Listening to Beethoven #177 – Sonata for piano and violin no.6 in A major Op.30/1

op301-koch-monastery

Monastery of San Francesco Di Civitella in the Sabine Mountains (1812) by Joseph Anton Koch

Sonata no.6 for piano and violin in A major Op.30/1 (1802, Beethoven aged 31)

1. Allegro
2. Adagio molto espressivo
3. Allegretto con variazioni

Dedication Tsar Alexander I
Duration 23′

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by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

The Op.30 violin sonatas stand at a crossroads in Beethoven’s output, drawing the early works to a close and beginning the more exploratory middle period. There is more evidence for the ‘equalising’ of the instruments, too, the violin on an equal footing with the keyboard instrument, now firmly established a fortepiano.

This set of three works was dedicated to Tsar Alexander I, in the view of Jan Swafford a convenient gesture ‘to a figure famously allied to enlightened ideals…who might also be moved to do something for a composer now and then’.

Commentators tend to gloss over this first work in the set and head for the stormy C minor work, placed second, or the bubbly third work in G major. However Gerald Abraham, writing in The Beethoven Companion, stops to take in the ‘beautiful three-part writing of the opening’ and the ‘violin cantilena of the slow movement’. Bernhard Uske, writing booklet notes for Deutsche Grammophon, exaggerates the violin-piano relationship. ‘The violin’s role is declamatory and evocative, the piano’s is to energize and keep things moving, as the need arises’.

Beethoven’s friend, fellow composer Carl Czerny, found ‘peaceful, tender seriousness’ in the first movement, described the second as ‘almost like a ballad’ and found the theme for the final movement variations ‘more speaking than sentimental’. In using this format Beethoven put aside his original version of the finale, saving it for another violin and piano work – the Kreutzer sonata, completed the following year.

Thoughts

Beethoven may be at a stylistic crossroads, moving on to something more forward-looking, but he certainly has control over his musical destination. This is fluent, attractive music, full of melody and good feeling.

This first of three sonatas does feel a little ‘older’, however – more Mozartian. The piano leads off and both instruments stay close together with elegant lines – though the violin begins to take its chances to sing more obviously. Things take a slightly darker turn in the middle as the music moves towards minor keys, but this proves to be a brief cloud on the horizon as the original material returns.

In the second movement the violin adopts the poise of a singer for a highly expressive solo, Beethoven taking an effective ‘less is more’ approach, lightly textured and relatively carefree.

The theme and variations begin with a simple melody shared by the violin, before a capricious first variation. Often the hands of the piano appear to be operating different instruments, with the left hand in triplets and the right using trills in Variation 3, before perky multiple notes in the fourth variation suggest the composer is exploring more of the violin’s capabilities. The minor key variation repeats into itself before a sprightly coda, Beethoven teasing the listener towards the end as the two instruments spar politely.

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)
Arthur Grumiaux (violin), Clara Haskil (piano) (Philips)
Augustin Dumay (violin), Maria João Pires (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)

Dumay and Pires come into their own in the slow movement of this work with a highly expressive performance, even though their tempo choice is on the fast side. As always the period instrument duo of Midori Seiler and Jos van Immerseel are illuminating, while the richer tones of Grumiaux, Suk and Menuhin are complemented by beautifully phrased piano playing from Haskil, Panenka and Kempff respectively. The newest version, from Frank Peter Zimmermann and Martin Helmchen, is among the finest.

The Spotify playlist below does not contain the Barritt / Lisney version, but does also 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 1802 Hummel – Piano Quintet in E flat major Op.87

Next up Sonata no.7 for piano and violin in C minor Op.30/2

Listening to Beethoven #176 – Man strebt, die Flamme zu verhehlen, WoO 120

man-strebt

Peanuts comic strip, drawn by Charles M. Schulz (c)PNTS

Man strebt, die Flamme zu verhehlen WoO 120 for voice and piano (1802, Beethoven aged 30)

Dedication Johanna von Weissenthurn
Text Johanna von Weissenthurn
Duration 2′

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Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven dedicated his song Man Strebt, die Flamme zu Verhehlen (One strives to conceal the flame) to Johanna Franul von Weissenthurn, an actress, poet, and playwright active in Vienna beginning in 1789.

Charles Petzold, in his Beethoven 250 series, sets the song in a good deal of context here, revealing a little more about the elusive Frau Weissenthurn in the process.

