Listening to Beethoven #135 – Sonata for piano and violin no.3 in E flat major Op.12/3

violin-sonata-op123

River Landscape Along the Tiber near the Acqua Acetosa (1814) by Joseph Anton Koch

Sonata no.3 for piano and violin in E flat major Op.12/3 (1798, Beethoven aged 27)

1. Allegro con spirito
2. Adagio con molta espressione
3. Rondo. Allegro molto

Dedication Antonio Salieri
Duration 18′

Listen

by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

The third of Beethoven’s Op.12 sonatas for piano with violin arrives in the key of E flat major, oft-used in his output up until now.

Relatively little is written about the piece, which along with the other two Op.12 works appears to have had its first performance in 1799, with Beethoven himself at the piano and Ignaz Schuppanzigh playing violin.

However Nigel Simeone, writing in The Beethoven Companion, finds reason to admire the composer’s work, saying, ‘nothing in these works is more individual than the C major Adagio con molt’ expressione. With its violin melody against a wide variety of figuration low in the piano part, this rapt piece displays some of Beethoven’s most original invention from this period in his career, its piano writing hardly surpassed even in the piano sonatas.’

Thoughts

A relatively simple figure starts the third piece in the Op.12 set of sonatas, based on the E flat major arpeggio and shared between piano and violin. This cuts to bright dialogue and a development section where the piano lets loose with some extravagant flourishes. As with the other two pieces, inspiration comes from the Mozart direction – but the style is pure Beethoven, very open and agile, the two instruments finishing each other’s sentences.

The second movement switches to C major and is introverted, with simple, unaffected thoughts. The second section becomes particularly reserved, moving in its central section to long violin notes and a flowing piano accompaniment that bring to mind Gounod’s Ave maria arrangement of Bach’s famous C major prelude. The tables are then turned, the piano spinning the melody over soft violin figures, fully justifying the praise given by Nigel Simeone above.

The association with Bach is audible in the third movement too. After a perky tune leads us off, and the busy piano part propels the music forwards, there is an exchange of ideas with the fluency and profile of a Bach sonata, especially over the pedal note in the bass of the piano just before the end.

This piece feels like the more forward looking of the Op.12 set, despite going further back in time for its reference points. It completes a very positive triptych of works deserving of much closer inspection than they tend to get.

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)

Midori Seiler and Jos van Immerseel give this music a ‘freshly minted’, just off the page feeling. Their instinctive approach is easy to enjoy. Yehudi Menuhin’s tone in the slow movement demands the listener’s attention, a beautiful interpretation with Wilhelm Kempff sensitive in his piano playing.

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 1798 Haydn – Die Schöpfung (The Creation) Hob. XXI:2

Next up Piano Sonata no.8 in C minor Op.13 ‘Pathétique’

Listening to Beethoven #134 – Sonata for piano and violin no.2 in A major Op.12/2

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Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome (c1808) by Joseph Anton Koch

Sonata no.2 for piano and violin in A major Op.12/2 (1798, Beethoven aged 27)

1. Allegro vivace
2. Andante, più tosto allegretto
3. Allegro piacevole

Dedication Antonio Salieri
Duration 18′

Listen

by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

‘Learned, learned, always learned, no naturalness, no melody!’ So wrote a reviewer on hearing Beethoven’s Op.12 sonatas for piano and violin in 1799. Nigel Fortune, writing in The Beethoven Companion, speculates the ‘tumbling succession of fresh material’ in the first movements would have been responsible for this verdict.

William Drabkin, writing liner notes for Chandos and the Tasmin Little / Martin Roscoe recording, notes the extended phrases on the ‘E’ string, and how they add ‘to that work’s brilliant sound-world’, and that ‘arpeggios and scale passages are also well placed’.

Thoughts

There is a cheeky grin on Beethoven’s face from the outset as his main tune appears to have a lot of ‘wrong’ notes in it. He deliberately leans on those notes to create an amusing and fresh dialogue between piano and violin, who stick closely together as they do on the previous work.

