Listening to Beethoven #3 – Fugue for organ in D major


The organ of the Minorite Church in Bonn, which Beethoven played at the age of 12. Photograph from 1905, in the collection of the Beethoven-Haus Bonn

Fugue in D major WoO 31 for organ (1783, Beethoven aged 12)

Dedication not known
Duration 2’15

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Although Beethoven regularly played the organ in his years at the Bonn court, he wrote virtually no organ music – and what survives is certainly not well known. The DG notes for their complete Beethoven edition describe it as a ‘rather modest two-voice fugue in D, written at the age of 11 or 12’ – and that’s it.

Thoughts

Yes it may be modest – and in the end it is relatively unmemorable – but there is something very impressive about the sure-footed way this fugue goes about its business. The thematic entries are textbook, Beethoven following the rules when it comes to writing a fugue, but the arrival at the big held note on the pedals towards the end feels inevitable – as does the conclusion.

Recordings used

Simon Preston (DG), Janette Fishell (Naxos)

Whereas Simon Preston’s version keeps moving it has quite a remote tone, recorded at more of a distance. Janette Fishell (Naxos) gives the fugue a warmer registration on the organ and brings it to life more. The final cadence feels more impressive in her hands.

Spotify links

Simon Preston

Janette Fishell

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/4BJCc2kWe7McJUVsR7t7bF?si=yrxRSnPxTe6qtJRREUNSLQ

Also written in 1782 AlbrechtsbergerMass in D major Albrechtsberger was Beethoven’s teacher for a while, and you can read about him here

Next up Rondo in A major

Listening to Beethoven #2 – Schilderung eines Mädchens


This Peanuts strip was first published on December 16, 1977, drawn by Charles M. Schulz (c)PNTS

Schilderung eines Mädchens WoO 107 (“Schildern, willst du Freund, soll ich dir Elisen?”) for voice and piano (1783, Beethoven aged 12)

Dedication not known
Text Unattributed
Duration 0’35

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

In his landmark biography of Beethoven, Alexander Thayer tells of how, by the age of 12, he was the ‘cembalist in the orchestra’. This was an important position within the Bonn Court orchestra for keyboard – presumably harpsichord rather than fortepiano – from which Beethoven would conduct the orchestra in rehearsals, filling a gap while the Electoral Kapellmeister was absent on a journey ‘of several months’.

The suggestion is that in this position lies the root of Beethoven’s powerful music, where he had to play up in volume to make himself heard. It gave him little time for composition, however, until the Kapellmeister returned – whereupon this short song was written and printed.

Thoughts

The first of many brief forays into song for Beethoven, Schilderung eines Mädchens (loosely translated as Portrayal of a Maiden) is almost over before it begins. It has a relatively high line, and a bold and bright melody. The young composer may be just getting a feel for how the voice behaves, but his instincts already appear to be sound.

Recordings used

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone) and Jörg Demus (piano)
Peter Schreier (tenor) and Walter Olbertz (piano)
Hermann Prey (baritone) and Leonard Hokanson (piano)

All three recordings are in a different key. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is full-bodied in E major, but tenor Peter Schreier raises the tonality up to G with a brightly voiced account. Hermann Prey‘s account is very much slower (almost twice as long!). Luxurious in tone, it is beautifully sung but really stretches the words out. Leonard Hokanson shadows his every move.

Spotify links

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Jörg Demus:

Peter Schreier and Walter Olbertz:

Hermann Prey and Leonard Hokanson:

 

Also written in 1783 Mozart Duos for violin and viola, K423 & K424

Next up Fugue in D major

Listening to Beethoven #1 – 9 Variations on a March by Dressler


Ernst Dressler (left) and the young Ludwig van Beethoven

9 Variations on a March by Dressler WoO 63 for piano (1782, Beethoven aged 12)

Dedication not known
Duration 7′ (13’30 with repeats included)

Listen

What’s the theme like?

Dressler’s theme is serious in tone, and foursquare. The march is a slow one but it gives plenty of room for the young composer to work with his source material.

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s first published work was released into the public domain when the composer was barely 12 years old. Its release was accompanied with a glowing reference from his teacher at the time, Christian Neefe. Jan Swafford takes up the story in his recent Beethoven biographer. ‘He plays the clavier very skillfully and with power, reads at sight very well, and…plays chiefly The Well Tempered Clavier of Sebastian Bach…He (Beethoven) has had nine variations for the pianoforte engraved in Mannheim. This youthful genius…would surely become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were he to continue as he has begun.’

The variation form was a good way of exercising students; seeing how inventive they could be when given a theme as a starting point. Talking with Arcana about the Dressler variations, pianist Cyprien Katsaris notes how “this piece is variations by a kid, and it could be considered in the beginning a little bit boring. His teacher probably told him to keep the same tempo, but I think there is a probability that if Beethoven played that piece as an adult he would play it in a different way to when he was under the guidance of that teacher. What a pity we didn’t have recordings earlier!”

