Listening to Beethoven #164 – Sonata for piano and violin no.4 in A minor Op.23

joseph-anton-koch-mountain-scene

Mountain Scene (1796) by Joseph Anton Koch

Sonata no.4 for piano and violin in A minor Op.23 (1801, Beethoven aged 30)

1. Presto
2. Andante scherzoso, più allegretto
3. Allegro molto

Dedication Count Moritz von Fries
Duration 20′

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by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

A relatively quick return for Beethoven to the duo sonata, with a pair of works for piano and violin. He worked first on Op.23 and then immediately began Op.24, the Spring sonata, its much more famous sibling. The two works were published together, like the Op.12 trio of sonatas, but due to an error in the engraving they were assigned separate opus numbers. Both pieces were written for Count Moritz von Fries, a banker who was an important patron to Beethoven around this time.

Many see the separate publication of the two works as an appropriate move, for commentators regard the Op.23 sonata as the chalk to the Spring sonata’s cheese. Daniel Heartz gives Op.23 a surprisingly wide berth, and his detailed examination of early Beethoven only finds one short paragraph for the work. ‘It seems dour and astringently contrapuntal compared to the lushly endowed siren before us in Op.24’, he writes. ‘In competition with alluring beauties, overt sagacity has rarely won the day, nor does it do so here’. He does however point out that ‘it was the composer’s habit to work simultaneously on works of disparate character’.

William Drabkin is more complimentary, marking the influence of Mozart throughout. Writing in The Beethoven Companion, Nigel Fortune notes the rarity of A minor in Beethoven’s output, before observing that the sonata ‘is unique, too, in being dominated by so much tense and bare linear movement’.

The outer movements are prime examples of this, he says, while the ‘slow’ movement includes – exceptionally – ‘a fugato on a theme that contrasts vividly with the slurred and halting motion of the opening idea’.

Thoughts

This unusual piece has the feeling of a work Beethoven had to get out of his system. The key of A minor was one he very seldom used – nor, incidentally, did Haydn – and in fact this violin sonata is his only large-scale work to use the key. There is a marked tension between A minor and A major throughout, the sort of duel that would become a feature of the mature works of Schubert, who often used ‘A’ as a centre.

The bare opening of the first movement finds both instruments in unison, and though it looks like it should be playful on the page it proves rather acerbic. The movement proceeds with a stern dialogue, unwieldly but still effective.

Signs of warmth appear in the slow movement, where Beethoven switches to the major key. Rhythmically the two instruments are very much in step, with a stop-start feel to the tune, and as Beethoven constructs variations on it the music becomes a little more flowing. The unusual fugue passage would have been a big surprise to the audience of the time, and still feels a little odd here.

The third movement bursts out of the blocks in the same spirit of the first, and again feels more like a duel than a collaboration – but the simplicity of the second theme brings a tender contrast, a reminder of the warmth that can still be found in spite of Beethoven’s lean and slightly mean approach in this piece.

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Midori Seiler (violin), Jos van Immerseel (fortepiano) (Zig Zag Classics)
Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Wilhelm Kempff (Deutsche Grammophon)
Josef Suk (violin), Jan Panenka (piano) (Supraphon)
Alina Ibragimova (violin), Cédric Tiberghien (Wigmore Hall Live)
Tasmin Little (violin), Martin Roscoe (piano) (Chandos)
Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), Martin Helmchen (BIS)
Paul Barritt (violin), James Lisney (piano) (Woodhouse Editions)

Once again the fresh approach of Midori Seiler and Jos van Immerseel is invigorating, and the relative lack of vibrato from Seiler’s violin suits the character of the music without making it too dark. Yehudi Menuhin has a much fuller sound by contrast, but this brings a welcome warmth to the slow movement in particular, as does the responsive playing of Wilhelm Kempff. Josef Suk and Jan Panenka have a similar profile, while the newest version – from Frank Peter Zimmermann and Martin Helmchen – is quite a powerhouse, sweeping forward impressively.

