Listening to Beethoven #188 – Symphony no.2 in D major Op.36


The Longing for Happiness. Left wall, detail from the Beethoven-Frieze (1902) by Gustav Klimt

Symphony no.2 in D major Op.36 for orchestra (1800-1802, Beethoven aged 31)

Dedication Karl Alois, Prince Lichnowsky
Duration 30′

1. Adagio molto – Allegro con brio
2. Larghetto
3. Scherzo: Allegro
4. Allegro molto

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s time in Heiligenstadt may have been difficult, but it yielded music of remarkable positivity in such testing situations. George Hall, writing booklet notes for Simax, sums up the situation neatly: ”What has proved remarkable to Beethoven’s biographers is that the (second) symphony, whose sketches date back to 1800 and whose finishing touches were probably added in 1803, was composed largely in the year that he wrote the famous Heiligenstadt testament. The fact that this document – in which Beethoven in his post-suicidal mood railed against his deafness and isolation in a letter – was conceived in the year of this predominantly happy and straightforward piece is considered paradoxical.’

‘Symphony no.2 is the main fruit of Beethoven’s labors in 1801-2 and is considered to be the culminating success of his early period’, writes Daniel Heartz. He gives an account of the premiere on 5 April 1803, which took place at the new Theater an der Wien, and included the hastily composed short oratorio Christus am Ölberge and also a new piano concerto, the third.

In a fascinating and detailed analysis, Heartz goes on to draw close links with Mozart‘s Symphony no.38, the Prague, which Beethoven greatly admired. Written in the same key, the two works share a broad Adagio introduction to the first movement, and a nearly identical instrumentation. The crucial difference here is that Beethoven adds clarinets in A, a distinctive part of the woodwind sound which makes such a difference to this symphony.

The second symphony would probably have been, to date, the longest symphony yet published – a quality acknowledged by Allegmeine Musikalische Zeitung of Leipzig, in their 1804 appraisal. ‘It is’, their critic wrote, ‘a noteworthy, colossal work (the biggest so far), whose profundity, strength and artistic understanding are very rare, and presents difficulties from the point of view of execution…that certainly no previous symphony has offered.’

Heartz identifies it as ‘a watershed for its composer, the last of his big works in which he looked to Haydn and Mozart for inspiration.’ Later, he notes that when ‘the London Philharmonic Society invited Beethoven to compose a symphony in the style of the first and second symphonies’, it was ‘an offer that deeply offended the composer, who indignantly refused. There can scarcely be more striking confirmation than this that a corner was turned after 1802.’

Thoughts

If you approached this piece cold, there is no way you would know it was written by a man whose grip on life itself was tenuous. In the midst of all the strife he was experiencing, Beethoven pulled out this sunny piece of beautifully joined-up thinking, giving the best possible response to his illnesses and impending deafness. If he was to be hindered, the music would see him through.

There is much to love about the Second Symphony. Its dimensions look front-loaded, with a substantial first and second movement and a shorter Scherzo and Finale placed third and fourth. These two, however, act as a combined pair – and so the feeling is of a trio of movements, as perfected by Mozart in the Prague symphony discussd above. The spirit of Mozart is present for sure, but so is the drive and energy of the younger composer, along with his ability to develop incredibly small melodic cells into material for whole movements.

His expertise in this is evident in those third and fourth movements. The scherzo’s seemingly throwaway phrase at the start is the block on which the whole movement rests, played by the orchestra but with the strings keeping busy in between. The finale follows on naturally, moving closer to ‘home’ with another clipped phrase from the full orchestra.

Before these two symphonic gems we have had the pleasure of an energy-filled first movement and a balletic second, a ‘slow’ movement with a good deal of poise. Here the clarinets make themselves known the most, and Beethoven’s writing for wind is a joy in which to indulge. The movement flows with a happy stream of invention, anticipating perhaps the outdoor vistas of the later Pastoral symphony.

Working backwards, the first movement has a good deal of drama in its introduction and a tautly argued Allegro section which frequently breaks into an unfiltered smile. Perhaps Mozart and a little of Haydn are most obvious in the music here, but again the material could not be from anyone else.

Many commentators declare the Second Symphony as the culmination of Beethoven’s first period. With music of such rich invention, such clever but instinctive development and such bright textures, it is to be savoured – and bodes extremely well for what is to come.