Barry Cooper‘s booklet note for DG’s New Complete Edition of Beethoven notes how variations of the time were usually in a major key, and the adoption of C minor ‘feels like something of a statement’. It is a key we will traverse many more times as Beethoven’s portfolio unfolds. Swafford interprets the choice of C minor and its serious material ‘might form a memorial for the boy’s recently passed, still-lamented teacher and friend Franz Georg Rovantini‘, and that the final variation is a ‘triumph over sorrow’.

Thoughts

The young Beethoven takes the relatively basic Dressler theme and works nine variations from it, beginning in serious mood but gradually loosening his approach to explore different techniques.

For eight of the nine variations we keep the darker colour of the minor key, staying true to the mood of the theme but gradually adding more to it, with a few grace notes (variation 1), relatively polite sequential figures (2), then extra arpeggios in the middle parts (3), and chromatic inflections in the right hand (4). The fifth variation is more playful.

The sense of a composer running with greater freedom is clear, as the fifth variation is really let off the leash, the right hand roaming as it wishes. Variation six exchanges trills and more playful melodies between the two hands, while the seventh is in lilting triple time. The eighth feels like music we have heard already, with flowing arpeggios. Until now all variations have remained in the minor key, but this heightens the moment Beethoven switches to the major for the last variation, a terrific flurry of notes for the right hand which show off his technical prowess. Not many 12-year-olds could play music like this!

Recordings used

Cécile Ousset (Eloquence), Mikhail Pletnev (DG); Cyprien Katsaris (Piano 21)

Cécile Ousset includes all of Beethoven’s repeat markings, so each half of each variation is repeated, the piece extended to 13 minutes. Hers is a gracious account, brilliantly executed at the end.
Pletnev is very straight-faced initially, and plays around with the tempo a good deal, but goes for broke at the end to make the final variation sound like a piece of C.P.E. Bach.
Katsaris, including revised material by Beethoven, is in a room with a good deal of reverberation, heightening the serious theme and quite deliberate initially – but with terrific excitement generated in the fifth and final variations.

Spotify links

Mikhail Pletnev

Cécile Ousset

Cyprien Katsaris

 

Also written in 1782 Haydn Symphony no.73 in D major ‘La Chasse’

Next up Schilderung eines Mädchens

You can read Cyprien Katsaris’ full interview about Beethoven with Arcana soon.

LSO: Always Playing – Steve Reich Quartet & Sextet tonight @ 7pm

Tonight’s installment of the LSO’s online series ‘Always Playing’ is a smaller-scale affair, as the LSO Percussion Ensemble deliver two of Steve Reich‘s more recent works for percussion.

The Sextet, a substantial work from 1993, is complemented by the Quartet completed 20 years later, a more challenging and fragmented composition.

The team – percussionists Neil Percy, Sam Walton, Gwilym Simcock, David Jackson, Simon Carrington, Philip Moore and Joseph Havlat – add works from Joe Locke (Her Sanctuary) and Makoto Ozone, Simon Carrington’s arrangement of Kato’s Revenge.

You can read more about these works in the booklet notes for the concert here – and the performances themselves, given at LSO St Luke’s across concerts in October 2015, March 2018 and February 2019, can be seen on the orchestra’s YouTube channel from 7pm tonight here:

 

Online recommendations – Bergen International Festival 2020

How long is it since you last experienced live music?

For the vast majority of us it will be two months and counting now…the last for Arcana having been on Monday 16 March at the Wigmore Hall.

Thankfully in that time a huge number of artists, organisations and orchestras have stepped into the breach, either with archive concert footage or with online concerts and recitals. One of the biggest contributions to date, however, comes from the Bergen International Festival, which is streaming over 50 events online for free.

These are genuine live events, given without an audience and streamed across the world from the festival’s website – and there is some quality music making coming up.

The evening of Saturday 23 May will see Leif Ove Andsnes and friends giving an all-Schumann concert at 20:00 (19:00 GMT), capped by the wonderfully invigorating Piano Quintet, while Sunday 24 May (21:15, 20:15 GMT) brings the traditional festival performance of Grieg‘s evergreen Piano Concerto. The soloist will be Víkingur Ólafsson, with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under chief conductor Edward Gardner. Intriguingly, the Grieg will be prefaced by VasksThe Fruit Of Silence, with the Edvard Grieg Kor.

Meanwhile Monday 25 May brings an intriguing concert from ​Leif Ove Andsnes (piano), Sonoko Miriam Welde (violin), Ludvig Gudim (violin), Eivind Ringstad (viola) and Amalie Stalheim (cello). The quintet will perform works by Schubert, Mozart and Jörg Widmann – the composer’s Idyll and Abyss and String Quartet no.3. Nicknamed the Hunt, it will follow Mozart’s quartet of the same name.

These three concerts alone give an idea of the breadth of repertoire and quality we can expect from the festival. Head here to experience it for yourself!