Listening to Beethoven #171 – String Quintet in C major Op.29

Carl_Schütz_Wien_Michaelerplatz

Der Michaelerplatz, die Kirche, die KK Reitschule und das KK National Theater, Wien, by Carl Schütz (late 18th century)

String Quintet in C major Op.29 (1801, Beethoven aged 30)

Dedication Count Moritz Fries
Duration 33′

1. Allegro moderato
2. Adagio molto espressivo
3. Scherzo: Allegro – Trio
4. Presto – Andante con moto e scherzoso – Tempo I

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s only original String Quintet was commissioned by Count Moritz Fries, and was completed towards the end of 1801. It gained immediate respect, with brother Carl describing it as ‘one of Beethoven’s most excellent’, placing it above the other works he was promoting, the Second Symphony and Third Piano Concerto.

Richard Wigmore is similarly convinced, declaring the quintet to be ‘the final phase of his so-called ‘first period’. This strangely neglected masterpiece is Janus-headed, at once retrospective and prophetic’. Special praise is reserved for the second movement, where Beethoven ‘never wrote a more voluptuously Mozartian slow movement than the Adagio molto espressivo. On the other hand, the tranquil expansiveness and harmonic breadth of the quintet’s first movement prefigure later masterpieces like the first Razumovsky string quartet and the Archduke trio.’

Jan Swafford also holds the quintet in high regard, describing it as ‘a warmly songful work that for all its lightness of spirit has a singular voice and some startling experiments – it amounts to a covertly radical outing’.

The finale has been nicknamed ‘The Storm’ in German speaking countries, due to its ‘tremolo shiver plus falling swoops in the violins’. ‘Twice in the course of the finale’, says Swafford, ‘a new piece of music turns up like an unknown guest at a wedding: a jaunty minuettish tune marked ‘Andante con moto e scherzoso’, the last word indicating ‘jokingly’.’

Thoughts

The String Quintet is indeed a very impressive and mature piece, and as commentators have noted it bears very little resemblance to the works of Mozart for the same instrumental combination. There is a lot going on in the course of its 33 minutes, and the listener is continually engaged and often impressed by the speed of Beethoven’s thoughts.

The first movement unfolds very naturally, with a flowing melody that expands into a substantial structure. The second theme is shared around all the parts and works its way into a lot of the musical arguments.

The beautiful slow movement has a passionate heart, glimpsed especially towards the end with a fiery episode in the minor key. Indeed during his development of the main material Beethoven moves to some very distant tonal areas, the piece losing sight of its centre ground for a while as though having taken a wrong turn. The return to the main theme features pizzicato – increasingly a part of Beethoven’s writing – and some rich, quasi-orchestral textures.

After two lengthy, quite dense movements a quick Scherzo is just the ticket, and this one knows where it wants to go – but has time to show off some witty musical dialogue. The last movement does indeed have a stormy façade, showing how Beethoven is increasingly bringing drama into his chamber music. The tremolos assigned to the strings as part of the ‘storm sequence’ create a few chills, while Beethoven’s part writing is impeccably worked out – and the big surprise, where the minuet-like music appears, is brilliantly stage-managed.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Nash Ensemble [Marianne Thorsen, Malin Broman (violins), Lawrence Power, Philip Dukes (violas), Paul Watkins (cello)] (Hyperion)
Endellion String Quartet, David Adams (viola) (Warner Classics)
Fine Arts Quartet, Gil Sharon (viola) (Naxos)
Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble [Kenneth Sillito, Malcolm Latchem (violins), Robert Smissen, Stephen Tees (violas), Stephen Orton (cello)] (Chandos, 1998)
Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble [Kenneth Sillito, Malcolm Latchem (violins), Robert Smissen, Stephen Tees (violas), Stephen Orton (cello)] (Philips, 1991)
WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne Chamber Players (Alpha)
Amadeus String Quartet, Cecil Aronowitz (Deutsche Grammophon)

There is a very impressive set of recordings of Beethoven’s String Quintet – and the listener cannot really go wrong with any of the above, from a classic and slightly luxurious Amadeus Quartet recording on Deutsche Grammophon to the most recent version, from the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne Chamber Players on Alpha, released in 2020.

Arguably the pick of the recordings comes from the Nash Ensemble, coupled with the Op.4 quintet.

