Perfect Songs – The Bluetones: Slight Return

by Ben Hogwood

The BluetonesSlight Return was released 25 years ago today.

From a personal point I remember it well. I was searching for employment in the backwaters of Norfolk and 1996 was one of the greyest January months you can imagine, thick cloud stretching across the Fens as far as the eye could see, which was not very far.

In the midst of this Britpop had already established a firm footing in the UK singles charts thanks to Blur, Oasis and Pulp, and Radio 1’s Evening Session was providing a lifeline of quality new music, either in thrall to those three or forging new paths on the electronica side of things.

The Bluetones had already established themselves as gifted tunesmiths with Bluetonic in 1995, but Slight Return took them up a level.

Why is it a perfect song?

To get all musical, the harmonies on Slight Return are sublime. Listen to the first two chords strummed by the guitars in the first five seconds of the song. The first (D major) sets a bright picture; the second chord simply adds one note – a C# – which opens up all sorts of new possibilities. Having sung “Where did you go?”, vocalist Mark Morriss has set the scene for his story, and the C# opens the music up to give him the chance to tell it in full.

From here the song is rather wonderful, Morriss’s earnest vocal supported by jangly guitars that take the music round in a couple of exquisite circles. The music stops whenever we come back to those two chords we heard at the beginning – all acting as natural punctuation for the story.

The words of the chorus are radio-friendly gold, too – “You don’t have to have the solution, You’ve got to understand the problem” – with a curious word accent that works really well.

The catchy chorus and verse match each other, with a lovely instrumental break that brings the guitars to the fore. The last chorus is even better, Morriss repeating the joyful refrain “I’m coming home” several times then countering it with “…just for a short while” and a lovely harmonic shift. That sets the scene for a breezy coda, this time using a C# right before the end, which leads to a ‘D’ for perfect closure.

Do you agree? Have a listen here:

Perfect Songs is a new occasional series from Arcana. If you have any suggestions for the series, or would like to contribute to it, get in touch – editor@arcana.fm

Listening to Beethoven #102 – Abschiedsgesang an Wiens Bürger WoO 121


Peanuts comic strip, drawn by Charles M. Schulz (c)PNTS

Abschiedsgesang an Wiens Bürger for voice and piano (1794-6, Beethoven aged 25)

Dedication not known
Text Josef Friedelberg

Duration 2’45”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

It is interesting and slightly curious that Beethoven should set Josef Friedelberg’s poem Abschiedsgesang an Wiens Bürger (Song of Farewell to the Citizens of Vienna on the Departure of the Flag Division of the Viennese Voluntary Corps) while seemingly away from the city himself. The date of composition is given as November 1796, just as he was on the point of returning from Berlin and the successful premiere of his two Sonatas for cello and piano.

The uncredited booklet for Capriccio’s complete edition of the Beethoven songs puts its composition in context. ‘The Beethoven of the songs for voice and piano is thus less concerned with establishing his own artistic autonomy than with serving music lovers with compositions in accordance with their expectations and possibilities. This explains why he kept the technical requirements for playing the piano movement to a low to moderate standard, and also the fact that he set texts to music as a favour to people, or when commissioned to do so, which explains the choice of many of the poems’.

Thoughts

This song for lower voices and piano is a red-blooded offering, with a fulsome vocal from the male soloist as the piano sets the march tempo. Then there is a brisk intervention from the male chorus as a refrain. The song feels nationalistic, especially with the choir, and is designed as a basic but bracing ensemble piece.

Recording used and Spotify link

Hermann Prey (baritone), Leonard Hokanson (piano), Berlin Heinrich Schütz Choir / Wolfgang Matkowitz

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 1796 Cramer Piano Concerto no.2 in D minor Op.16

Next up Ah! Perfido Op.65

Listening to Beethoven #101 – Sonata for piano and cello no.2 in G minor Op.5/2


Jean-Pierre Duport, cellist and composer – print made by Baron Dominique Vivant Denon

Sonata no.2 for piano and cello in G minor Op.5/2 (1796, Beethoven aged 25)

Dedication Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia
Duration 27′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven and Jean-Louis Duport are thought to have performed both Op.5 sonatas for piano and cello at the court of King Frederick William II between 20 May and 3 July 1796 in Berlin. Nothing is known of the performances themselves, which are thought to have been private affairs – though the cellist’s brother, Jean-Pierre (above) would almost certainly have been in attendance.

The second of Beethoven’s ‘duo for a new duo’ is a very different work to its partner, and yet, as Marc D. Moskovitz and R. Larry Todd write in their superb book Beethoven’s Cello, ‘one could hardly imagine one without the other’.

Here we find Beethoven working in the key of G minor for the first time in his published output, a tonality to which he would hardly return across his entire output. He marks the occasion with a language we have not heard in his chamber music before. For, as Steven Isserlis writes in his booklet notes for Hyperion, the work ‘takes us firmly into the opera house’. He notes the theatrical aspects of the music throughout, from the grand introduction – ‘practically a full movement in its own right’ where ‘the lengthy silences seem to hover over a chasm of darkness’. This leads to a full-blown Allegro, described as ‘the most explosive (and surely the longest) movement of any duo sonata written up till that time’. The finale is a different beast, its protagonists off the leash and cavorting around the stage. Isserlis tells of how ‘He plays with the listener, reprising every possible section almost to the point of eye-rolling (was he being paid by the minute?!)’