Thoughts

Given that this song only lasts just over two minutes, it has an unusually elaborate introduction from the piano – maybe part of Beethoven’s portrait-setting?

When the voice enters it sounds preoccupied, and the piano responds again. Translated, the text talks of how ‘a glance says more than a thousand words…a glance will often unbolt the door of passion long concealed. The voice seems to be portraying the glance, the piano more intent on opening the door with its florid right hand.

Recordings used

Natalie Pérez, Jean-Pierre Armengaud (Warner Classics)

Hermann Prey (baritone), Leonard Hokanson (piano) (Capriccio)

Both versions convey the preoccupied feel of this text.

Also written in 1802 Zeller Sammlung kleiner Balladen und Lieder Z123

Next up Sonata for piano and violin no.6 in A major Op.30/1

Listening to Beethoven #175 – 12 Contredanses WoO 14

accidents-in-quadrille-dancing

Accidents in Quadrille Dancing (1817 caricature)

12 Contredanses, WoO 14 for orchestra (1791-1802, Beethoven aged 30)

no.1 in C major
no.2 in A major
no.3 in D major (with Trio)
no.4 in B flat major
no.5 in E flat major (with Trio)
no.6 in C major (with Trio)
no.7 in E flat major
no.8 in C major
no.9 in A major
no.10 in C major (with Trio)
no.11 in D major
no.12 in E flat major (with Trio)

Dedication not known
Duration 9′

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Background and Critical Reception

Very little is written about this set of 12 country dances, though they appear to have sat on the back burner for some time, Beethoven having begun them 11 years ahead of publication in 1802.

Daniel Heartz notes a crossing-over of material between these dances and the music for The Creatures of Prometheus, with a reference to ‘the composer’s favourite dance tune’ in no.7, which appears in the ballet as the Finale.

All have attractive, ‘one-off’ themes – but given their brevity there is little to no chance for development of the tunes in a minute or 30-second slot.

Thoughts

The music is bright and simple, and full of melody. There are two ideas in the first dance, which sets the scene with a spring in its step. The second hints at a minor key but has warm-hearted chords in the woodwind. The third is quite brisk, before the fourth moves to B flat major – Beethoven becoming a little more adventurous in this genre with his choice of key.

Beethoven makes a lot of simple themes from the notes of the triad, the fifth dance in E flat major providing a good example of how to construct from simple building blocks. This one is longer, allowing for the clarinet to come forward for a simple second theme. The elegant seventh dance has offbeat woodwind, before the most striking dance, the eighth, with castanets helping let the hair down! There is a similar energy to the ninth, with both gone in a flash – before offbeat emphasis in the eleventh. The final dance is the longest, giving more room for the horns and full orchestra, while lingering on the main theme.

Recordings used

Philharmonia Hungarica / Hans Ludwig Hirsch (Warner Classics)
Berliner Philharmoniker / Lorin Maazel (Deutsche Grammophon)
Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields / Sir Neville Marriner (Philips)
Orchestra of St. Luke’s / Michael Tilson Thomas (Sony Classical)

There is quite a coarse sound to the Philharmonia Hungarica violins in the Warner recording, which shows its age a little – but not the full Lorin Maazel version. Sir Neville Marriner conducts a typically light hearted version, as does Michael Tilson Thomas, fusing the short dances together effectively.

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 Cambini Wind Quintets nos. 1-3

Next up Man strebt, die Flamme zu verhehlen WoO 120

Listening to Beethoven #174 – Lob auf den Dicken, WoO 100

ignaz-schuppanzigh
Violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, the subject of this song

Lob auf den Dicken (Schuppanzigh ist ein Lump), WoO 100 for tenor, two basses and choir (1801, Beethoven aged 30)

Dedication Ignaz Schuppanzigh
Text Beethoven
Duration 40″

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Background and Critical Reception

This is the first appearance of a musical joke in Beethoven’s output – and one of the first pieces for unaccompanied choir we have encountered. Many of the jokes are from the composer himself – with Lob auf dem dicken Schuppanzigh (Praise to the fat Schuppanzigh) no exception.