The Spotify playlist below does not contain the Barritt / Lisney version, but does include a highly powered account by Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich, recorded for Deutsche Grammophon:

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 1801 Vanhal – Clarinet Sonata in C major

Next up Sonata for piano and violin no.5 in F major Op.24 ‘Spring’

Listening to Beethoven #161 – 6 Easy Variations on an original theme in G major, WoO 77

Ludwig van Beethoven – portrait by Gandolph Ernst Stainhauser

6 Easy Variations on an original theme in G major WoO 77 for piano (1800, Beethoven aged 29)

Dedication unknown
Duration 7′

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What’s the theme like?

Unusually, the theme appears to be Beethoven’s own. It is an ‘easy to play’ number, simply structured but ripe for development. There is just the hint of a dance round the edges.

Background and Critical Reception

So far in his Viennese career Beethoven has not gone long without dashing off another theme and set of variations – and even with so many important pieces and premieres around him, the year of 1800 was no exception. Despite their title, these ones have meaning though. The educational intent behind the Easy Variations on an original theme,writes Jean-Charles Hoffelé, ‘should not distract the listener from what is daring about the music: the expressive power of the Poco sostenuto creates an astonishing effect at the centre of the set.’

The variation to which he refers is the fourth, set in a minor key and providing a striking contrast to those around it.

Thoughts

These are beautifully crafted variations, and as is suggested they prove far more emotive than the title suggests. They are a good showpiece for a pianist, with elements of soft and loud, delicate and heavy, often within the same variation. After a simple beginning Beethoven puts the pianist through their paces with a terrifically pacy second variation them an ultra-solemn fourth, which really delves deep into the heart. Set in the minor key, the music withdraws to a simple unison statement, the hands one octave apart and trapped further down on the keyboard.

When all seems lost a brighter passage appears on cue, a real ‘darkness to light’ moment where the music looks outwards and upwards. Beethoven can’t then resist a final flourish before the end, signalling his determination to push on.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Olli Mustonen (piano) (Decca)
Cécile Ousset (piano) (Eloquence)
Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano) (BIS)
Alfred Brendel (piano) (Vox)
John Ogdon (piano) (EMI)

Some really fine versions here. Olli Mustonen’s is spring-loaded to begin with but hurtles through a quick fourth variation which is far from anything easy! He is a terrific entertainer, whereas John Ogdon and Alfred Brendel are both superb but have a measured control. The variations transfer well to fortepiano, and are clearly enjoyed by Ronald Brautigam.

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 1800 Campagnoli 6 Fugues for Solo Violin Op.10

Next up Piano Sonata no.11 in B flat major Op.22

Listening to Beethoven #148 – 7 Ländler for piano WoO 11 (1799)

Der Kinderreigen (1872) by Hans Thoma

7 Ländler WoO 11 (1799) for piano (1799, Beethoven aged 28)

Dedication unknown
Duration 4’30”

written by Ben Hogwood

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Background and Critical Reception

As part of his composing role in Vienna Beethoven did on occasion write dance music for the ball. We have already encountered sets of Minuets, written for the annual Redoutensaal balls, a discipline the composer seemed to warm to. This set of Ländler (a folk dance in 3/4 time) is thought to originate for 1798, and, writes Keith Anderson in booklet notes for Naxos, was presumably scored for two violins and bass.

That version is missing, but a piano version was published in Vienna the year after. All seven dances are in the same key, with a short coda added on the end.

Thoughts

The dances are charming and simple in their construction. Beethoven warms to the form with easy, hummable melodies and basic accompaniments often resembling drones. Harmonies are safe, and the rhythms have a nice lilt – ideal for moving easily around a crowded dancefloor. The seventh dance goes slightly offbeat, putting the emphasis on the second rather than the first beat in the bar, before a coda reinforces the drone and ends the dance with a trill.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Olli Mustonen (piano) (Decca)
Jenő Jandó (piano) (Naxos)

Olli Mustonen gives ideal account of these short, winsome pieces – and Jandó, a little faster, is enjoyable too.