Despite their chalk and cheese nature there are qualities common to both Op.5 works. Beethoven does not use a slow movement in either, meaning the only truly slow music we hear is towards the start of each piece. He uses quick, showy third movements, carefree and fast, wrapping up each of the pieces with memorable tunes.

Moskovitz and Todd declare that by the end of Beethoven’s two Op.5 sonatas, he had ‘single-handedly altered the history of the instrument, and changed forever how composers viewed and exploited its potential. Beethoven had written music fit for a king, but in the process created works that ennobled the composer’s art.’

Thoughts

The G minor sonata is a remarkable work, an ideal counterpart to its high spirited companion. There is a lot more shade in Beethoven’s writing here, perhaps inevitably given his choice of a minor key, but as Steven Isserlis says there is a great deal of authentic theatricality.

The introduction is truly dramatic, the piano pacing around impatiently as the cello leads with profound musical statements. Then the music settles on a ‘pedal’ note which gets increasingly tense, waiting to break out into the Allegro.

Once this part of the work begins, the listener is propelled forward towards Brahms in the way the cello and piano interact, using melodies ripe for expansive development. Passionate exchanges follow, a wholly absorbing set of musical ideas. Sometimes the cello is shadowed by the inner parts of the piano; at other times the keyboard is allowed to run free in a display of virtuosity, but Beethoven writes a taut musical argument which is wholly engaging.

The finale trips along in the major key, sporting lighter thematic ideas. Beethoven is out to have fun, but here he is looking forward again. This music sounds very similar in content to the finale of a much later piece, the Piano Concerto no.4 – also in G major. How versatile Beethoven’s thoughts were to become!

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Steven Isserlis (cello), Robert Levin (fortepiano) (Hyperion)
Heinrich Schiff (cello), Till Fellner (piano) (Philips)
Miklós Perenyi (cello), András Schiff (piano) (ECM)
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello), Sviatoslav Richter (piano) (Decca)
Pierre Fournier (cello), Wilhelm Kempff (piano) (DG)

As with Op.5/1, the playlist below contains a handful of recordings of the piece, including Mstislav Rostropovich and Sviatoslav Richter, Heinrich Schiff and Till Felner. Miklós Perenyi and András Schiff and Pierre Fournier and Wilhelm Kempff. Fournier and Kempff give a passionate performance, Perenyi and Schiff live closer to the edge – but as with Op.5/1 I return to fortepianist Robert Levin and cellist Steven Isserlis, their reading jumping off the page as it alternates between power and affectionate tenderness.

The below playlist includes most of the recordings mentioned above save Isserlis and Levin – to hear clips from this you can visit the Hyperion 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 1796 Haydn – B-flat major, Hob.XXII:10

Next up Abschiedsgesang an Wiens Bürger

Listening to Beethoven #100 – Sonata for piano and cello no.1 in F major Op.5/1


Jean-Louis Duport, cellist and composer – portrait by Remi-Fursy Descarsin

Sonata no.1 for piano and cello in F major Op.5/1 (1796, Beethoven aged 25)

Dedication Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia
Duration 25′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Before Beethoven, the cello was an instrument with its roots in accompaniment. The first edition of Bach’s solo suites was yet to appear. Some composers, notably Vivaldi and Boccherini, brought the instrument forward in wonderful solo concertos, and wrote sonatas with harpsichord for private use. However neither Haydn nor Mozart wrote for the instrument in a singular capacity. Haydn’s piano trios assign the cello faithfully to the bass line, while the string quartets of both composers rarely elevated its profile. Notable exceptions occur in Mozart’s last three quartets, written for Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia.

Five years after Mozart’s death, Beethoven paid a visit to the King’s court in Berlin, where two cellist brothers were working – Jean-Pierre and Jean-Louis Duport. To honour the occasion Beethoven composed a pair of substantial sonatas published as Op.5 and explicitly stated to be ‘for piano with cello’. It is thought the younger Duport, Jean-Louis, gave the premiere of both Op.5 works, with Beethoven himself taking on the challenges of the piano part.

The composer’s aim was to unite the two instruments in the way Mozart had done through his sonatas for piano and violin, though as Steven Isserlis notes in his writing for Hyperion, Op.5 no.1 is more like a concerto for the two. In his foreword for the thoroughly engaging book Beethoven’s Cello, by Marc D. Moskovitz and R. Larry Todd, Isserlis describes how Beethoven was ‘rattling the cage of classicism’ with these two works.

The book proceeds with a forensic but wholly accessible look at this piece and its innovations, not to mention its instinctive and joyful writing for the instruments. ‘For the first time ever, the cello and piano, collaborating as equals, begin the conversation together, in unison’. The dotted-note style is ‘a patent reference to the royal dedicatee, the Prussian monarch’, leading to an Allegro that has ‘an abrupt about-face…a playfully buoyant piano theme’.