The Nash Ensemble version on Hyperion can be heard here

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 Wranitzky 3 String Quintets Op.8

Next up tbc

Listening to Beethoven #168 – Piano Sonata no.13 in E flat major Op.27/1 ‘Sonata Quasi una fantasia’

Frau vor untergehender Sonne (Woman before the Rising Sun) by Caspar David Friedrich (1818)

Piano Sonata no.13 in E flat major Op.27/1 ‘Quasi una fantasia’ for piano (1801, Beethoven aged 30)

1. Andante – Allegro – Andante
2. Allegro molto e vivace
3. Adagio con espressione
4. Allegro vivace

Dedication Princess Josephine von Liechtenstein
Duration 16′

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

The year 1801 was all about the piano sonata for Beethoven, who expanded the form with each of the four pieces completed in that year. Having stretched formal and expressive boundaries with Op.26, he moved on to a pair of sonatas published as Op.27. Both bore the inscription ‘Sonata quasi una fantasia’, recognising their experimental approach and formal ambiguity. The form was becoming less conventional and more emotional in his hands, and the first of the Op.27 pieces made several new advances.

Unfortunately for the E flat major piece, its neighbour – the rather well-known Moonlight sonata – has stolen all the thunder. Yet as Jan Swafford writes, it is deserving of much higher exposure and regard. ‘Like all his sonatas it has a singular personality, from stately to haunted to ebullient’, he declares. ‘Its opening Andante is something of a blank sheet, offering little in the way of melody or passion but a great deal of pregnant material’. The four movements last around 17 minutes, and are played without a break.

Sir András Schiff, in the notes accompanying his recording on ECM, holds the piece in high esteem. ‘In its freedom, this sonata points the way forward much more clearly than Op.26’, he writes. ‘In its moods it is a psychological piece, but from the point of view of its formal criteria it shows an astonishing interweaving of sonata and fantasy’. He draws a link between this work and later pieces from the Romantic era such as Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, Schumann’s Fantasie in C and the Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor. For him it shows ‘a master of experimentation at work’. Angela Hewitt describes it simply as ‘wonderful’.

Thoughts

Beethoven is by now the master of starting a piece with what feels like minimal, inconsequential material. So it is with the measured start to this piece, but soon the deeply expressive side is clear. In it we hear an approach similar to that taken up by Schubert in his Impromptus, and Schumann in his character pieces.

The deceptively gentle start has moments of light when the music moves unexpectedly to C major, but the opening movement is largely thoughtful. Soon, however, we are in a grittier second section, before the slow movement returns us to A flat major, a similar, deeply thoughtful mood to the Op.26 funeral march. The final movement is a celebration, taking off at quite a pace, but just when it seems about to slam into the buffers Beethoven brings back the music of the opening, which is a masterstroke. With some really striking dissonances that only just resolve, this slow music feels more profound the second time around, before the piece signs off with a rush to the finish.

This work benefits from several listens to reveal its workings, but it is a model of economy and, ultimately, genius. Emotive and forward-looking, Beethoven is on a roll.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Emil Gilels (Deutsche Grammophon)
Alfred Brendel (Philips)
András Schiff (ECM)
Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)
Paul Badura-Skoda (Arcana)
Stephen Kovacevich (EMI)
Igor Levit (Sony Classical)
Claudio Arrau (Philips)
Rudolf Serkin (Sony)

This piece works well on the 1790 instrument used by Paul Badura-Skoda. Some of the faster music can sound quite cluttered but it communicates the rush of discovery, linking Beethoven back to the freeform music of C.P.E. Bach.’ Emil Gilels takes the second part of the first movement at a terrific pace, not so much a stream of consciousness as a raging torrent – which contrasts with the return to the soft melody of before. Schiff and Hewitt contribute two of the best versions here – of which there are many.

You can hear clips of Hewitt’s recording at the Hyperion website

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 Field Piano Sonata in A major Op.1/2

Next up Piano Sonata no.14 in C sharp minor Op.27/2 ‘Quasi una fantasia’ (‘Moonlight’)

Listening to Beethoven #160 – Symphony no.1 in C major Op.21

Gustav Klimt, Beethovenfries (Detail): Poesie
Poesie, detail from the Beethoven-Frieze (1902) by Gustav Klimt

Symphony no.1 in C major Op.21 for orchestra (1799-1800, Beethoven aged 29)

Dedication Baron Gottfried van Swieten
Duration 30′

1. Adagio molto – Allegro con brio
2. Andante cantabile con moto
3. Menuetto: Allegro molto e vivace
4. Adagio – Allegro molto e vivace

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven took his time before setting down his first symphonic work. Aware of the prowess already shown by Haydn and Mozart, he wanted to be on a sure footing with his first contribution to the form, and used a big concert in Vienna to make his move. The concert contained a major Mozart symphony – thought to be the Prague or the Jupiter – an aria from Haydn’s The Creation, and three major Beethoven works. The first was the Septet, fresh off the page, thought to have been followed by the First Piano Concerto and, finally, this new Symphony.

