Listening to Beethoven #188 – Symphony no.2 in D major Op.36


The Longing for Happiness. Left wall, detail from the Beethoven-Frieze (1902) by Gustav Klimt

Symphony no.2 in D major Op.36 for orchestra (1800-1802, Beethoven aged 31)

Dedication Karl Alois, Prince Lichnowsky
Duration 30′

1. Adagio molto – Allegro con brio
2. Larghetto
3. Scherzo: Allegro
4. Allegro molto

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s time in Heiligenstadt may have been difficult, but it yielded music of remarkable positivity in such testing situations. George Hall, writing booklet notes for Simax, sums up the situation neatly: ”What has proved remarkable to Beethoven’s biographers is that the (second) symphony, whose sketches date back to 1800 and whose finishing touches were probably added in 1803, was composed largely in the year that he wrote the famous Heiligenstadt testament. The fact that this document – in which Beethoven in his post-suicidal mood railed against his deafness and isolation in a letter – was conceived in the year of this predominantly happy and straightforward piece is considered paradoxical.’

‘Symphony no.2 is the main fruit of Beethoven’s labors in 1801-2 and is considered to be the culminating success of his early period’, writes Daniel Heartz. He gives an account of the premiere on 5 April 1803, which took place at the new Theater an der Wien, and included the hastily composed short oratorio Christus am Ölberge and also a new piano concerto, the third.

In a fascinating and detailed analysis, Heartz goes on to draw close links with Mozart‘s Symphony no.38, the Prague, which Beethoven greatly admired. Written in the same key, the two works share a broad Adagio introduction to the first movement, and a nearly identical instrumentation. The crucial difference here is that Beethoven adds clarinets in A, a distinctive part of the woodwind sound which makes such a difference to this symphony.

The second symphony would probably have been, to date, the longest symphony yet published – a quality acknowledged by Allegmeine Musikalische Zeitung of Leipzig, in their 1804 appraisal. ‘It is’, their critic wrote, ‘a noteworthy, colossal work (the biggest so far), whose profundity, strength and artistic understanding are very rare, and presents difficulties from the point of view of execution…that certainly no previous symphony has offered.’

Heartz identifies it as ‘a watershed for its composer, the last of his big works in which he looked to Haydn and Mozart for inspiration.’ Later, he notes that when ‘the London Philharmonic Society invited Beethoven to compose a symphony in the style of the first and second symphonies’, it was ‘an offer that deeply offended the composer, who indignantly refused. There can scarcely be more striking confirmation than this that a corner was turned after 1802.’

Thoughts

If you approached this piece cold, there is no way you would know it was written by a man whose grip on life itself was tenuous. In the midst of all the strife he was experiencing, Beethoven pulled out this sunny piece of beautifully joined-up thinking, giving the best possible response to his illnesses and impending deafness. If he was to be hindered, the music would see him through.

There is much to love about the Second Symphony. Its dimensions look front-loaded, with a substantial first and second movement and a shorter Scherzo and Finale placed third and fourth. These two, however, act as a combined pair – and so the feeling is of a trio of movements, as perfected by Mozart in the Prague symphony discussd above. The spirit of Mozart is present for sure, but so is the drive and energy of the younger composer, along with his ability to develop incredibly small melodic cells into material for whole movements.

His expertise in this is evident in those third and fourth movements. The scherzo’s seemingly throwaway phrase at the start is the block on which the whole movement rests, played by the orchestra but with the strings keeping busy in between. The finale follows on naturally, moving closer to ‘home’ with another clipped phrase from the full orchestra.

Before these two symphonic gems we have had the pleasure of an energy-filled first movement and a balletic second, a ‘slow’ movement with a good deal of poise. Here the clarinets make themselves known the most, and Beethoven’s writing for wind is a joy in which to indulge. The movement flows with a happy stream of invention, anticipating perhaps the outdoor vistas of the later Pastoral symphony.

Working backwards, the first movement has a good deal of drama in its introduction and a tautly argued Allegro section which frequently breaks into an unfiltered smile. Perhaps Mozart and a little of Haydn are most obvious in the music here, but again the material could not be from anyone else.

Many commentators declare the Second Symphony as the culmination of Beethoven’s first period. With music of such rich invention, such clever but instinctive development and such bright textures, it is to be savoured – and bodes extremely well for what is to come.

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)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Rafael Kubelik (Deutsche Grammophon)
Anime Eterna Brugge / Jos Van Immerseel (ZigZag Territories)

Performances on ‘period’ instruments or modern interpretations are both to be lauded in this piece. The former camp contains really fine versions from Anime Eterna Brugge and Jos van Immerseel, or the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century and Frans Brüggen, to name just two thoroughly enjoyable accounts. The latter gives great enjoyment thanks to the batons of Harnoncourt, Kubelik and Szell, not to mention many, many others!

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 1802 Haydn Mass in B flat major Hob. XXII:14 ‘Harmoniemesse’

Next up No, non turbarti, WoO 92a

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”

Listen

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)