Listening to Beethoven #117 – Quintet for piano and wind in E flat major Op.16


The Freyung in Vienna, from the North-West by Bernardo Bellotto (1758)

Quintet for piano and wind in E flat major Op.16 for piano, clarinet, oboe, horn and bassoon (1796-7, Beethoven aged 26)

1. Grave – Allegro ma non troppo
2. Andante cantabile
3. Rondo (Allegro ma non troppo)

Dedication unknown
Duration 28′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

On his return to Vienna after the successful Berlin trip, Beethoven ‘settled down to a relatively calm life’, writes Daniel Heartz, ‘where he had many well-paying piano pupils, especially young ladies of noble rank. His health was good, and he was composing some of his most charming chamber music at the time.’

Examples of that charm can be found in the Quintet for piano and wind, where we find Beethoven returning to E flat major – his ‘go to’ key for wind. The work is modelled on Mozart’s Quintet in E flat major K452, completed in 1784 for the same instrumental combination of piano, clarinet, oboe, horn and bassoon. One of Beethoven’s closest friends, Hungarian cellist Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovecz, had the autograph score of the Mozart, from where Beethoven took his acquaintance.

Each work is similar in form, cast in three movements. There is a slow introduction to the first movement, a slow movement in B flat major, and a carefree Rondo to finish. Yet the writing itself remains individual, and Richard Wigmore observes how ‘Beethoven…characteristically sets the piano and wind quartet in opposition, so that the outer movements at times resemble a chamber concerto for piano and wind’.

Lewis Lockwood is more critical, lamenting a lack of drama and passion in the first movement when comparing it with the Sonata for piano and cello in G minor Op.5/2. ‘The quality improves in the beautiful opening theme of its slow movement’, he says, but the finale is found ‘lacking Mozart’s perfect blend of imagination and restraint’.

The quintet was premiered on 6 April 1797, at a concert in Ignaz Jahn’s restaurant in Vienna.

Thoughts

It is true, the Quintet is less dramatic than the Cello Sonata – but the two are surely written for very different audiences. This piece would have been for more domestic, intimate music making among friends rather than trying to impress royalty – and its warm textures and collaboration between the quintet confirms that.

As with all the works for wind we have encountered so far, the sonorities are lovely – right from the stately and serious introduction, given in unison by all five instruments. Soon this cuts to a jovial Allegro with winsome melodies. The second movement is a lovely contemplation, introduced by the piano before the lovely sonority of the wind instruments appears once more. There is a lovely horn solo halfway through that steals the show.

The third movement has the catchiest theme, and as it is a Rondo we hear it often, dancing with an attractive turn of foot. It is one of Beethoven’s best earworms so far.

The Beethoven and Mozart quintets fit together hand in glove, which is why they appear on disc together so often. Yet Beethoven’s is a complement rather than a copy, a charming work both to play and to listen to.

Recordings and Spotify link

Pascal Rogé (piano), London Winds [Michael Collins (clarinet), Gareth Hulse (oboe), Richard Watkins (horn), Robin O’Neill (bassoon)]

Gaudier Ensemble [(Susan Tomes (piano), Richard Hosford (clarinet), Douglas Boyd (oboe), Jonathan Williams (horn), Robin O’Neill (bassoon)

Robert Levin (fortepiano), Academy of Ancient Music Chamber Ensemble [Antony Pay (clarinet), Frank de Bruine (oboe), Anthony Halstead (horn), Danny Bond (bassoon)

There is a lovely warm glow to the Gaudier Ensemble slow movement, with flowing piano and a Rondo that dances lightly. The colours are a little sharper in the period instrument version from Robert Levin and the Academy of Ancient Music Chamber Ensemble, but this adds more primary colours to the music, with an appealing rasp to the horn and a crisp clarity to the clarinet, oboe and bassoon

Minute-long clips from the Gaudier Ensemble recording can be heard on the Hyperion website here

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 1797 Haydn 6 String Quartets, Op.76 (The Erdödy Quartets)

Next up Piano Quartet in E flat major Op.16

Listening to Beethoven #116 – 2 Rondos Op.51


Max Klinger´s Beethoven monument in Leipzig (1902)

2 Rondos Op.51 for piano (thought to be from 1796-7, Beethoven aged 26)

no.1 in C major
no.2 in G major

Dedication Countess Henriette von Lichnowsky (no.2)
Duration 15′

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Background and Critical Reception

In the 1790s Beethoven only assigned an opus number to new works in a ‘sonata’ form, while compositions such as these two Rondos had to wait until later for publication. Very little is written about them in Beethoven tomes, other than the second piece carrying a dedication to Countess Henriette von Lichnowsky.

The two pieces were seemingly written apart, but dates are inconclusive. Keith Anderson, writing in the booklet notes for Jenő Jandó’s Naxos recording, looks at the musical content. On no.1, ‘marked Moderato e grazioso, it offers a principal theme in characteristic singing style, contrasted in particular with a more dramatic C minor episode, after which the main theme returns in various guises.’

On the second, ‘with the opening direction Andante cantabile e grazioso, the rondo contains an E major episode of greater brilliance and further contrast before the final varied return of the main theme.’

Thoughts

Keith Anderson’s observation on the singing style of the first Rondo rings true. It has grace and poise, occasionally feels like it’s going to break out into more of a dance piece but otherwise is elegant…until the second section, where an unexpectedly fierce C minor asserts itself. There is a Mozartian simplicity at play in the way Beethoven makes a little go a long way.

The second rondo, a substantial piece lasting nearly ten minutes, is also quite graceful in its main theme but has these intriguing, flickering scales that travel up through the parts. The section ‘B’, in the relatively distant key of E major, feels like an exploration towards the unknown. There is a bit of an outburst, before eventually returning to the relative safety of the main material.

