Listening to Beethoven #147 – 10 Variations on ‘La stessa, la stessissima’, WoO 73

beethoven-salieriLudwig van Beethoven and Antonio Salieri (right)

8 Variations on ‘Tändeln und Scherzen’ WoO 76 for piano (1799, Beethoven aged 28)

Dedication unknown
Duration 9′

written by Ben Hogwood

Listen

What’s the theme like?

The theme is taken from a duet in Salieri‘s opera Falstaff, premiered on 3 January 1799 in Vienna’s Theater am Kärntnertor.

Background and Critical Reception

The variations that Beethoven dashed off after hearing Salieri’s Falstaff in January 1799 earned him a drubbing from critics, writes Jean-Charles Hoffelé. ‘Herr Beethoven may know how to improvise, but he is unable to create good variations’, wrote the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung.

Hoffelé speculates on the cause of the journalist’s irritation, suggesting it might be ‘the tone of pure entertainment, the impertinent giocoso manner’. He notes however that Beethoven is enjoying himself, citing ‘the distilled Adagio in the top register of the keyboard’.

Thoughts

A strident theme sets out its stall, before Beethoven takes it for a walk in the first variation and then a quicker, propulsive jog in variation two. Again this is a composer working instinctively, the feeling being this composition may well have been written in one sitting at the keyboard.

Beethoven has fun with the offbeat comments of the third variation, while things take a sombre tone in the minor key with the fifth. The music springs out of this with an upright gait, and a fugal episode, then a terrific flurry of notes in the seventh and tenth variations, which no doubt impressed or infuriated the Viennese audience!

The final variation, the tenth, is a tour de force of athletic prowess in the right hand before adding on a coda, as so many of Beethoven’s variation sets do. This one, however, is by turns violent, amusing and touching, channelling the spirit of C.P.E. Bach as it changes mood almost by the bar. Final resolution is forcefully achieved.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Gianluca Cascioli (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Cécile Ousset (piano) (Eloquence)
Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano) (BIS)

If you are happy to listen to the relatively taut sound of Ronald Brautigam’s fortepiano, you will find much to enjoy in his version, a thoroughly entertaining and dramatic reading of Beethoven’s mood changes. Cécile Ousset, perhaps inevitably, has greater elegance but also enjoys the playful aspects, not to mention the outrageous final variation.

Also written in 1799 Benjamin Carr Dead March and Monody

Next up 10 Variations on ‘La stessa, la stessissima’ WoO 73

Listening to Beethoven #146 – 8 Variations on ‘Tändeln und Scherzen’, WoO 76

beethoven-sussmayrLudwig van Beethoven and Franz Xaver Süssmayr  (right)

8 Variations on ‘Tändeln und Scherzen’ WoO 76 for piano (1799, Beethoven aged 28)

Dedication unknown
Duration 9′

written by Ben Hogwood

Listen

What’s the theme like?

The theme is taken from a trio in the opera by Soliman oder die drei Sultaninnen by Franz Xaver Süssmayr. A popular Austrian composer at the time of composition, Süssmayr is not a familiar name in the concert hall nowadays, except for his completion of Mozart’s Requiem.

Background and Critical Reception

Thoughts

This is pure, instinctive inspiration – and is quite stop-start as a result. Yet just as Beethoven has a lot of fun with these variations, so does his listener. The fourth variation is especially brilliant, the hands tumbling down the keyboard like a waterfall.

An elegant seventh variation, the one about which Hoffelé writes, leads to a run of trills, like the end of a cadenza, which look set to complete the set – until a twist in the tale appears in the form of a fugue, crisply executed in the form of a Bach invention.

Beethoven switches unexpectedly to D major near the end, yet this is wholly in keeping with the free running approach throughout this entertaining set.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Alfred Brendel (piano) (Vox)
Cécile Ousset (piano) (Eloquence)
Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano) (BIS)

Cécile Ousset is a model performer in these variations, with enviable dexterity and a good deal of humour. Ronald Brautigam enjoys the more brash, unscripted moments and the piece sounds great on the fortepiano. Brendel is excellent too.

