Listening to Beethoven #81 – String Quintet in E flat major Op.4

View of the Kohlmarkt from Michael-platz by Karl Schütz (18th century)

String Quintet in E flat major Op.4 (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

1. Allegro con brio
2. Andante 3. Menuetto più Allegretto – Trio 4. Presto

Dedication unknown
Duration 29’30”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

In which Beethoven returns to his Octet for wind in E flat major, eventually published as Op.103. At this point however the work was only privately known, so Beethoven followed the example of Mozart in reworking a work for wind ensemble for string quintet, part of a response to a double commission from Count Apponyi. Mozart’s revised work was the conversion of the Serenade in C minor K388, also for octet, into the String Quintet published as K406.

In spite of their acknowledged quality, Beethoven’s two string quintets are relatively neglected, in spite of their acknowledged quality. In them Beethoven skirts around the string quartet, writing for it directly but disguising his efforts either with the addition of two horns or an extra viola. In a sense he was playing it safe until fully ready to enter a pressurised arena.

Lewis Lockwood notes how Beethoven’s String Quintet makes considerable advances on the music of the Octet. “Especially revealing of Beethoven’s musical growth from the final apprentice years to his first true maturity in Vienna is his revision of the Wind Octet as a String Quintet”, he writes. “The whole revision – which is no mere arrangement but a true recomposition – exemplifies Beethoven’s command even more than does his use of Bonn material in the piano sonatas of Op.2.”

Richard Wigmore writes perceptive notes for the recording made by the Nash Ensemble for Hyperion. He notes Beethoven’s new-found maturity to be ‘not least because of his intensive contact with Haydn’s latest symphonies and string quartets’, and shows how those encounters are manifested in the Quintet. “No-one could guess”, he says, “that this music – or large tracts of it – was not originally conceived for strings.”

Thoughts

The neglect in which the Op.4 string quintet is held is surprising, given its obvious quality. Pleasant though the material for the wind octet is, this feels like a real step up in terms of structural command and instrumental invention. The mood is much more purposeful, the dialogue between the strings containing music of deep substance and featuring impressive development of Beethoven’s themes.

The first movement is tautly argued, its ten minutes passing quickly with concentrated musical thought. The second movement finds a much more tender spot, a lovely Andante where time slows and the subject becomes more lyrical.

The scherzo is closely linked to the Octet, and its theme flits across the five instruments, an insistent rhythm working away like a persistent insect. The big difference is in the two trio sections. The first is what seems like a throwaway phrase that Beethoven works between the parts beautifully, while the second – for quartet alone – is quite chromatic, the melody sliding by step but very fluid in its execution.

The finale is quick and wraps up the quintet with a nice balance of wit and purpose.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Nash Ensemble [Marianne Thorsen, Malin Broman (violins), Lawrence Power, Philip Dukes (violas), Paul Watkins (cello)] (Hyperion)

Endellion String Quartet [Andrew Watkinson, Ralph de Souza (violins), Garfield Jackson (viola), David Waterman (cello)], David Adams (viola) (Warner Classics)

Two excellent recordings.

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 1795 Haydn Symphony no.103 in E flat major ‘Drum Roll’

Next up Seufzer eines Ungeliebten und Gegenliebe

Listening to Beethoven #80 – Sextet in E flat major Op.81b


University square in Vienna by Bernardo Bellotto (18th century)

Sextet in E flat major Op.81b for 2 horns and string quartet (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

1. Allegro con brio

Dedication unknown
Duration 17′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

In his early twenties Beethoven wrote a good deal of music for wind instruments, staying close to the ‘Serenade’ and ‘Divertimento’ forms perfected by Mozart. The combination for this particular work is quite unusual, with the two horns and string quartet unmatched in any other composition. The only comparable instrumentation would seem to be Mozart’s Horn Quintet in E flat major from 1782.

Peter Holman, in his booklet notes for the Gaudier Ensemble’s recording on Hyperion, speculates that the work may have been written for performance by Nicholas Simrock, a friend of Beethoven’s since their days at the orchestra in Bonn in 1789. Simrock published the work in 1810 with the misleading Op.81b, suggesting a composition date much later than the actual year of 1795.

The work brings the two horns to the front, giving them plenty of opportunity for display – and often has the horns and string quartet as opposing or complementary forces.

Thoughts

This is a light-hearted work, very undemanding for the listener – but pleasant too, with plenty of easy natured tunes. Sometimes it feels like Beethoven is just trying out the agility of the horns, while other times he writes unexpectedly moving music. Some of the horn lines in the slow movement in particular, a lovely reverie in A flat major, are sublime, as are the colours Beethoven achieves with the richness of the horns and the strings.