Spotify playlist and Recordings used

NBC Symphony Orchestra / Arturo Toscanini (RCA)
Cleveland Orchestra / George Szell (Sony Classical)
Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century / Frans Brüggen (Philips)
Berliner Philharmoniker / Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Claudio Abbado (Deutsche Grammophon)
Danish Chamber Orchestra / Ádám Fischer (Naxos)
Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä (BIS)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Rafael Kubelik (Deutsche Grammophon)
Anime Eterna Brugge / Jos Van Immerseel (ZigZag Territories)

Performances on ‘period’ instruments or modern interpretations are both to be lauded in this piece. The former camp contains really fine versions from Anime Eterna Brugge and Jos van Immerseel, or the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century and Frans Brüggen, to name just two thoroughly enjoyable accounts. The latter gives great enjoyment thanks to the batons of Harnoncourt, Kubelik and Szell, not to mention many, many others!

To listen to clips from the recording from the Scottih Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras on Hyperion, head to their 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 1802 Haydn Mass in B flat major Hob. XXII:14 ‘Harmoniemesse’

Next up No, non turbarti, WoO 92a

In concert – Birmingham Contemporary Music Group: Mark-Anthony Turnage

Mark-Anthony-Turnage

Pre-Concert Event:
Ma Xiao-Qing Back to the Beginning (2021)
Skempton Heinen Skizzen (2021) [BCMG Commission: World premiere]
Colette Overdijk (violin), Ulrich Heinen (cello)

Concert:
Turnage This Silence (1992)
Alberga On a Bat’s Back I do Fly (2000)
Saunders Stirrings (2011)
Turnage Concertino for Clarinet and Ensemble (2020) [BCMG commission: World premiere]

Jon Carnac (clarinet), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Thomas Kemp

CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Sunday 12 September 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group began its new season with a concert centred around music from Mark-Anthony Turnage, and what should have been a premiere to mark his 60th birthday last year but which still left a favourable impression however belated its emergence.

First came an earlier Turnage piece, This Silence drawing clarinet, bassoon, horn and string quintet into an intensive dialogue whose opening Dance built up a fair momentum that the ensuing Dirge channelled towards an eloquent if by no means unruffled set of variations as found just tentative closure. Three decades (and a brief Uli fanfare) later, Concertino exudes a far more relaxed aura, doubtless occasioned by its being a tribute to clarinettist (and fellow sexagenarian) Jon Carnac – his artistry to the fore in the playful Study in Fifths and incisive Carnac with its ingenious workout on the soloist’s name. In between, a soulful Romanza afforded contrast but if this and the final Sad Soliloquy found Turnage’s cool-jazz leanings at their smoothest, the alluring interplay of clarinet and ensemble was no less appealing for it.

In between these works came, firstly, a timely revival for Eleanor Alberga. On a Bat’s Back   I do Fly takes its cue from Ariel’s final song in Shakespeare’s The Tempest for music whose fluid contrasts of motion and expressive force, ably drawn into a cohesive whole, brought an agile response from BCMG – not least percussionist Julian Warburton. Appreciably different was Stirrings, the third in a sequence of ‘‘quiet and fragile collage compositions’’ by Berlin-based composer Rebecca Saunders, which took extracts from Samuel Beckett as the starting-point for an evocative soundscape whose simple yet effective spatial disposition – woodwind being situated around the gallery, with strings and piano spread across the platform – audibly enhanced the succession of echoes and resonances informing this frequently intangible score.

The pre-concert event (essentially the first half, given the interval which followed) brought a welcome further hearing of Ma Xiao-Qing’s Back to the Beginning, arguably the most striking of the ‘Soliloquys and Dialogues’ series written for BCMG musicians during the pandemic – violinist Colette Overdijk eliding between some vividly rhetorical passagework and spoken interpolations with a confidence borne of familiarity. Ulrich Heinen then gave the premiere of Heinen Skizzen, a miniature wholly typical of Howard Skempton in its deceptive simplicity.

This latter piece ably served its purpose of honouring Heinen’s retirement from BCMG after 35 years of commitment to the ensemble and its music-making. Not a few listeners (including the present writer) fondly recall his cycle of Bach’s Cello Suites given at St. Paul’s, Hockley in the late 1980s, with his subsequent recordings of the initial five of these – placed within a stimulating contemporary context – well worth investigating on the Métier Sound and Vision label. Hopefully his retirement will not preclude the occasional reappearance with BCMG.

