Listening to Beethoven #42 – 12 Variations on ‘Se vuol ballare’

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (left) and the young Ludwig van Beethoven

12 Variations on Mozart’s aria ‘Se vuol ballare’ WoO40 for piano and violin (1793, Beethoven aged 22)

Dedication Elenore von Breuning
Duration 12’30”

Listen

What’s the theme like?

Mozart’s theme is from the first act of Le nozze de Figaro – Se vuol ballare being an aria for Figaro himself, on discovering the count’s schemes.

Background and Critical Reception

‘I should never have written down this kind of piece, had I not already noticed fairly often how some people in Vienna after hearing me extemporize of an evening would note down on the following day several peculiarities of my style and palm them off with pride as their own. Well, as I foresaw that their pieces would soon be published, I resolved to forestall these people’.

Beethoven’s statement, made in a letter in 1794, confirms he was now in Vienna – and already attracting great interest. In the covering note with the piece, he also makes reference to the extra prominence for the violin in the work – now seen alongside the piano. ‘The variations will be rather difficult to play, and particularly the trills in the coda. But this must not intimidate or discourage you. For the composition is so arranged that you need only play the trill and can leave out the other notes, since these appear in the violin part as well.’

Nigel Fortune, writing in The Beethoven Companion, suggests Beethoven included these features in his work to embarrass the pianists who tried to play his music, giving them music of extra difficulty.

Thoughts

Beethoven’s statement of the theme is unusual, choosing to announce the tune through pizzicato violin with the softest of piano accompaniments. In this way he imitates a guitar, mirroring the way the tune is first heard in the opera.

As the variations unfold the piano takes the lead, particularly in a thrilling fourth variation which has the mood of a Bach sonata with its bubbling counterpoint, passed back and forward between the instruments. The fifth variation enjoys subtle humour with the figure of a trill exchanged, but then the mood darkens.

The sixth variation moves to the minor key, and the violin plays a mournful melody as the piano adopts a slow, bell-like toll. The roles are reversed for the seventh variation, the music still in the minor key but with a few longer dissonances. Soon the sun returns, the music flowing forward through variations eight and nine, the latter generating terrific energy in its fast moving writing for piano alone, the violin taking a brief rest.

The final variations find the instruments close together, the music flowing and in affirmative mood, but then in the coda Beethoven unexpectedly moves into a new key (D major), which takes the listener by surprise and opens up the music completely. This is however shortlived, the false ‘departure’ quickly coming home to rest with a rather touching finish led by soft trills on the piano.

Beethoven’s first Viennese work is a strong statement, and a very enjoyable one at that. Anyone wishing to capture his music on paper would have had a hard time, for his music is starting to show invention and imagination at every turn.

Recordings used

Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Wilhelm Kempff (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Takako Nishizaki (violin), Jenő Jandó (piano) (Naxos)

Menuhin and Kempff are delightful in this piece, playing as though they were at the opera themselves. The minor key variation has a strong pull. Takako Nishizaki and Jenő Jandó are excellent, too – they pull the tempo around less but that works well in the longer scheme of things.

Spotify links

Yehudi Menuhin, Wilhelm Kempff

Takako Nishizaki, Jenő Jandó

Also written in 1793 Haydn Piano Trio in G major Hob.XV:32

Next up Octet in E flat major Op.103

Listening to Beethoven #40 – 13 Variations on ‘Es war einmal ein alter Mann’


Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (left) and the young Ludwig van Beethoven

13 Variations on Dittersdorf’s air ‘Es war einmal ein alter Mann’ for piano (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

Dedication not known
Duration 12′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

Dittersdorf’s theme is taken from an opera, Das rothe Käppchen. In profile it is similar to the Swiss song on which Beethoven wrote six simple variations, not long before completing this work.

Background and Critical Reception

Having been rather dismissive of the entertaining Waldstein variatioms, booklet writer Jean-Charles Hoffelé is more forthcoming on their successor. They ‘make the most of the popular ballad from the opera Das rothe Käppchen. The dominant-tonic interval is exploited to the full to create a tension that is resolved only in the final march’.

Barry Cooper, writing in the notes for the DG Complete Beethoven Edition, gets to the nub of Beethoven’s wit. ‘The most striking effect is the sudden and prolonged rest in the middle of the theme. Beethoven exploits the humourous effect of this rest by creating witty surprises after it in almost every variation, so that the flow of the music is not merely interrupted by the rest but is diverted from its previous course by what follows. In the final variation, a march, there is once again a witty surprise after the rest – for the first time the music just carries on as if nothing had happened. The joke is that there is no joke!