The third movement has something of the hunt about it, from the opening theme on the horn, but it also shifts to the minor key for quite a big section in the middle, exposing a mournful theme from one of the horns. There are some lovely low notes towards the end, part of a pretty rigorous technical challenge for both horn players.

Overall though the Sextet has a lovely communal feel, an undemanding but quite substantial work – and occupies quite a unique spot with its instrumental combination.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Members of the Berlin Philharmonic Octet (Philips)
Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble (Philips)
L’Archibudelli (Sony)
Gewandhaus Quartet, Hermann Baumann, Vladimir Dshambasov (horns) (Deutsche Grammophon)

The older recordings from the Members of the Berlin Philharmonic Octet and the Gewandhaus Quartet show their age a little, with quite grainy string sound, and with the DG recording the two groups feel very separate. The L’Archibudelli version, on period instruments, is really enjoyable, and the slightly unpredictable horn tuning adds a touch of authenticity. The ASMF Chamber Ensemble are excellent in this repertoire, beautifully poised and balanced.

The Spotify playlist below collects the recordings used:

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 1795 Frederich Witt Horn Concerto in E flat major

Next up String Quintet in E flat major Op.4

Listening to Beethoven #79 – Rondo a capriccio in G major, ‘Rage over a lost penny’


2020 Germany €20 Silver Coin Issue Ludwig van Beethoven 250 Years

Rondo a capriccio in G major Op.129, ‘Rage over a lost penny’ for piano (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication not known
Duration 5’30”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

The title of this piece is wholly misleading. The Rondo a capriccio element is certainly correct, but, as Barry Cooper writes in his notes for Deutsche Grammophon’s New Complete Beethoven Edition, ‘the popular title The Rage Over the Lost Penny is on the original manuscript, though not in Beethoven’s handwriting, and it is not clear whether he sanctioned it’.

The late opus number, 129, suggests it is contemporaneous with Beethoven’s late string quartets – but the piece was completed in 1795 and not published in his lifetime. Cooper writes of how it was ‘found amongst his papers after his death in a not-quite-finished state. Diabelli bought the manuscript, made the necessary additions and published it shortly afterwards’.

Alan Tyson, writing in The Beethoven Companion, notes how it was rare for Beethoven to leave works unpublished if he felt they would have musical or monetary value. ‘A small work like the Rondo A Capriccio’, he writes, ‘may have been kept for concert use and then overlooked when he had outgrown it and had lost interest in it’.

Thoughts

Irrespective of whether or not he coined the nickname (sorry – Ed!) Beethoven’s powers of description are right on point here. The use of a Rondo form (where the main ‘A’ theme keeps recurring as the main part of an A-B-A-C-A-B-A structure) is ideal, as through it the intense frustration of losing something, and not finding it despite repetitive searching, can be fully expressed.

It is a catchy theme, too, suitable for playing at high speed – and as the piece goes on so the speed becomes a whirlwind, the music amusing but also potentially annoying! Again Beethoven’s writing captures the moment perfectly in what is one of his most memorable short piano pieces.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Artur Schnabel (Naxos)

Anatol Ugorski (Deutsche Grammophon)

Evgeny Kissin (BMG)

Ronald Brautigam (BIS)

Artur Schnabel gives a sparkling performance, the quickness of the fingers an absolute delight as the lost penny eludes capture! The final page is brilliantly chaotic, and the recorded sound – remarkably for a 1937 recording made in Abbey Road Studio 3 – stands up really well. Anatol Ugorski is nearly a minute longer but is still excellent in his execution, with crisp digital sound – which Evgeny Kissin also benefits from in a technically superb account. Ronald Brautigam, on a fortepiano, gives a thrilling performance.

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 1795 Clementi 2 Piano Sonatas and 2 Capriccios, Op. 34

Next up Sextet in E flat major Op.81b

Listening to Beethoven #78 – 6 Minuets for orchestra (arr. Beyer)

The Grosse Redoutensaal (Grand Ballroom) of the Hofburg Imperial Palace in Vienna Engraving by Joseph Schütz

6 Minuets, WoO 10 for orchestra (1795, Beethoven aged 24. Arranged by Franz Beyer)

no.1 in C major
no.2 in G major
no.3 in E flat major
no.4 in B flat major
no.5 in C major
no.6 in D major

Dedication not known
Duration 11′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s six minuets of 1795, our first encounter with him working as a composer of dances ‘to order’, were written for an unknown combination of instruments. The only surviving version in his hand is for solo piano, so respected scholar Franz Beyer made an arrangement for orchestra, an imagination of what Beethoven might have written for the bigger stage.