Also written in 1799 Benjamin Carr Dead March and Monody

Next up 10 Variations on ‘La stessa, la stessissima’ WoO 73

Listening to Beethoven #140 – 7 Variations on ‘Kind, willst du ruhig schlafen’ WoO 75

beethoven-von-winter

Ludwig van Beethoven and Peter von Winter (right)

7 Variations on ‘Kind, willst du ruhig schlafen’ WoO 75 for piano (1792-99, Beethoven aged 28)

Dedication unknown
Duration 11′

written by Ben Hogwood

Listen

What’s the theme like?

The theme, written by German contemporary Peter von Winter, is a compact tune, with quite a clipped melody – simple but ripe for development.

Background and Critical Reception

This set of seven variations on a quartet, Kind, willst du ruhig schlafen, from Peter von Winter’s opera Das unterbrochene Opferfest (The interrupted festival of sacrifice) appears to use all the four parts of the quartet as its inspiration.

Very little is written about this set, coming as it does in the middle of a rich vein of variation ‘form’ for Beethoven in the late 1790s. The general consensus is that he was enjoying himself and taking a feelw risks with harmony and form. This set would seem to confirm those notions.

Thoughts

Beethoven takes on the challenge with relish – so far very few of his variations have sounded routine. Having showcased the tune and a first variation, we get a glimpse in the second of a composer literally rolling up his sleeves as the piano surges up the scale. The next variation suggests a recent study of Handel, with pinpoint figuration and fluent movement.

A serious minor key diversion (variation no.6) is followed by an extended final variation and coda. Here Beethoven goes for a wander off the beaten track, moving unexpectedly into D major but with a surety and fluency that suggest this ‘surprise’ was well-planned all along. Sure enough the return ‘home’, with trills in the right hand, presents the theme in a subtly triumphant manner.

Recordings used and Spotify links

John Ogdon (piano) (EMI)
Cécile Ousset (piano) (Eloquence)
Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano) (BIS)

Cécile Ousset gives a typically characterful performance of these variations, with particularly enviable phrasing in the right hand of the chromatic fourth variation. John Ogdon is sparkling throughout, slightly drier in wit perhaps. Ronald Brautigam offers a vivid contrast on the fortepiano, played with plenty of fire and brimstone in the quicker music at the end of the coda.

Also written in 1799 Benjamin Carr Dead March and Monody

Next up Plaisir drainer WoO 128

Listening to Beethoven #126 – 8 Variations on ‘Une fièvre brûlante’, WoO 72

beethoven-gretryLudwig van Beethoven and André Grétry (right)

8 Variations on ‘Une fièvre brûlante’ from Grétry’s Richard Coeur de Lion, WoO 72 for piano (1795-98, Beethoven aged 27)

Dedication Countess Anna Margarete von Browne
Duration 7′

written by Ben Hogwood

Listen

What’s the theme like?

The theme is a duet from André Grétry’s opera Richard Coeur de Lion, and it is an aria for the soprano playing Marguerite. It is sung in this clip – one of the very few available – by a tenor:

Background and Critical Reception

Jean-Charles Hoffelé, writing about Beethoven’s variations in the booklet note for Cécile Ousset’s rather wonderful recordings of many of the variations for Decca France, saw the beginning of a new stylistic phase in the composer’s variations on Wranitzky’s Das Waldmädchen, finished in the year prior to this work and recently covered by our listening.

These variations, on an aria from Grétry’s Richard Coeur de Lion, he says, ‘confirm this trend. Variations? No, more like an opera for piano with harmonies that Schumann would not have disavowed, with characters and a stage, and with a vast range of mood and a sense of Beethoven enjoying creating contrasts all the way to a finale that has the kind of euphoria found again in the denouement of Fidelio. This is a major collection, but one that pianists are unfamiliar with’.

That much is certainly true, for I was unable to find any other notes about the collection, not even in Deutsche Grammophon’s Complete Beethoven edition.