Reaction was favourable, the only slight criticism an observation that the wind section enjoyed a much higher profile than previously. Beethoven’s other formal inventions were subtle enough to ease the audience into the first part of a transition – with the most inventive tactic deployed early on. The very first chord is the key – C major, but with an added B flat – the seventh – pointing the music towards F major. It may not seem a massive switch but listen to the first chord and you will hear just how different its emphasis is, the first time a composer had tried such a trick in a symphony.

Having pointed this out Jan Swafford is keen to emphasise the traditional aspects of the symphony, the first movement proceeding with ‘a vigorous, military-toned Allegro con brio, its phrasing foursquare, its modulations modest, its development and coda not excessively long’. Similar observations are made on the cautious aspects of the other three movements, though the Minuetto is noted to be a ‘dashing’ scherzo. Overall, for Swafford, ‘as a composer of symphonies and concertos he would rest patiently in the shadow of Haydn and Mozart and experiment with voices while he waited for his muse to show him a more adventurous path.’

Daniel Heartz is more complimentary, though also notes how ‘the symphony as a whole does not reach the level of Haydn and Mozart at their best. All praise to Beethoven, nevertheless, for having the courage to essay a genre that did not come easily to him, and to persevere over four or five years until he was ready to brave public appearance as a symphonist.

A final word to Brahms. ‘I also see that Beethoven’s First Symphony seemed so colossal to its first audiences. It has indeed a new viewpoint. But the last three Mozart symphonies are much more significant. Now and then people realise that this is so’.

Thoughts

While all the critical observations note Beethoven’s caution and respect of tradition in the First Symphony, it is still a remarkable work for its time. It also has great invention, and in a sense Beethoven’s work as an original thinker was already done by the time the first chord had been intoned. Using that particular chord, the C major seventh, would have been a real eyeopener for anybody of the time, a tactic not yet tried that suggested a composer ready to take risks.

As it proceeds the first movement is full of vigorous debate and fulsome writing for wind, an enjoyable dialogue with bags of positive energy. Beethoven writes with great assurance, the dynamic is often loud and the mood upbeat throughout.

In the second movement a tender side is revealed, along with a little wit resembling Haydn – it has a similar profile to the slow movement of his teacher’s Symphony no.100, the ‘Clock’. It also slips into the distant key of D flat major, wholly typical of Beethoven to be thinking further afield with his harmonies, but from here he fashions an effortless return ‘home’.

It may be marked ‘Minuetto’ but there is no way the third movement is anything other than a scherzo. It has a very simple profile – an upwardly rising scale – but Beethoven typically works it into something meaningful. Only 25 seconds in and he’s back in D flat major, showing once again the skill with which he can move between keys. With syncopations and catchy exchanges this is a compact marvel. The trio section is also incredibly straightforward, a series of repeated chords from the woodwind, but once again very effective.

The way Beethoven introduces his main tune in the finale is also very clever, stepping up a ladder one step at a time, returning to earth, then rushing up to the top for the full tune. It generates a good deal of momentum to power this substantial movement, which as Daniel Heartz says represents a desire on the part of the composer to give his works more impetus at the end rather than the beginning. As the symphonies progress we will see this more and more.

Spotify playlist and Recordings used

NBC Symphony Orchestra / Arturo Toscanini (RCA)
Cleveland Orchestra / George Szell (Sony Classical)
Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century / Frans Brüggen (Philips)
Berliner Philharmoniker / Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Claudio Abbado (Deutsche Grammophon)
Danish Chamber Orchestra / Ádám Fischer (Naxos)
Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä (BIS)

To listen to clips from the recording from the Scottih Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras on Hyperion, head to their website

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 Weber Das stumme Waldmädchen

Next up 6 Easy Variations on an Original Theme WoO 77

Listening to Beethoven #62 – Adelaide Op.46


Friedrich von Matthisson (1794) Portrait by Ferdinand Hartmann

Adelaide Op.46 for voice and piano (1794-5, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication Friedrich von Matthisson
Text Friedrich von Matthisson
Duration 5’30”

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Background and Critical Reception

This substantial setting of a text by Friedrich von Matthisson proved Beethoven’s most adventurous song to date. Commentators see Adelaide (pronounced A-del-eeder) as something of a watershed in his output, both in the prominence of the piano and its unusual, ‘through-composed’ structure.

By ‘through composed’ we mean a song that does not repeat itself in a recognisable way, though the four verses do each end with the beloved’s name. In this way the structure operates in the way a Baroque cantata might. Perhaps Beethoven was mindful of Handel’s vocal works when using this form.