Thoughts

The orchestrations are attractive, Beyer working with a small orchestra to deliver arrangements that sound to these ears like a close approximation of what Beethoven himself would have written. The lively third minuet comes off particularly well in its full arrangement, as does the genial fourth. The sixth is full bodied, like the minuet of a late Haydn symphony.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Philharmonia Hungarica / Hans Ludwig Hirsch (Warner Classics)

The performances here are nicely weighted, if a little slow at times. The celebrated Minuet in G in particular is given at a pedestrian speed, but after acclimatising the ear takes that as a graceful dance.

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 1795 Gyrowetz Three Flute Quartets Op.11

Next up Rondo in G major WoO129 ‘Rage over a lost penny’

In concert – April Frederick, English String Orchestra / Kenneth Woods: Visions of Childhood – Following Mahler on the path to eternity

April Frederick (soprano), Members of the English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods

Mahler arr. Stein Symphony no.4 in G major (1900) – Opening
Wagner arr. Woods Siegfried Idyll (1870)
Humperdinck arr. Woods Hänsel und Gretel (1892) – Der Kleine Sandmann; Abendsegen.
Schubert arr. Woods Die Forelle – Lied and Variations, D550/D667 (1817/19)
Mahler arr. Woods Das Irdische Leben (1892)
Schubert arr. Woods Der Tod und das Mädchen – Variations & Lied, D531/D810 (1817/24)
Mahler arr. Stein Das Himmlische Leben (1892/1900)

Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth
Friday 16 October (review of the online broadcast)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

The English Symphony Orchestra’s Music from Wyastone online series continued this evening with an ingenious programme centred on Childhood, as depicted in music from the latter 19th century, and featuring chamber arrangements by the orchestra’s principal conductor Kenneth Woods.

The initial bars of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, heard in the now relatively familiar reduction by Erwin Stein, led seamlessly into Siegfried Idyll – here arranged for identical forces and so affording even greater prominence to Wagner’s felicitous writing for woodwind. In this never rushed account, Woods underlined the methodical aspect of music whose birthday association and ethereal aura rather bely its formal ingenuity. There were no qualms over instrumentation, even if the trumpet’s timely presence might have made the ecstatic climax seem even more so.

April Fredrick (whose impressive account of Strauss’s Four Last Songs in the first of these concerts is required listening) then took the stage for a medley drawn from the second act of Humperdinck’s timeless Hänsel und Gretel, trebling up as the Sandman and then both main characters in a reminder that the enchanting essence of this opera is seldom without its more ambivalent, even ominous undertones in the treatment of childhood. Moreover, this chamber reduction brought an intimacy that more closely aligned the music to its origins as a singspiel.

Of especial interest were two Schubert pieces – hardly unfamiliar in themselves, here given an unexpected while revealing guise. In the case of The Trout, this entailed interweaving the verses of the song with those variations of the fourth movement from the later piano quintet so as to make more explicit the constantly shifting emotions across what is often considered one of this composer’s most equable settings. A different procedure was adopted for Death and the Maiden, in which the slow movement of Schubert’s eponymous string quartet – its intensifying variations characterized by appealing woodwind contributions – were followed by the earlier song, heralded by the hieratic strains of harmonium, and whose mingling of anguish with resignation threw the variations’ emotional trajectory into more acute relief.

Following each of these items were songs by Mahler, the natural successor to Schubert in so many aspects of his music – not least these settings of texts from Des knaben Wunderhorn. In its pivoting between the child’s supplications and the mother’s entreaties, over the fateful strains of a ceaseless ‘treadmill’ accompaniment, The Earthly Life is one of this composer’s most evocative songs – albeit of the child’s existence running out as though grains of sand. By contrast, The Heavenly Life speaks of a child’s paradisal existence in the afterlife and if Mahler’s treatment is a good deal more complex than the words might suggest (the singer’s assessment of this on the ESO website is worth hearing), Fredrick’s judicious floating of the vocal line was integrated with Wood’s astute handling of the ensemble to good effect.

Hearing the latter piece in Stein’s reduction as finale of the Fourth Symphony served equally to bring this well-planned and thought-provoking programme full circle; one that is required listening for those yet to hear it, and with the next concert in this series keenly anticipated.
This concert can be accessed free until the end of Tuesday 22 September at the English Symphony Orchestra website

Further information about the Music from Wyastone series can be found here