Listening to Beethoven #43 – Rondino in E flat major


The Lobkowitzplatz, Vienna by Bernardo Bellotto (18th century)

Rondino in E flat major WoO 25 for wind octet (2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 horns and 2 bassoons) (1793, Beethoven aged 22)

Dedication
Duration 6’30”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

The Rondino is thought to have been written around the same time as the Octet for wind Op.103, and may even be a discarded movement from it, given that it shares the same key (E flat major), instrumentation and composition period (either very late in the Bonn period or 1793).

It is for a pair each of oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons, with the horn writing in particular coming in for special mention. Martin Harlow, writing in the booklet notes for the Albion Ensemble’s recording on Hyperion, describes the Rondino as ‘a marvellously economical work whose brevity belies the intensity of invention contained within’.

The Unheard Beethoven website’s entry for the work notes its close relationship to Mozart’s Serenades, ‘at one level with his masterpiece for the same instruments’ and sharing the same instrumentation. The conclusion is that the Rondino is an ‘amazing, early masterpiece’.

Thoughts

How lovely it is to hear the sonorities of a wind ensemble in the Beethoven listening. This is a lovely piece, the strong implication being that the composer has already mastered writing for such a group but this is the first we properly hear of it.

The title (given by the publisher after Beethoven’s death, possibly) conjures up ideas of a light, frivolous piece, but in the event this Rondino is a tender affair. Its main theme is an attractive one, and lingers in the memory, but the middle sections are elegiac and quite sorrowful, moving as they do through minor keys.

The colours are beautiful, the use of horns particularly masterful – Beethoven seemingly one of the first to use mutes on the instrument as a form of expression. It may be small, but this is a perfectly formed and rather gorgeous piece.

Recordings used

Netherlands Wind Ensemble (Deutsche Grammophon)
L’Archibudelli (Sony Vivarte)
Sabine Meyer Bläserensemble (Warner Classics)
The Albion Ensemble (Helios)

Four fine versions here. The L’Archibudelli version – on instruments of the period – feels slightly woolly with its recorded sound to begin with, before the ensemble passages blossom. It is taken at a slower tempo than the other versions. Both the Sabine Meyer Bläserensemble and The Albion Ensemble are notable for their affection for the piece.

Spotify links

L’Archibudelli

Netherlands Wind Ensemble

Sabine Meyer Bläserensemble

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 1793 Haydn Andante with variations in F minor HXVII:6(

Next upOctet in E flat major Op.103

Listening to Beethoven #42 – 12 Variations on ‘Se vuol ballare’

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (left) and the young Ludwig van Beethoven

12 Variations on Mozart’s aria ‘Se vuol ballare’ WoO40 for piano and violin (1793, Beethoven aged 22)

Dedication Elenore von Breuning
Duration 12’30”

Listen

What’s the theme like?

Mozart’s theme is from the first act of Le nozze de Figaro – Se vuol ballare being an aria for Figaro himself, on discovering the count’s schemes.

Background and Critical Reception

‘I should never have written down this kind of piece, had I not already noticed fairly often how some people in Vienna after hearing me extemporize of an evening would note down on the following day several peculiarities of my style and palm them off with pride as their own. Well, as I foresaw that their pieces would soon be published, I resolved to forestall these people’.

Beethoven’s statement, made in a letter in 1794, confirms he was now in Vienna – and already attracting great interest. In the covering note with the piece, he also makes reference to the extra prominence for the violin in the work – now seen alongside the piano. ‘The variations will be rather difficult to play, and particularly the trills in the coda. But this must not intimidate or discourage you. For the composition is so arranged that you need only play the trill and can leave out the other notes, since these appear in the violin part as well.’

Nigel Fortune, writing in The Beethoven Companion, suggests Beethoven included these features in his work to embarrass the pianists who tried to play his music, giving them music of extra difficulty.

Thoughts

Beethoven’s statement of the theme is unusual, choosing to announce the tune through pizzicato violin with the softest of piano accompaniments. In this way he imitates a guitar, mirroring the way the tune is first heard in the opera.

As the variations unfold the piano takes the lead, particularly in a thrilling fourth variation which has the mood of a Bach sonata with its bubbling counterpoint, passed back and forward between the instruments. The fifth variation enjoys subtle humour with the figure of a trill exchanged, but then the mood darkens.

