movement is where Beethoven and Mozart are closer aligned, with quite an oblique melody that becomes surprisingly catchy – and which completes its own ‘darkness to light’ journey in the closing passages. The composer even works in a short fugal episode to the energetic movement with effortless ease. In this piece Beethoven has served notice of his intentions to move the piano concerto on to more Romantic territory, both in musical style and emotion.

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)
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)

There are some wonderful accounts of this piece. While writing about the work I have especially enjoyed the versions with soloists Mitsuko Uchida, Wilhelm Kempff and Stephen Kovacevich, while on the fortepiano Robert Levin creates lean drama with Sir John Eliot Gardiner. Uchida is magical at the beginning of the slow movement, which becomes the dream Beethoven surely meant it to be.

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 1803 Boieldieu Clarinet Concerto no.1 in E flat major Op.36

Next up Bei labbri, che Amore WoO 99/1

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