Thoughts

On first hearing it’s tempting to think the pianist has made a mistake when playing this theme. This is the ‘prolonged rest’ that Barry Cooper talks about, and once you know it’s there the ear listens out for it in each variation.

If it was ever played in public this trick could potentially have brought the house down, and when listening it certainly raises a smile – especially as Beethoven’s approaches to this bit of silence are so wildly varied. Silence, of course, would become a key element of Beethoven’s style as it progressed, and this is the first explicit example of it used prominently in a theme.

The variations sparkle, Beethoven again showing off what he can do with busy figurations for the right hand especially. The minor key variation (the sixth) is unexpectedly dark after the major key brilliance – while the ninth alternates between both moods, a flurry of notes suddenly coming to a sombre pause when Beethoven’s trick once again reveals itself.

Once again Beethoven turns entertainer, and in this case prankster – but beneath the notes he is continuing to explore different techniques and ever-more demanding writing for the piano. As a result there is much of note to find in this piece.

Recordings used

Cécile Ousset (Eloquence), John Ogdon (EMI/Warner Classics), Ronald Brautigam (BIS)

A fascinating and varied trio of versions here. Ousset has a winning elegance from the start, but fully embraces Beethoven’s invention and instinct as the variations progress. John Ogdon brings a mischievous element right from the start, with some appealing, jaunty phrasing, while Brautigam gives a charismatic account. Three excellent versions that complement each other.

Spotify links

Cécile Ousset

John Ogdon

track 34 onwards on this album:

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 #39 – 8 Variations on a Theme by Count Waldstein


Count Waldstein (left) and Ludwig van Beethoven aged approximately 25.

8 Variations on a Theme by Count Waldstein WoO 67 for piano duet (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

Dedication not known, but presumed to be Count Waldstein
Duration 8′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

The theme sounds quite quaint and a little rickety on the fortepiano. Its alternations between major and minor harmonies give it a bittersweet flavour.

Background and Critical Reception

This is another piece from Beethoven’s last days in Bonn that was not published in his lifetime – and another that has almost completely bypassed the writings of the composer’s scholars. Keith Anderson, writing booklet notes for the engaging release of Beethoven’s music for piano duet on Grand Piano Records, notes the piece was picked up by the publisher Nikolaus Simrock, but without initial consultation with the composer himself.

By now Beethoven was using the ‘theme and variations’ format as a way of flexing his muscles as a composer, trying out new and – in some cases – ever more daring feats. No doubt when making music with friends he got acquainted with the idea of piano duets – Mozart especially had written a number of pieces for the format – and this was his first, quite extravagant work for four hands.

Waldstein is recorded on Wikipedia as a ‘fairly good pianist and composer’ – so it is tempting to think Beethoven wrote the second part with him in mind. Certainly some of the prompting is easier for the second pianist, as the first part goes wild at the top end of the keyboard!

Thoughts

Beethoven has some fun with these variations, which seem to have been designed for lighthearted performance among friends. Certainly if the fourth variation is anything to go by, with its detached swoops from high down to low and back again. The second and fifth have a torrent of notes in the right hand, while the sixth is also pretty outrageous, an outgoing display piece. The seventh is po-faced, with a syncopation here and there disrupting the rhythms enjoyably, while the eighth variation switches to C minor, rich in harmonic flavour.

Then there is a really pronounced pause, Beethoven looking round at his audience with a tease or two – before a sizeable coda which could really be called a Fantasia. Where will the music go? Beethoven starts to go off at a number of tangents, recalling the unpredictable methods of C.P.E. Bach. The speeds vary wildly, as do the moods – and just as the direction seems uncertain, we head back to the main key through a series of heavy chords. Beethoven refuses to finish with a flourish though, a soft chord all he needs to bring the house down.

Ultimately this piece has a lot of signposts for the watching public, and they surely would have loved it in private performance – if indeed it got to see the light of day. It is a good deal of fun.

Recordings used

Amy & Sara Hamann (Grand Piano)
Arthur & Lucas Jussen (Deutsche Grammophon)

This piece is a riot in the hands of the Hamann sisters, who appreciate the rougher edges the fortepiano provides. They use this to their advantage, bringing out the contrasts between the variations. Their album of piano duets presents the pieces first on the fortepiano, and then on a modern Yamaha, giving the listener a great chance to compare and contrast. The modern version is cleaner and less ‘on the edge’, but still very entertaining.