Both pieces are an assertion of Beethoven’s confidence in writing graceful but substantial material, showing he can comfortably hold the listener’s interest through an economy of works. They already feel like subtle pointers towards his later style.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Radu Lupu (Decca)
Alfred Brendel (Decca, no.1)
Ronald Brautigam (BIS)
Jenő Jandó (Naxos)
Rudolf Buchbinder (Teldec)
Olli Mustonen (BMG)

Some excellent versions here…but time and again I found myself returning to Radu Lupu for his compelling playing.

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 1797 Dussek Duet for harp and piano Op.38

Next up Quintet for piano and wind in E flat major Op.16

Listening to Beethoven #115 – Allegretto in C minor, WoO 53


Commemorative medal for Ludwig van Beethoven, around 1970. Photography, probably by Giandavide Tamborra after his plaster model for a medal, probably from 1970, Reproduced from the Beethoven-Haus Bonn with thanks.

Allegretto in C minor WoO 53 for piano (thought to be from 1796-7, Beethoven aged 26)

Dedication not known
Duration 4′

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Background and Critical Reception

There is very little written about this piece, but the few surviving notes suggest it might be an unpublished movement intended for the Piano Sonata no.5 in C minor, published as the first in the Op.10 set around this time.

Thoughts

The mood is pensive and quite downcast for the main theme of this short movement, and Beethoven develops it with the serious mood intact. Set in C minor, it is a thoughtful piece and on occasion has a bit of angst, especially when the heavier left-hand writing appears.

Having said that the clouds part beautifully for a theme in C major around half way through, where the darkness to light transition is very clear. Towards the end the music nearly stops, poised as though pondering its next move…before resolving in the minor key, in downbeat contemplation.

The Allegretto certainly feels like a piece without a home – and given the finished product that is Op.10/1 it is difficult to see where it would have fitted in. It makes a good miniature, though!

Recordings used and Spotify links

Alfred Brendel (Decca)
Gianluca Cascioli (Deutsche Grammophon)
Ronald Brautigam (BIS)
Jenő Jandó (Naxos)
Rudolf Buchbinder (Teldec)
Olli Mustonen (BMG)

Alfred Brendel is compelling in his version, turning the frowns to smiles as the C major theme appears. Gianluca Cascioli starts very deliberately before unleashing a considerable amount of angst around the 1 minute mark. Ronald Brautigam is swift, his phrasing clipped but urgent.

The attached playlist has six very different accounts of the Allegretto, from Brautigam to Jandó via Brendel, Cascioli, Buchbinder and Olli Mustonen:

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 1797 James Hewitt Piano Sonata in D major ‘The Battle of Trenton’

Next up Fra tutte le pene WoO 99/3b

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′

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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

Listening to Beethoven #113 – Duo for viola and cello in E flat major WoO 32, ‘Eyeglass Duo’


Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovecz, courtesy of Beethoven-Haus, Bonn

Duo for viola and cello in E flat major WoO 32, ‘Eyeglass Duo’ (1797, Beethoven aged 26)

1 Allegro
2 Minuetto

Dedication Nikolaus Zmeskall
Duration 14′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

This is a title to raise the eyebrows – and is one of the curious corners of Beethoven’s output for sure. Perhaps fortunately the eyeglasses are not used to make any music – not directly, at any rate – rather, they refer to the wearers of the eyeglasses, Beethoven himself (viola) and Nikolaus Zmeskall (cello).

Baron Zmeskall was an accomplished cellist and a good friend of Beethoven, and the piece seems to have been written for domestic use only. It is in two lopsided movements, with a substantial first movement full of interaction between the players and a much shorter Minuetto. Richard Wigmore writes of how ‘in the minuet, with its pawky canonic trio, Beethoven suddenly pulls the rug from under the listener’s feet, by veering from E flat to a remote C flat – just the kind of comic-mysterious effect he had learnt from Haydn’.

Thoughts

Beethoven would surely have been aware that Mozart wrote two accomplished – and underrated – duos for violin and viola, and possibly of the four sonatas Michael Haydn published for the combination in the same year, 1797. Working lower down the range, Mozart also wrote a Sonata for bassoon and cello, lasting roughly the same length as this piece.

Perhaps Beethoven was aware of these when writing this highly amenable duo – which presumably appeared in large print, given the sight limitations of the players! Listening to the bright and busy Allegro, the first movement of this piece, the listener can imagine how much pleasure it brought to the bespectacled music makers. It is a lively discourse where the two instruments are treated completely as equals. The writing could easily be lifted from a string quartet, and several times I found my ear was expecting two violins to appear in harmony. The Minuetto is good fun too, including the harmonic trick noted above.

It may be intended for domestic music making only but Beethoven’s craft is all too evident, and his wit too, in this enjoyable miniature.

Recordings used

Veronika Hagen (viola), Clemens Hagen (DG)
Lawrence Power (viola), Paul Watkins (Hyperion)
Jürgen Kussmaul (viola), Anner Bylsma (cello) (Sony Classical)

Three excellent performances, bringing through the elegance of the piece, its genial nature, and also its humourous touches. Kussmaul and Bylsma, on period instruments, have a relatively grainy sound which is still appealing.

Spotify link

Veronika & Clemens Hagen

Jürgen Kussmaul, Anner Bylsma

You can listen to clips from Lawrence Power and Paul Watkins’ version on the Hyperion website

written by Ben Hogwood

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 1797 Michael Haydn 4 Sonatas for Violin and Viola

Next up 12 Variations on the Russian Dance from ‘Das Waldmädchen’