The sixth variation moves to the minor key, and the violin plays a mournful melody as the piano adopts a slow, bell-like toll. The roles are reversed for the seventh variation, the music still in the minor key but with a few longer dissonances. Soon the sun returns, the music flowing forward through variations eight and nine, the latter generating terrific energy in its fast moving writing for piano alone, the violin taking a brief rest.

The final variations find the instruments close together, the music flowing and in affirmative mood, but then in the coda Beethoven unexpectedly moves into a new key (D major), which takes the listener by surprise and opens up the music completely. This is however shortlived, the false ‘departure’ quickly coming home to rest with a rather touching finish led by soft trills on the piano.

Beethoven’s first Viennese work is a strong statement, and a very enjoyable one at that. Anyone wishing to capture his music on paper would have had a hard time, for his music is starting to show invention and imagination at every turn.

Recordings used

Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Wilhelm Kempff (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Takako Nishizaki (violin), Jenő Jandó (piano) (Naxos)

Menuhin and Kempff are delightful in this piece, playing as though they were at the opera themselves. The minor key variation has a strong pull. Takako Nishizaki and Jenő Jandó are excellent, too – they pull the tempo around less but that works well in the longer scheme of things.

Spotify links

Yehudi Menuhin, Wilhelm Kempff

Takako Nishizaki, Jenő Jandó

Also written in 1793 Haydn Piano Trio in G major Hob.XV:32

Next up Octet in E flat major Op.103

Listening to Beethoven #40 – 13 Variations on ‘Es war einmal ein alter Mann’


Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (left) and the young Ludwig van Beethoven

13 Variations on Dittersdorf’s air ‘Es war einmal ein alter Mann’ for piano (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

Dedication not known
Duration 12′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

Dittersdorf’s theme is taken from an opera, Das rothe Käppchen. In profile it is similar to the Swiss song on which Beethoven wrote six simple variations, not long before completing this work.

Background and Critical Reception

Having been rather dismissive of the entertaining Waldstein variatioms, booklet writer Jean-Charles Hoffelé is more forthcoming on their successor. They ‘make the most of the popular ballad from the opera Das rothe Käppchen. The dominant-tonic interval is exploited to the full to create a tension that is resolved only in the final march’.

Barry Cooper, writing in the notes for the DG Complete Beethoven Edition, gets to the nub of Beethoven’s wit. ‘The most striking effect is the sudden and prolonged rest in the middle of the theme. Beethoven exploits the humourous effect of this rest by creating witty surprises after it in almost every variation, so that the flow of the music is not merely interrupted by the rest but is diverted from its previous course by what follows. In the final variation, a march, there is once again a witty surprise after the rest – for the first time the music just carries on as if nothing had happened. The joke is that there is no joke!

Thoughts

On first hearing it’s tempting to think the pianist has made a mistake when playing this theme. This is the ‘prolonged rest’ that Barry Cooper talks about, and once you know it’s there the ear listens out for it in each variation.

If it was ever played in public this trick could potentially have brought the house down, and when listening it certainly raises a smile – especially as Beethoven’s approaches to this bit of silence are so wildly varied. Silence, of course, would become a key element of Beethoven’s style as it progressed, and this is the first explicit example of it used prominently in a theme.

The variations sparkle, Beethoven again showing off what he can do with busy figurations for the right hand especially. The minor key variation (the sixth) is unexpectedly dark after the major key brilliance – while the ninth alternates between both moods, a flurry of notes suddenly coming to a sombre pause when Beethoven’s trick once again reveals itself.

Once again Beethoven turns entertainer, and in this case prankster – but beneath the notes he is continuing to explore different techniques and ever-more demanding writing for the piano. As a result there is much of note to find in this piece.

Recordings used

Cécile Ousset (Eloquence), John Ogdon (EMI/Warner Classics), Ronald Brautigam (BIS)

A fascinating and varied trio of versions here. Ousset has a winning elegance from the start, but fully embraces Beethoven’s invention and instinct as the variations progress. John Ogdon brings a mischievous element right from the start, with some appealing, jaunty phrasing, while Brautigam gives a charismatic account. Three excellent versions that complement each other.

Spotify links

Cécile Ousset

John Ogdon

track 34 onwards on this album:

Ronald Brautigam

Also written in 1792 Hummel Piano Trio no.1 in E flat major Op.12

Next up Prüfung des Küssens

Listening to Beethoven #38 – Duo for two flutes in G major


A Man in Eighteenth Century Dress with a Flute, in His Study by (Henry Hetherington Emmerson) (1877)

Duo for two flutes in B flat major WoO 26 (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

1 Allegro con brio
2 Menuetto quasi allegretto

Dedication ‘for friend Degenharth’
Duration 6′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

This is the first of Beethoven’s chamber works not to include the piano – though it was not published until after his death. The dedication, ‘for friend Degenharth’, is to a lawyer, a member of Beethoven’s close circle of friends. It has prompted speculation that the piece may have been a commission or a present.