Alongside this pair the Jussen brothers sound rather more chaste, though they too have some fun once the variations are into their stride.

Spotify links

Amy & Sara Hamann (Fortepiano after J.A. Stein, 1784)

Amy & Sara Hamann (modern Yamaha)

Arthur & Lucas Jussen

Also written in 1792 Gelinek 6 Variations on ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen

Next up 13 Variations on ‘Es war einmal ein alter Mann’

Listening to Beethoven #36 – 14 Variations in E flat major Op.44


Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (left) and the young Ludwig van Beethoven

14 Variations in E flat major Op.44 for piano trio (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

Dedication not known
Duration 15′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

Very simple – but Dittersdorf‘s theme has comic potential, as you might expect from a humorous stage work. In the right (or wrong!) hands this could be a bit po-faced.

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven wrote a lot of chamber music for trio in his Bonn years – and a good deal in the key of E flat major too. This piece was not published until 1804, but is thought to have been completed in 1792 before he left for Vienna. Choosing a simple theme from a comic operetta by Dittersdorf, Das rote Käppchen (‘The little red cap’), he wrote 14 variations of varying character.

Writing to accompany the Florestan Trio recording of this piece on Hyperion, Richard Wigmore compliments Dittersdorf, whose ‘comically rudimentary tune is a vision of dry bones, as bare as the famous ‘Eroica’ theme which it faintly resembles.’ He also notes the glint in Beethoven’s eye and his predilection for mischief in several of these variations, most notably the ‘delicately tripping twelfth…’disrupted by an uncouth fortissimo outburst – Beethoven gleefully sticking out his tongue at rococo decorum’.

Thoughts

This set of variations is great fun, and you really get a sense of Beethoven flexing his compositional muscles and trying a few new things. From the first variation there are strong hints that he is going to have some fun with this theme – and so it proves. In the second variation the pianist enjoys the opportunity to flex the rhythms, bringing in the violin for a capricious third variation, before the baton passes to the cello for the benefit of its richer tone.

The ensemble passages have great energy, and for almost the first time we are getting a sense of the terrific forward drive in Beethoven’s music, especially in the propulsive movement of the sixth variation. A slow minor key deviation follows (variation 7), the cello and violin exchanging mournful thoughts, before the distant chugging of the violin and cello support a piano theme given in octaves. Variation 9 is lively and fun, while the syncopations of the tenth feel particularly advanced at this stage in Beethoven’s development.

As we approach the end, the second minor key variation (13) is even slower and more drawn out. This only makes the reappearance of the ‘home’ key all the happier, before a striking passage where the piano takes a sort of cadenza over the bare bones of the strings. Finally we return to the simplicity of the theme’s profile from the start, before a rush to the finish.

The variety and virtuosity of these variations is reminiscent of the earlier Venni Amore variations for piano, in their wide breadth of moods and techniques – and in their entertainment value, too.

Recordings used

Florestan Trio (Susan Tomes (piano), Anthony Marwood (violin), Richard Lester (cello) (Hyperion)
Wilhelm Kempff (piano), Henryk Szeryng (violin), Pierre Fournier (cello) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Daniel Barenboim (piano), Pinchas Zukerman (violin), Jacqueline du Pré (cello) (originally EMI Classics)

The superstar trio of Henryk Szeryng, Pierre Fournier and Wilhelm Kempff take their time with Dittersdorf’s theme in a very deliberate presentation, and Variation 2 finds Kempff in particularly airy mood – but it is really well judged. That said, they are still a good deal quicker than another superstar ensemble, including husband and wife team Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline du Pré.

The best modern version of the variations comes from the Florestan Trio on Hyperion, which enjoys not just the sparkling pianism of Susan Tomes but also the closely-matched Anthony Marwood and Richard Lester. They all embody the first principles of chamber music by clearly listening to each other and responding in kind. As a result their recording is instinctive and fun.

Spotify links

Wilhelm Kempff (piano), Henryk Szeryng (violin), Pierre Fournier (cello) (Deutsche Grammophon)

Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zukerman, Jacqueline du Pré

You can hear a clip from the Florestan trio version on the Hyperion website

Also written in 1792 Haydn Symphony no.73 in D major ‘La Chasse’

Next up An Minna

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.

Spotify links

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