Jan Swafford writes, ‘Beethoven obviously loved the sentimental verses of poet Friedrich von Matthisson. He labored on the setting of Adelaide for more than two years. Matthisson received the dedication and, in 1800, a copy of the song with an admiring and pleading letter from Beethoven: My most ardent wish will be fulfilled if my musical setting of your heavenly Adelaide does not altogether displease you and if, as a result, you should be prompted to write another similar poem…I will then strive to compose a setting of your beautiful poetry’.

Unfortunately the song confused some of his audience, including the poet himself, who found the song insensitive. Julian Haylock, writing in the Hyperion booklet for Stephan Ganz and Roger Vignoles’ recording, says ‘the solo-sonata style Beethoven adopts for the third verse in particular was perceived as overbalancing the text’, and that ‘the dramatic outpourings of the same verse, with its sudden changes of dynamic…were considered more suited to the opera house than the drawing room.’

Swafford speculates that ‘Adelaide might, in fact, have been written as part of Beethoven’s courting of Magdalena Willmann, a beautiful and talented contralto whom he had known in the Bonn Kapelle and who had come to Vienna to sing.’

The exact dates for the completion of the song are unknown, but it was published in 1797.

Thoughts

Something feels different and new about this song, right from the expansive piano introduction, which gives notice of a much bigger structure.

The song itself is a beauty, the most immediate we have yet heard from Beethoven as a songwriter. The dappled piano part flows in thrall to the vocal line, which is by turns lovelorn and optimistic.

For the third verse Beethoven shifts to a new key and outlook, reflecting the evening breezes through the piano and a slight shiver to the vocal line, which takes on a yearning quality as Adelaide’s name reappears.

The last of the four verses makes a decisive shift to the major key, a positive future on the cards as the singer declares Einst, o Wunder! entblüht auf meinem Grabe Eine Blume der Asche meines Herzens (One day, O miracle! there shall bloom on my grave A flower from the ashes of my heart).

Recordings used

Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Gerold Huber (piano) (Sony Classical)
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Jörg Demus (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Stephan Ganz (baritone), Roger Vignoles (piano) (Hyperion)
Matthias Goerne (baritone), Jan Lisiecki (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Fritz Wunderlich (tenor), Hubert Giesen (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano), Melvyn Tan (fortepiano) (Archiv)

Gerold Huber’s introduction for Christian Gerhaher is of the sort that makes the listener stop and pay attention; it sets the scene of the ‘magical sweet light that shimmers through the swaying boughs’ perfectly. Gerhaher himself is ideal. Similar praise can be directed to Stephan Ganz and Roger Vignoles, beautifully balanced and poised.

There is a recording from tenor Martyn Hill and Christopher Hogwood on the fortepiano that is unfortunately only available as part of a massive L’Oiseau-Lyre box set; happily the fortepiano of Melvyn Tan can be heard prompting Anne Sofie von Otter’s relatively urgent account.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is an ardent singer of this particular song, as is Fritz Wunderlich, moving up a few tones to sing in the tenor range.

Spotify links

The following playlist brings together six different versions of Adelaide, from Fritz Wunderlich to Matthias Goerne:

Meanwhile you can listen to a clip from the Stephan Genz & Roger Vignoles version at the Hyperion website

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 1795 Reicha –  Concerto Concertant Op.3

Next up O care selve (first version)

Listening to Beethoven #16 – Cantata on the death of Emperor Joseph II WoO87


Joseph II (right) with his brother Peter Leopold, then Grand Duke of Tuscany, later Emperor Leopold II Painting by Pompeo Batoni, 1769, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Cantata on the death of Emperor Joseph II WoO87 for soloists, choir and orchestra (1790, Beethoven aged 19)

Dedication Emperor Joseph II
Duration 41′

Background and Critical Reception

Emperor Joseph II reformed Vienna in his decade in power, but in that time between 1780 and 1790 Bonn was very much under his dominion. Beethoven had visited Vienna briefly, but had to return to Bonn early due to his mother’s fatal illness. However because Joseph II’s brother was Maximilian Franz, Elector of Cologne, Beethoven was closer than many through his musical links.

On the Emperor’s death Beethoven was commissioned to set a text by Severin Anton Averdonk in commemoration, yet the resulting cantata was never to be performed in his lifetime. A planned performance in 1791 did not take place, seemingly due to the complexity of the music and the time (two and a half weeks) available to write and rehearse it. That Beethoven finished it was impressive enough, but once the moment had passed it would have been difficult to secure further performances.