Either way, it is a short work in two movements of roughly equal length, and continues the close affinity Beethoven had with the flute at this time. Technical demands are thought to be few (according to Flutetunes.com at any rate!) so the music is suitable for most ability levels.

Thoughts

The two movements of the Duo are charming. The melodic parts are closely intertwined in the first section, like butterflies dancing in a breeze. Beethoven shifts to the minor key half way through, as though intending to move off on a set of variations. The music has a more graceful feel at this point, but then the dancing butterflies return.

The instruments stay close for the second movement, where the second flute has a simple arpeggio ‘Alberti’ figuration. There is more of a dance form evident here, in triple time.

Beethoven’s domestic side is on show here, with communal music making the main aim. As a result there is nothing too challenging here, but the charms are many.

Recordings used

Patrick Gallois, Jean-Pierre Rampal (DG)
Patrick Gallois, Kazunori Seo (Naxos)

Gallois and Rampal are brilliant together, and it proves almost impossible to tell their instruments apart at times!

Spotify links

Patrick Gallois, Jean-Pierre Rampal

Patrick Gallois, Kazunori Seo

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 1792 Haydn Piano Trio in G major HXV:32

Next up 8 Variations on a theme by Count Waldstein

Listening to Beethoven #31 – Flute Sonata in B flat major


Gentleman walking a hound in a wooded landscape (Unknown, German school, late 18th century

Flute Sonata in B flat major Anh.4 (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

Dedication unknown
Duration 25′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

This substantial four-movement work was found amongst Beethoven’s papers after his death, and was not published until 1906. Despite its location, there are a number of doubts over the authorship of the piece – which appears not to have been in Beethoven’s own handwriting, according to biographer Alexander Thayer.

Barry Cooper, writing in the ‘Rarities’ booklet accompanying DG’s New Complete Edition of Beethoven, makes several useful points. He notes a ‘few awkward moments that could betray inexperience’, and says ‘its authenticity cannot yet be excluded completely, if it is a very early work’. Yet in the other corner there are ‘far fewer articulation markings than in even Beethoven’s earliest known works’, and the scribe ‘was also the composer’, which for Cooper offers the final proof that Beethoven was ultimately not involved.

If it was indeed Beethoven who wrote this work it is thought it would date between 1790 and 1792 – which would plausibly make the dedicatee the flautist son of the Westerholt-Gysenberg family, who Beethoven had included as part of his equally substantial Trio for Flute, Bassoon and Piano a few years earlier.

Thoughts

This substantial piece is quite hyperactive in its first few minutes, when it feels like there are too many notes, but the mood is bright and positive. The music gradually settles, passing through quite an adventurous development section where the dynamic changes, from quite a pastoral mood which then darkens as Beethoven shifts into the minor key.

The second movement, a Polacca, sets out on a strident path, in the same key of B flat major. Both instruments are close together, complementing each other’s melodic movements. The theme is a bit more rustic but the polonaise attributes are not obvious.

The slow movement brings the music to rest, and offers a change of scenery in E flat major. The final movement finds the players close again for a bright theme on which the players then expand with four variations. Even the minor key variation, the third, doesn’t really cloud the sunny exterior too much. By Beethoven’s standards so far it does feel like a relatively standard theme and variations, but they end with a flourish and a relatively restful coda.

Recordings used

Michel Debost (flute), Christian Ivaldi (piano) (Warner Classics)
Emmanuel Pahud (flute), Eric Le Sage (piano) (Auvidis Valois)
Severino Gazzelloni (flute), Bruno Canino (piano) (DG)

A trio of excellent performances here, each of which serves the sonata very well. The top choice by a whisker would be the ever-stylish Emmanuel Pahud and Eric Le Sage, though Severino Gazzelloni and Bruno Canino run them close with their close-knit partnership, which is particularly beautiful in the slow movement.

Spotify links

Michel Debost, Christian Ivaldi

Emmanuel Pahud, Eric Le Sage

Severino Gazzelloni, Bruno Canino

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 1792 Haydn Symphony no.98 in B flat major

Next up Primo amore piacer del ciel