After these frivolities the second movement is more thoughtful and reserved, set in the minor key. A solemn introduction from the piano is followed by a plaintive violin melody. This feels the more ‘Mozartean’ of the three movements, A minor being a favoured key of Mozart.

From here Beethoven returns to the light-hearted mood of the first movement, with a triple-time lilt offering the spirit of the dance. It is attractive with the outright cheekiness of the melody we heard before.

This second sonata is an attractive piece, bright as a spring day thanks to the writing for violin. It is easy to imagine Beethoven hamming up the cheeky tune in the first movement, perhaps craving the mildly outraged review he got. There would be many more!

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)

Zimmermann and Helmchen deliver a sparkling performance of this work, enjoying the humour of the first movement. Seiler and van Immerseel, too, give a winsome account, with effective lack of vibrato from the violinist in the second movement. Josef Suk and Jan Panenka enjoy the bright sound Beethoven assigns to his instrumentalists.

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 1798 Haydn – Solo e pensoso, Hob.XXIVb:20

Next up Sonata for piano and violin no.2 in A major Op.12/2

Listening to Beethoven #133 – Sonata for piano and violin no.1 in D major Op.12/1

joseph-anton-koch-wasserfall-im-berner-oberland-1796
Waterfall in the Bern Highlands (1796) by Joseph Anton Koch

Sonata no.1 for piano and violin in D major Op.12/1 (1798, Beethoven aged 27)

1. Allegro con brio
2. Tema con variazioni. Andante con moto
3. Rondo. Allegro

Dedication Antonio Salieri
Duration 20′

Listen

by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s first venture into the world of the violin sonata needs a few qualifiers. Firstly, the three works collected together as Op.12 were published in 1798 as Three Sonatas for keyboard with a violin, dedicated to his teacher Salieri. They were following Mozart’s convention where the keyboard is still given primary billing – but as the music shows, the tables were definitely beginning to turn in favour of the stringed instrument, just as they were in the two sonatas for keyboard and cello published as Op.5.

The verdict among musicologists is generally that Beethoven is sticking closely to Mozart’s style of writing in these pieces – and indeed that they might be playing it too safe. Daniel Heartz certainly thinks so, and given the detail he invests in Beethoven’s works it is surprising to see them dismissed with a relatively curt verdict. For him the Op.12 sonatas are ‘comparatively tame’. They are said to be indebted to Mozart’s works in the genre. Nevertheless they lack gripping ideas’.

Elsewhere praise is more forthcoming. Richard Bratby, writing for the recording on Signum Classics from Tasmin Waley-Cohen and Huw Watkins, declares that ‘far from being constrained by Mozart’s model, Beethoven had given it Romantic wings’. He enjoys the ‘winsome theme’ given to the second movement, on which the composer writes four variations, and the ‘jig-like finale’ with its ‘subversive rhythmic games worthy (though Beethoven would never have conceded it) of Haydn himself.

Thoughts

A new form for Beethoven – and one that he approaches with characteristic vigour. The first of what would be twelve published sonatas for the combination of piano and violin is enjoyably upbeat and full of melodies – and concise, too, as the composer keeps his musical arguments to the point.

That said, the first movement is quite a sizable structure, beginning with a flourish from both instruments that sets a sunny mood and the close musical relationship between the two instruments. Beethoven, who played the piano with violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh (quartet leader for Prince Lichnowsky) in the early performances, is immediately at home

The theme and variations of the second movement are a familiar tactic but freshly employed, especially when the third of the four variations moves into an explosive section in the minor key. Beethoven, an acknowledged master of the variation form, is still finding new ways of pushing himself.

The third movement has the best tune, and it’s a surprisingly angular one, with big melodic leaps – but it stays in the head, helped by the repetitions demanded by the Rondo form. Beethoven is off and running in the violin sonata form, and though Mozart is undoubtedly an influence, the overall voice is unique.

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)

The above is only a snapshot of a remarkably high-level discography for these sonatas, with a wide variety of approaches. Yehudi Menuhin and Wilhelm Kempff have a wonderfully close rapport and obvious enjoyment of the music. Josef Suk and Jan Panenka are brightly lit on an older Supraphon recording, which is brilliantly played if a little too ‘full-on’ at times.