The works remained unknown until the 1880s – when we have, as Lockwood describes, ‘an astonished letter of praise from Brahms, who said of the Joseph cantata, “It is Beethoven through and through”. He was later impressed by its “noble pathos…its feeling and imagination, the intensity, perhaps violent in its expression”.

Jan Swafford suggests Beethoven would not have been too disappointed at this, and points to several unusual qualities about the piece. It is a funeral cantata that ‘does not mention God until the third number, and then only in passing; only toward the end does it give lip service to paradise and immortality. In this cantata death is nothing but tragic, and Joseph’s main immortality is his legacy on earth, not his bliss in heaven.

Beethoven writers are united in their view of the Cantata’s important. Lewis Lockwood sees both this cantata and its successor, the Cantata for the Accession of Leopold II, as ‘the capstones of the Bonn years’. Swafford notes how Beethoven pulls out all the stops in his efforts to impress. ‘If he pulled too many, that is a sign of his youth, but already the expression is powerful, the handling of the orchestra effective and expressive the voice unmistakably his own. As a sign of that dynamism, he mined ideas from this cantata again and again in later years’.

The Joseph cantata anticipates important elements in Leonore of 1805, the first version of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. While discussing this, Swafford praises how ‘he could also resurrect a beautifully sculpted melody that perfectly fitted both cantata and opera’.

Thoughts

This is a very different Beethoven. His response to setting the solemn text proclaiming Joseph’s death is so profound it is tempting to assume he is channeling his own experiences of bereavement into the score.

We hear Beethoven’s first orchestral ventures in the very solemn opening pages, a hushed introduction that calls to mind the desolation of Haydn’s representation of chaos from his oratorio The Creation. The chorus gives an equally weighty account of grief, reacting as it is to the text proclaiming and repeating ‘Joseph the great is dead’. In response to this sombre beginning Beethoven writes music of impressive heft for the soprano, then the bass voice sings triumphantly of Joseph’s triumph in ‘defeating the monster’. The orchestra gets caught up in the excitement, while the pacing of solo vocal flourishes (recitatives) and general momentum feels slightly in thrall to Handel.

The soprano brings warmth with an aria Da stiegen die Menschen an’s Licht (Then mankind climbed into the light), which is a thoughtful and ultimately radiant aria with choral backing. Another soprano aria, Hier schlummert seinen stillen Frieden (Here slumbers in his quiet peace the great sufferer), feels like the emotional centre of the piece, a really substantial slow movement that leads up to a restatement of the opening choral passages. Here the tragedy of death takes root once again, the desolation complete – and all in Beethoven’s now-familiar ‘tragic’ key of C minor.

The Cantata on the death of Emperor Joseph II feels like the most substantial Beethoven piece to date by some distance, and the most openly emotional too. With it Beethoven joins his idols Haydn and Mozart in the ability to write for large forces without ever appearing daunted by the prospect. Ultimately it feels like a fitting memorial to his mother, whether that was intended or not.

Performances

Charlotte Margiono (soprano), Veronica Verebely (soprano), William Shimell (bass), Ulrike Helzel (contralto), Clemens Bieber (tenor), Chorus and Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin / Christian Thielemann (DG)
Janice Watson (soprano), Jean Rigby (contralto), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), José Van Dam (bass), Corydon Singers and Orchestra / Matthew Best (Hyperion)
Juha Kotilainen (bass), Reetta Haavisto (soprano), Chorus Cathedralis Aboensis, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra / Leif Segerstam (Naxos)

Recordings of the cantata were thin on the ground until 1996, when Matthew Best and the Corydon Singers and Orchestra made a landmark release for Hyperion. Best’s use of a harpsichord in the ‘continuo’ role dates the piece, heightening its progression from the music of Gluck, Haydn and Mozart. He does much to inhabit the drama and is helped by excellent soloists, soprano Janice Watson hitting superlative heights and José van Dam giving a sonorous contribution as bass. The chorus are also excellent.

Christian Thielemann followed soon after for DG’s complete Beethoven edition of 1997, and his account is used on their big box this year. It is superbly paced and appropriately weighty, a little sleek in places but really getting to the tragic nub of the work. He achieves a hushed intensity from the start, and never lets up – with Charlotte Margiono imperious as soprano soloist.

A recent version from Leif Segerstram for Naxos offers stiff competition, a dramatic interpretation with excellent soloists in Reetta Haavisto and Juha Kotilainen.

Spotify links

Christian Thielemann

Leif Segerstam

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 1789 Haydn String Quartets Op.64 nos.1-3

Next up Elegie auf den Tod eines Pudels (Elegy on the death of a poodle)