It does exactly what it says on the score, taking the mickey out of one of Beethoven’s few lifelong friends, violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh. ‘We all agree that you are the biggest donkey’, runs the text, affectionately taunting the man who was to take part in the premieres of all three string quartets dedicated to Count Razumovsky, Schubert’s Rosamunde string quartet and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, where he led the orchestra.

It seems Beethoven’s friend was thick skinned in more ways than one.

Thoughts

This is definitely one of those songs where the humour is ‘of its time’ – and it certainly helps to have the text to hand when following it. It would be good to know how Schuppanzigh received Beethoven’s humour, as otherwise it feels rather awkward.

It is a tiny musical postcard, showing off the composer’s humour, while giving a hint that composing was something he did in his sleep and that his confidence was high enough to write like this in public. There will be more jokes and send-ups as time goes on…

Recordings used and Spotify links

Cantus Novus Wien / Thomas Holmes (Naxos)

Kammerchor der Berliner Singakademie / Dietrich Knothe (Brilliant)

A full-throated Berlin version – and a light-hearted new recording on Naxos. Both work well.

Spotify links

A playlist of four different versions of the Op.48 Lieder can be found here:

Also written in 1801 Zelter 12 Lieder am Clavier zu singen Z122

Next up 12 Contredanses, WoO 14

Listening to Beethoven #173 – 7 Variations on ‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen’ WoO 46

Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (right, in a portrait by Johann Georg Edlinger)

12 Variations on ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte Op.66 for piano and cello (1796, Beethoven aged 26)

Dedication Count Johann von Brown-Camus
Duration 9′

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What’s the theme like?

The theme is a duet from Act 1 of Mozart‘s opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), between the characters Pamino and Papageno, as below. It is an attractive tune in triple time, shared between the piano and cello in its higher register.

Background and Critical Reception

This set of variations is the third and last from Beethoven for piano and cello – and the second to use a theme from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. The inspiration is thought to have been two new productions of the opera appearing in Vienna in 1801. Steven Isserlis notes that despite its equal writing for both instruments, the first edition of Beethoven’s new work ‘fails to even mention the cello on its title page: pianistic chauvinism’.

This is all the stranger given the cello’s elevated role in Beethoven’s writing. As Misha Donat observes, writing for Philips’ recording by Heinrich Schiff and Till Fellner, ‘for the first time the two players are treated very much as equals. Their equality is inherent in the theme itself, which is laid out in such a way that the piano takes the part of Pamina, and the cello the answering voice of Papageno.

Isserlis takes the variations ‘depict various aspects of romance – from excited gossip to lofty ardour’. Marc D. Moskovitz and R. Larry Todd, in their wonderful book Beethoven’s Cello, observe how the fourth variation travels through the ‘parallel, though remote and rare, key of E-flat minor’, and Beethoven ‘reaches for the extremes’, the piano in its high register and the cello down low. Then, the three final variations ‘further deconstruct Mozart’s theme’, the last with a coda.

Thoughts

As the authors observe, Beethoven is bringing his ‘duo’ works to an ever more even keel. The theme here is a case in point, piano and cello united in their sharing of melodic material, and some effortless dialogue. Soon Beethoven is working through a busy second variation, before spicing up the melody with some chromatic additions. The questions and answers between the instruments continue, before the striking fourth variation in the minor key – tricky tuning for the cello here!

The two instruments have a lot of fun, finishing each other’s sentences in the fifth variation. Variation 6 is a florid affair, first for piano then cello, before the substantial finale, with the exuberant interplay of its coda – which also goes on a forceful excursion into the minor key. On the music’s return ‘home’ there is a bit more sparkling interplay before the two instruments sign off convincingly.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Adrian Brendel (cello), Alfred Brendel (piano) (Decca)
Mischa Maisky (cello), Martha Argerich (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Miklós Perényi (cello), András Schiff (piano) (ECM)
Steven Isserlis (cello), Robert Levin (fortepiano) (Hyperion)
Nicolas Altstaedt (cello), Alexandre Lonquich (piano) (Alpha)

The Spotify playlist below includes all but one of the versions listed above – with the opportunity to hear a clip from Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin’s version on the Hyperion website

All versions are excellent, with operatic flair in evidence from Perenyi and Maisky. Once again though it is Robert Levin and Steven Isserlis who get to the heart of the piece and the enjoyment it can provide.

Also written in 1801 Woelfl Duo for cello and piano Op.31

Next up Lob auf dem dicken (musical joke) WoO100