Back to the present, this evening’s main concert is being repeated at West Malling in Kent on September 26th, with BCMG’s subsequent recitals in Birmingham and Bristol on November 12th and 13th. A full programme of activities for the 2021/22 season hopefully (!) lies ahead.

You can find information on further BCMG activities here, while further information on Ulrich Heinen’s Bach can be found at the Divine Arts website

Switched On – Haiku Salut: The Hill, The Light, The Ghost (Secret Name)

haiku-salut-2021

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Derbyshire trio Haiku Salut relocate outdoors for this, their fifth album, which is in their words ‘an exploration of sound in relation to memory’. To fuel the latter they blend electronics and field recordings taken from a variety of sources, at all times seeking a personal touch or a story behind. The notes in the CD booklet document their findings, which range from natural sources to the strains of a ghostly piano in a large abandoned house, somewhere near Frankfurt.

What’s the music like?

Strange and captivating. Beginning with birdsong, Wide Awake is the ideal piece of music with which to start your day, soft strings and distant piano stretching the eardrums pleasantly. The mood changes with Entering, where a cold shiver runs through the arpeggios on the upper register of the ghostly piano. Gradually a mournful air descends on the instrument as it tolls slowly, beautifully played by band member Sophie Barkerwood.

A simpler, calmer piano informs the restful Trespass, while the tones are softer but the musical key remains the same for We Need These Beams, where a gently oscillating loop is gradually taken over by eerie displacement from the electronics. The sounds become increasingly wooden as the track dissolves.

I Dreamed I Was Awake For A Very Long Time is a lovely piece, a combination of a clipped piano phrase and stately chords over a steady, chugging beat. It really is a wonder, and is complemented by the wide open vista of How The Day Starts.

There are less field recordings evident for the friendly chatter of All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace, an older track, but they come to the fore in the reassuring balm of Try Again And Again And Again, full of subtle positivity, and the closing All Clear, which brings back birdsong and strings akin to the start of the album.

Does it all work?

Yes, especially on headphones. Closer listening reveals the different layers and perspectives of the field recording, which is matched by the trio’s distinctive and carefully monitored musical complements. These are always pleasant to listen to at the very least but often take the breath subtly with moments of consonant beauty. There is, however, a dark undertone running through some of the memories, a shadow that once applied is hard to remove.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Another excellent set from one of our electronic musical treasures, who continue to fly just under the radar – when really they deserve to be held in much higher regard.

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Switched On – R. Seiliog: Ash Dome (Cue Dot Records)

r-seiliog reviewed by Ben Hogwood What’s the story? For the eighth in the Cue Dot Series, Paul Scott turns to Wales and the Snowdonia-based Robin Edwards, aka R. Seiliog. Ash Dome is his first full length release since 2018, taking both its title and structure from a living sculpture by David Nash (below)
Seiliog writes ambient music and dresses his work on this album with field recordings made in Coed Camlyn between March and May 2021. What’s the music like? Beautifully restful. The field recordings are a lovely complement to Edwards’ textures, which are light in the extreme and often glint at the edges, as though catching the early morning sun. Rotunda is a good example of this, a sonic portrayal of how beaten metal might reflect bright sunlight. Mind Garden brings birdsong into the equation, a robin making itself known quite early on. There is a natural ebb and flow in the music, the wind in the branches portrayed through subtle, dappled electronic movements, with pockets of melody that take time establishing themselves, but make a subtle mark. 22 Onnen pulses softly with warm textures, while a steadier beat emerges during In The Direction Of Sunlight. Ultimately though this is music that works at its best without a beat marking time, and the treble-rich sounds give a lasting brightness. Does it all work? Yes. The musical representation of the sculpture is strong, but like the structure it also has an endearing vulnerability, reflecting the plight of treasured green spaces. The fact that the location of Nash’s sculpture had to be withheld shows how precious and endangered these things are, and that reflects in the slightly rarefied nature of Edwards’ music. Is it recommended? It is – an album that again with Cue Dot works on several levels, as a background balm or as thought provoking statement on the environment. Both are valid approaches from which to enjoy a rather lovely album. Stream and Buy

Listening to Beethoven #187 – 15 Variations and fugue on an original theme in E flat major Op.35 ‘Eroica’

Beethoven-eroica

Portrait of Beethoven as a young man by Carl Traugott Riedel and Prometheus Bound by Peter Paul Rubens

15 Variations and fugue on an original theme in E flat major Op.35 ‘Eroica’ for piano (1802, Beethoven aged 31)

Dedication unknown
Duration 25′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

Although this piece is known as the Eroica Variations, the theme is taken from the finale to Beethoven’s music for Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus:

Background and Critical Reception

This substantial set of variations became known as the Eroica Variations because Beethoven used the tune in the finale of his third symphony, the Eroica.