The newest recording, from Frank Peter Zimmermann and Martin Helmchen, has a youthful vigour while the only period instrument example here, from Midori Seiler and Jos van Immerseel, has an exciting cut and thrust.

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 1798 Haydn – Solo e pensoso, Hob.XXIVb:20

Next up Sonata for piano and violin no.2 in A major Op.12/2

Listening to Beethoven #130 – String Trio in G major Op.9/1

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Woman embroidering, by Georg Friedrich Kersting

String Trio in G major Op.9/1 (1798, Beethoven aged 27)

Dedication Count Johann Georg von Browne
Duration 25′

1. Adagio – Allegro con brio
2. Adagio, ma non tanto e cantabile
3. Scherzo: Allegro
4. Presto

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Seemingly preoccupied with units of three, Beethoven returned to the string trio around the same time that he was working on the three Op.10 piano sonatas – just before writing the three sonatas for violin and piano Op.12. The trios are dedicated to Count von Browne, husband of the dedicatee for Op.10 – and there are several parallels between the two sets. D major and C minor are used for a work in each – while G major, seldom used until now, is used for this first piece.

Robert Simpson, writing in The Beethoven Companion, argues persuasively that the trios are overlooked. ‘His three Op.9 trios are rightly quoted as the locus classicus for astonishing weight and richness of sound in this medium’. He notes how Beethoven’s writing for the three instruments is so inclusive that the ‘missing’ second violin that would make up a string quartet is not evident.

Thoughts

Beethoven has already shown an impressive mastery of the string trio in the Op.3 and Op.8 works, but with the first work of Op.9 he goes up another level. The grand introduction for the first movement is imposing, almost orchestral in its conception given that there are only three instruments in play. It leads to a main theme where Beethoven is really pushing the ranges of the three instruments, the cello down low and the violin up high. It gives a strong sense of pushing boundaries – but there is a lot of fun to be had in the process.

The second movement is a beauty, a tender reflection in E major, a stream of consciousness. The third movement is bright, a quick dance that is much more scherzo than minuet, while the fourth movement rushes forward impatiently, each of the instruments bristling with energy.

Beethoven’s ambition here is clear, taking the string trio to a new level of technical prowess while expanding the form.

Recordings used and Spotify links

L’Archibudelli (Vera Beths (violin), Juergen Kussmaul (viola), Anner Bylsma (cello)
The Grumiaux Trio (Arthur Grumiaux (violin), Georges Janzer (viola), Eva Czako (cello) (Philips)
Anne-Sophie Mutter, Bruno Giuranna and Mstislav Rostropovich (Deutsche Grammophon)
Leopold String Trio Isabelle Van Keulen (violin), Lawrence Power (viola), Kate Gould (cello) (Hyperion)
Trio Zimmermann (Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Antoine Tamestit (viola), Christian Poltéra (cello) (BIS)

You can listen to the versions from L’Archibudelli, the Grumiaux Trio, the Mutter-Giuranna-Rostropovich trio and Trio Zimmermann on this playlist:

Heifetz and co are expansive in the slower music but enjoy tripping along in the third movement, relishing the music’s positive energy. The Grumiaux Trio are satin-smooth, Arthur’s violin taking the lead in an affectionate account. The Leopold String Trio give an elegant first movement but keep the freshness of the new discoveries as the work progresses.

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 1798 Kozeluch Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major

Next up String Trio in G major Op.9/2

Listening to Beethoven #129 – Clarinet Trio in B flat major Op.11

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The Kaunitz Palace and Garden, Vienna by Bernardo Bellotto

Trio in B flat major Op.11 for clarinet, cello and piano (1797-8, Beethoven aged 27)

Dedication Countess Maria Wilhelmine von Thun
Duration 22′

1. Allegro con brio
2. Adagio
3. Tema con variazioni ‘Pria ch’io l’impegno’: Allegretto

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

The combination of clarinet, cello and piano was a relatively rare one when Beethoven wrote his trio in 1798. It is thought to have been written for the Viennese clarinettist Joseph Bähr, but was dedicated to Countess Maria Wilhelmine von Thun. Richard Wigmore, writing in his booklet note for Hyperion on the piece, thinks Bähr suggested a theme for the variations Beethoven wrote in the finale – on Josef Weigl’s new comic opera L’amor marinaro which was premiered late in 1797 – and which gives the trio its sometimes-used Gassenhauer nickname.