Thoughts

The first variation has an idly wandering right hand, the second even more so as the chromatic approach starts to bear fruit. Variation 3 takes off at quite a lick, the melody dressed with so many ornaments that it is barely recognisable, before the fourth variation straightens the smile and takes us into the minor key.

The sixth variation is a stern march, with extra dressing from the right hand, but Beethoven saves the real surprises and fireworks for the end. A flurry of notes in C major sound like the accompaniment to a comedy silent film before the music suddenly stops and takes a sideways glance into A flat major. A very pensive mood is set, but only briefly, for Beethoven wrenches us back ‘home’ with a quickfire finish.

Recordings used and Spotify links

John Ogdon (piano) (EMI)
Gianluca Cascioli (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Cécile Ousset (piano) (Eloquence)
Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano) (BIS)

The Spotify playlist below includes all of the versions listed above. The Variations may not have been recorded a great deal on disc, but each of these four versions has considerable merit. Brautigam is upfront and full of character, while John Ogdon’s virtuosity is beyond reproach. Ousset brings a touch of elegance to her account, as does Cascioli, whose slightly reserved account of the theme serves him well when the variations really get going.

Also written in 1798 Wranitzky Grande Sinfonie caracteristique in C minor Op.31

Next up Piano Sonata no.6 in F major Op.10/2

Listening to Beethoven #114 – 12 Variations on the Russian Dance from ‘Das Waldmädchen’, WoO 71

Ludwig van Beethoven and Paul Wranitzky (right, in a portrait by Johann Georg Edlinger)

12 Variations on the Russian Dance from Wranitzky’s ‘Das Waldmädchen’, WoO 71 for piano (1797, Beethoven aged 26)

Dedication Countess Anna Margarete von Browne
Duration 10′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

The theme is a Russian Dance from Paul Wranitzky‘s ballet Das Waldmädchen (The Forest Maiden), completed in 1796. Wranitzky, a Czech composer, moved to Vienna in the 1770s and was reportedly given the task of conducting the premiere of Beethoven’s First Symphony in 1800.

Background and Critical Reception

This is another set of variations from Beethoven with links to the ballet, a trait noted by Daniel Heartz. The theme is from a contemporary of the composer’s, Paul Wranitzky – resident in Vienna for a number of years having moved from Prague.

Writing about the variations in the booklet note for Cécile Ousset‘s account, Jean-Charles Hoffelé notes some unusual qualities. ‘The theme…has an irregular rhythm that Beethoven clearly cherishes, composing a set whose harmonic experiments go far enough for one to see the beginning of a new stylistic phase.’

Thoughts

Once again Beethoven serves up a dramatic set of twelve variations on a theme, with a satisfying ebb and flow, all of them wrapped up in ten minutes – even allowing for quite a substantial coda with the twelfth variation.

Initially the mood is quite restless, with the changing harmonies, but Beethoven can also be celebratory (the garland of the right hand in the fourth variation for instance.

This set of 12 is also notable for the appearance of three minor-key variations. The third is quite serious, but the seventh is a flurry of virtuosity. The penultimate variation is the most striking of the set, Beethoven leaning very heavily on one particular note – an ‘F’ natural – to create an atmosphere of uncertainty. This is dissipated in the final variation and coda. Beethoven begins with a Bach-style dialogue between the parts but develops to what sounds like the cadenza of a solo concerto, before ending gracefully.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Emil Gilels (piano) (EMI)
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Cécile Ousset (piano) (Eloquence)
Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano) (BIS)

The Spotify playlist below includes all of the versions listed above. There are some terrific accounts here. Gilels and Ousset, among the older guard, generate a terrific sense of occasion. Ronald Brautigam’s fortepiano account recreates something of the wonder Beethoven’s original audiences would have felt when presented with this music. Vladimir Ashkenazy seemingly has a soft spot for this set, pairing it with his Diabelli Variations recorded in 2007.

Also written in 1797 Dussek Piano Trio in E flat major Op.37

Next up 2 Rondos Op.51