Angela Hewitt describes the set as his most ‘bravura orientated’ variations, going on to illustrate how, before we even hear the main Eroica theme, Beethoven presents a theme in the bass and proceeds to unwind three variations on it. She notes how the theme and its fifteen variations ‘delight us with their compositional and pianistic fancies’.

Harold Truscott, writing in The Beethoven Companion, has some controversial views on Beethoven’s piano writing, branding it ‘on the borderline between difficulty and awkwardness. This is a quality frequently found in Beethoven’s keyboard writing’, he writes, ‘although no one ever mentions it’. He does, however, concede that ‘the Eroica set is a masterpiece for the most part unique in his work’.

Lewis Lockwood labels ‘this great work…the culmination of Beethoven’s early variations sets’. ‘In any case’, he writes, ‘Opus 35 is a milestone in the history of variation. Its introduction dramatically unfolds several elements in order, as if Beethoven, at the keyboard instead of writing in a sketchbook, was sequentially building the thematic material before the very ears of the listener.’

Thoughts

Where the previous set of variations in F major could be described as ‘not your typical set of variations’, this is something else. When you are done listening to the Eroica variations, this is a piece where you are left in no doubt that Beethoven has put his entire heart and soul into writing a piece, and has channelled some extraordinary powers of invention. By the end it is difficult to say exactly how many variations there are, as they seem to fuse into each other.

The introduction is pure drama – and Beethoven’s insistent B flats sound like a knock on the door, as though the theme is waiting to get in. When it does finally arrive the piece is already in full swing, and the mood is already buoyant. The theme and first variation have a spring in their step, the balletic origins laid clear – and as Beethoven gets to work, the dance gets faster.

The second variation is effectively a cadenza, showing off Beethoven’s virtuosity to the full – not just as a performer but as a composer too. His writing is quasi-orchestral, the fourth variation depicting a lively bassoon giving out the variation and strings plucking in the middle ground. Calmer waters are found for the fifth, but soon the textures are full again and the ideas overflowing. The piano writing is remarkably dense and demanding, but thrilling too.

Variation 7, marked Canone all’Ottava, anticipates the fugue but practically stamps on the keyboard at times. What the audience would have made of Beethoven’s bravura and daring is anybody’s guess. Varation 9 picks up a similar theme, where it feels like the B flat has got stuck, while the tenth is like a blast of cold air, disappearing up some odd tonal alleyways. We return to the ballet for Variation 11, the keyboard opens out in the 12th, before the 13th reintroduces the ‘stuck’ B flat in a jarring upper register, in an act both maddening and humorous!

A much-needed respite arrives with Variation 14, where we move to the minor key for a reflective episode. Far from running out of ideas with the ‘final’ variation, Beethoven feels like he has only just got started, and the lead-up to the fugue acquires impressive gravitas. The fugue itself is symphonic, its tune unusually hummable, with a lot of action between the parts.

At the risk of sounding like a cracked record, what a remarkable piece this is. Beethoven’s powers of invention are truly stretched, but the feeling remains that he could have written enough for another half hour of music without flagging. We will see an awful lot more of that invention as his pieces move further and further away from the norm.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)
Cécile Ousset
(Eloquence)
Ronald Brautigam
(BIS)
Alfred Brendel
(Philips)
Rudolf Buchbinder
(Teldec)
Glenn Gould
(Sony)

Some very impressive recordings here, not least the newest – a dazzling but extremely musical account from Hewitt, whose musicality always comes before the virtuosity. Emil Gilels is masterly from the commanding first chord and thoughtful theme. Cécile Ousset conveys the scope of the piece immediately, inhabiting the drama of the introduction, and having a lot of fun with the dance variations.

The Spotify playlist below includes all but one of the versions listed above – with the opportunity to hear a clip from Angela Hewitt’s version on the Hyperion website

Also written in 1802 Samuel Wesley Symphony in B flat major

Next up Symphony no.2 in D major Op.36