Daniel Heartz dubs the piece ‘very entertaining’, but Lewis Lockwood is less convinced. ‘Of the lesser works, designed for popularity and little more, the most developed are the Clarinet Trio Op.11 and the Quintet for Piano and Winds Op.16. On its publication in 1798 Beethoven dedicated it to a Countess Thun, presumably the oldest one of several by that title, who a few years earlier had gone on her knees to implore him to play. For her pains she now received a light and flashy reward that moved from a glittering first movement and slow movement to the circus style of its finale, made up of variation on the hit tune Pria ch’io l’impegno from a recent comic opera by Josef Weigl. In once more forcing an inevitable comparison with Mozart, whose E flat major Clarinet Trio, with viola, had been another quiet masterpiece, Beethoven did well to make his piece attractive to audiences and performers, especially cellists, but he was fully aware that instead of attempting a really serious work that could stand up to Mozart’, he was trolling the surface for easy dividends.’

Lockwood’s relative disdain for the piece has not carried over to audiences, nor artists – for as you will read below there are many fine versions of the piece. This in spite of the critic in 1798 who declared that the work was ‘difficult’ and that Beethoven wrote ‘unnaturally’.

Thoughts

What a charming piece this is.

The first theme we hear is an unlikely one. Given that the piece is in B flat major Beethoven seems to want nothing to do with the home key initially, arriving there as though by accident. The second theme is nice, too, given out by the clarinet after a simple and quite dreamy aside in D major. The tone of clarinet, cello and piano is lovely – and while the piano often takes the lead there is plenty for the other two instruments.

The second movement is sublime, a lovely period of reflection with a lyrical theme made for cello. This is also the ideal point to enjoy the colour combination of cello and clarinet in particular which Beethoven clearly relished.

The composer has a great deal of fun with the ‘Gassenhauer’ theme, which has a wide set of variations. The perky theme is taken for a run first by the piano, then through a canon between cello and clarinet, then another upright exchange with brilliant high notes from the clarinet. The fourth variation finds minor key stillness, deep in thought, but is completely swamped by tempestuous scales from the piano, blasted out fortissimo. Variation 7 returns to the minor key, in a mock-stern funeral march, then we hear a glorious high cello and clarinet unison for the eighth. The ninth and final variation goes far and wide, allowing the piano room to roam before a bracing coda.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Sabine Meyer (clarinet), Heinrich Schiff (cello), Rudolf Buchbinder (piano) (EMI)

Gervase de Peyer (clarinet), Jacqueline du Pré (cello), Daniel Barenboim (piano) (EMI)

Karl Leister (clarinet), Pierre Fournier (cello), Wilhelm Kempff (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)

The Nash Ensemble (Virgin Classics)

Jon Manasse (clarinet), Clive Greensmith (cello), Jon Nakamatsu (piano) (Harmonia Mundi)

Paul Meyer (clarinet), Claudio Bohórquez (cello), Eric Le Sage (piano) (Alpha)

The trio led by Jon Manasse give a sparkling performance, of which you can hear half on Spotify due to time restrictions. Sabine Meyer and her trio are also superb, with Heinrich Schiff excelling in the slow movement. Karl Leister, Pierre Fournier and Wilhelm Kempff had a great rapport, as do Eric Le Sage and his trio – all of them emphasising how much pleasure this work can bring as pure chamber music to be enjoyed together.

You can listen to these versions on the playlist below:

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 1798 Eybler Clarinet Concerto in B flat major

Next up String Trio in G major Op.9/1