The Allegro is the main body of the work, and is complemented by a Rondo third movement where, as the book explains, Beethoven ‘again stretched his musical canvas’, broadening the structure of a typical Rondo (where three different ideas appear in the order ABACABA) to incorporate yet more melodic ideas.

Thoughts

This is one of the most original statements in Beethoven’s music so far. As he did in the Op.1 piano trios, Beethoven is using a relatively new form to broaden his means of musical expression, this time using a form completely untouched by Haydn and Mozart. Here he has the freedom to set his own rules as well as expand the previous ones.

The shock of the new runs through this piece. Beethoven appears to have been intoxicated by the freedom of writing for the cello in a solo capacity, and for such a distinguished dedicatee. He takes risks, leaving no stone unturned while exploring the relationship between the two instruments. At his disposal are many memorable tunes, worked with daring twists and turns through far ranging harmonies and textures.

You can sense the composer literally rubbing his hands as he presents both the Duport brother and himself a fiendish but ultimately surmountable set of musical posers.

The introduction of Op.5 no.1 would have raised a few eyebrows at the first performance, and still does when you consider, as Steven Isserlis noted, that ‘Beethoven was practically inventing the medium as he wrote’. The slow introduction establishes the partnership and a genial atmosphere. It is fully realised in a substantial and joyous Allegro where cello and piano trade thoughts and literally bounce off each other, bursting with enthusiasm.

Looking at the timings for the movements suggests an imbalance, with a first movement of a quarter of an hour (including the introduction) and a second movement of 7 minutes, but there is no suggestion of this at all in listening to the work. The third movement is bright and lively, with one of those tunes you end up whistling in the street after a concert, and there are more opportunities for both instrumentalists to demonstrate their skill in the king’s presence. Beethoven moves them to distant keys towards the end, playing with his audience as he anticipates the final straight.

This is wonderful music, giving its listener both then and today the fullest possible sense of discovery. Piano and cello form a true partnership, with Beethoven once again showing his ability for true innovation. This is another form transformed – with many more to come!

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Steven Isserlis (cello), Robert Levin (fortepiano) (Hyperion)
Heinrich Schiff (cello), Till Fellner (piano) (Philips)
Miklós Perenyi (cello), András Schiff (piano) (ECM)
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello), Sviatoslav Richter (piano) (Decca)
Pierre Fournier (cello), Wilhelm Kempff (piano) (DG)

The playlist below contains a handful of recordings of this piece, from notable duos such as Mstislav Rostropovich and Sviatoslav Richter, Heinrich Schiff and Till Felner. Miklós Perenyi and András Schiff and Pierre Fournier and Wilhelm Kempff. All those listed are brilliant partnerships, compelling from first moment to last – especially Perenyi and Schiff. Yet the one I return to most often is the partnership between fortepianist Robert Levin and cellist Steven Isserlis, playing the music as though it was written yesterday in an account of spontaneity and joy.

The below playlist includes all the recordings mentioned above save Isserlis and Levin – to hear clips from this you can visit the Hyperion 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 1796 Haydn –  Mass in C major, Hob.XXII:9 Missa in tempore belli (‘Mass in Time of War’)

Next up Sonata for piano and cello in G minor Op.5/2

Listening to Beethoven #99 – Opferlied Hess 145


Friedrich von Matthison – portrait by Ferdinand Hartmann

Opferlied Hess 145 for voice and piano (1796, Beethoven aged 25)

Dedication not known
Text Friedrich von Matthisson
Duration 3′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

This is our second encounter with a text Beethoven was to set four, maybe even five times in the course of his life – and it is his second setting in a year, following the version tagged as WoO 121. The poet Friedrich von Matthisson has also featured previously in his output – through the cornerstone song Adelaide – but now the Opferlied (‘Song of Sacrifice’) appears in a setting for lower voice and piano. As the Unheard Beethoven site points out, it would be finally completed to the composer’s satisfaction when properly published as Op.121b in 1824.

The text stayed with him from now until the end of his life – and again we refer to Unheard Beethoven for noting that it runs hand-in-hand with Ode an die Freude, the Ode to Joy, as a text the composer was mildly obsessed with.

Thoughts

This setting of the Opferlied pairs singer and pianist closely – the right hand of the keyboard shadowing the melody almost throughout. The tempo is slow but the song seems to end a bit too soon, perhaps reflecting its unpublished status.

As with the first version there are strong hymn-like moments in Beethoven’s writing, the singer transported by his text.

Recordings used

Paul Armin Edelmann (baritone), Bernadette Bartos (piano) (Naxos)

Seemingly the only available recording of this version of Opferlied, the performance has a nice poise in the hands of Paul Armin Edelmann and Bernadette Bartos.

Spotify link

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 1796 Boieldieu –  Duet no.2 in B flat major for harp and piano

Next up Sonata for piano and cello in F major Op.5/1