Also written in 1799 Benjamin Carr Dead March and Monody

Next up tbc

Listening to Beethoven #147 – 10 Variations on ‘La stessa, la stessissima’, WoO 73

beethoven-salieriLudwig van Beethoven and Antonio Salieri (right)

8 Variations on ‘Tändeln und Scherzen’ WoO 76 for piano (1799, Beethoven aged 28)

Dedication unknown
Duration 9′

written by Ben Hogwood

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What’s the theme like?

The theme is taken from a duet in Salieri‘s opera Falstaff, premiered on 3 January 1799 in Vienna’s Theater am Kärntnertor.

Background and Critical Reception

The variations that Beethoven dashed off after hearing Salieri’s Falstaff in January 1799 earned him a drubbing from critics, writes Jean-Charles Hoffelé. ‘Herr Beethoven may know how to improvise, but he is unable to create good variations’, wrote the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung.

Hoffelé speculates on the cause of the journalist’s irritation, suggesting it might be ‘the tone of pure entertainment, the impertinent giocoso manner’. He notes however that Beethoven is enjoying himself, citing ‘the distilled Adagio in the top register of the keyboard’.

Thoughts

A strident theme sets out its stall, before Beethoven takes it for a walk in the first variation and then a quicker, propulsive jog in variation two. Again this is a composer working instinctively, the feeling being this composition may well have been written in one sitting at the keyboard.

Beethoven has fun with the offbeat comments of the third variation, while things take a sombre tone in the minor key with the fifth. The music springs out of this with an upright gait, and a fugal episode, then a terrific flurry of notes in the seventh and tenth variations, which no doubt impressed or infuriated the Viennese audience!

The final variation, the tenth, is a tour de force of athletic prowess in the right hand before adding on a coda, as so many of Beethoven’s variation sets do. This one, however, is by turns violent, amusing and touching, channelling the spirit of C.P.E. Bach as it changes mood almost by the bar. Final resolution is forcefully achieved.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Gianluca Cascioli (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Cécile Ousset (piano) (Eloquence)
Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano) (BIS)

If you are happy to listen to the relatively taut sound of Ronald Brautigam’s fortepiano, you will find much to enjoy in his version, a thoroughly entertaining and dramatic reading of Beethoven’s mood changes. Cécile Ousset, perhaps inevitably, has greater elegance but also enjoys the playful aspects, not to mention the outrageous final variation.

Also written in 1799 Benjamin Carr Dead March and Monody

Next up 10 Variations on ‘La stessa, la stessissima’ WoO 73

Listening to Beethoven #146 – 8 Variations on ‘Tändeln und Scherzen’, WoO 76

beethoven-sussmayrLudwig van Beethoven and Franz Xaver Süssmayr  (right)

8 Variations on ‘Tändeln und Scherzen’ WoO 76 for piano (1799, Beethoven aged 28)

Dedication unknown
Duration 9′

written by Ben Hogwood

Listen

What’s the theme like?

The theme is taken from a trio in the opera by Soliman oder die drei Sultaninnen by Franz Xaver Süssmayr. A popular Austrian composer at the time of composition, Süssmayr is not a familiar name in the concert hall nowadays, except for his completion of Mozart’s Requiem.

Background and Critical Reception

Thoughts

This is pure, instinctive inspiration – and is quite stop-start as a result. Yet just as Beethoven has a lot of fun with these variations, so does his listener. The fourth variation is especially brilliant, the hands tumbling down the keyboard like a waterfall.

An elegant seventh variation, the one about which Hoffelé writes, leads to a run of trills, like the end of a cadenza, which look set to complete the set – until a twist in the tale appears in the form of a fugue, crisply executed in the form of a Bach invention.

Beethoven switches unexpectedly to D major near the end, yet this is wholly in keeping with the free running approach throughout this entertaining set.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Alfred Brendel (piano) (Vox)
Cécile Ousset (piano) (Eloquence)
Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano) (BIS)

Cécile Ousset is a model performer in these variations, with enviable dexterity and a good deal of humour. Ronald Brautigam enjoys the more brash, unscripted moments and the piece sounds great on the fortepiano. Brendel is excellent too.

Also written in 1799 Benjamin Carr Dead March and Monody

Next up 10 Variations on ‘La stessa, la stessissima’ WoO 73