Listening to Beethoven #93 – 6 Variations on ‘Nel cor piu non mi sento’

The  Portaits of Giovanni Paisiello (left) and the young Beethoven

6 Variations on ‘Nel cor piu non mi sento’ WoO 70 for piano (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication not known
Duration 6′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

Paisiello’s theme has a nice lilt to it, with a softly undulating accompaniment set in the left hand of the piano. The mood is amiable, set in G major. Beethoven pauses deliberately near the end, creating some very valid, stage-derived tension!

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven operated with a remarkably quick turnaround for these variations, which explains their instinctive feel. Barry Cooper, writing in the booklet notes for DG’s Complete Beethoven Edition, tells of how ‘a lady whom he greatly admired once told him she used to own a set of variations on this theme but had lost them’. Beethoven ‘promptly composed his set for her and delivered them the next morning! He could, when necessary, compose extremely fast despite his reputation as a slow and painstaking worker’.

Thoughts

The six variations have an easy flow, the left and right hands often exchanging their melodic lines to keep things on the move. Beethoven’s first three variations move along effortlessly, before a slightly sorrowful fourth in the minor key, where the pronounced pause is really evident. Throughout the emphasis is on a vocal line, staying true to the context of Paisiello’s original.

As he often does Beethoven provides a direct contrast immediately after this, with an effervescent fifth variation and similarly bright sixth. The stream of consciousness, which works as a whole rather than six parts, is wrapped up very quickly.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Mikhail Pletnev

Rudolf Buchbinder

Cécile Ousset

Pletnev takes these variations at quite a lick, showing off his technical prowess but occasionally constricting the phrasing. Buchbinder and Ousset feel more natural in this respect, and again it is Ousset who has the most natural application, staying true to the theme’s origins as a vocal melody.

Also written in 1795 Hummel Piano Sonata no.8

Next up Variations on ‘Ich hab ein kleines Hüttchen nur’

Listening to Beethoven #92 – 9 variations on ‘Quant’e piu bello’

The young Ludwig van Beethoven (left) and Giovanni Paisiello

9 variations on ‘Quant’e piu bello’ WoO 69 for piano (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication not known
Duration 12′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

The theme is relatively simple but attractive, and a little playful towards the end.

Background and Critical Reception

This is another set of variations from Beethoven using a contemporary source for the theme. In this case it is an aria, Quant’e piu bello (How much more beautiful) from Paisiello’s opera L’amor contrastato (Doubtful Love). It is a bright theme in the key of A major.

Thoughts

These variations trip along very naturally, with more than a hint of play in each. Beethoven creates an illusion of the fingers of the right hand falling over each other in the first variation, but cannot resist the temptation to open up the accelerator for the second!

The fourth variation takes a serious countenance and moves to the minor key, but no sooner has it done that then the smile is back and the music is tripping along.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Cécile Ousset (Eloquence)

Rudolf Buchbinder (Warner Classics)

Ronald Brautigam (BIS)

Three excellent versions. Ousset’s recordings of Beethoven variations are some of her finest achievements, and her poise here is enviable. Ronald Brautigam offers a direct contrast on the fortepiano, though he suffers a little from a very roomy acoustic.

Also written in 1795 Hummel Piano Sonata no.8

Next up 6 Variations on ”Nel cor piu non mi sento”

Listening to Beethoven #91 – 12 variations on a Menuett à la Vìganò


The young Ludwig van Beethoven (left) and Maria Sophia Weber, wife of the composer Jakob Haibel, for whom no picture could be found

12 variations on a Menuett à la Vìganò WoO 68 for piano (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication not known
Duration 12′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

Despite being called a Menuett, and having a triple time lilt, the theme actually has four beats in the bar. This creates a bit of tension but some intriguing cross rhythms too.

Background and Critical Reception

It has been a little while since we heard from Beethoven in the ‘Variations’ discipline, for piano at least. He had certainly not forsaken the form, however, this set being one of at least four he completed in 1795. The theme is from a Menuet from the successful ballet Le nozze disturbate, written by Jakob Haibel (1762-1826) in the same year. Haibel was an Austrian composer, tenor and choirmaster.

Jean-Charles Hoffelé, writing in the booklet note for Cécile Ousset’s superb Decca recordings of variations by Beethoven, gives out plenty of compliments. For him, the variations ‘apply a piquant inventiveness to this dance, popularised at Vienna’s Theater auf der Wieden, beyond the city’s fortifications. Beethoven transforms the ternary rhythm of the dance into an astonishing scherzo’.

Thoughts

Another terrifically entertaining set of Beethoven variations. The first variation is like a peal of bells, then a flurry of right hand activity takes us into a thrilling second variation, Beethoven really pressing down on the accelerator. The tempo choices vary wildly as we progress, moving through a solemn but quite stilted minor key variation (no.4) and a brisk march (no.5).

The eighth variation has an attractive lilt, but no.9 could hardly be more different as it hits some really gruff, bass heavy chords that feel like pure Beethoven – and which are further emphasised by the pause written by the composer to make them last longer.

Sparkling interplay between the hands characterises variation no.10, before the twelfth and final variation plays out between two very different voices, one serene and the other impatient. The coda settles to a quiet and rather moving conclusion

Recordings used and Spotify links

Cécile Ousset (Eloquence)

Rudolf Buchbinder (Warner Classics)

Mikhail Pletnev (Deutsche Grammophon)

All three of these recordings are excellent, but Ousset just has the extra magical touch, the listener hanging on every note of her 1975 Decca recording.

Also written in 1795 Hummel Piano Sonata no.8

Next up 9 Variations on ‘Quant’e piu bello’

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