Listening to Beethoven #21 – Ritterballet WoO 1


Count von Waldstein, about 1800 by Antonin Machek

Dedication Count Waldstein
Duration 13′

1. March
2. Deutscher Gedsang: Allegro moderato
3. Jagdlied: Allegretto
4. Romanze: Andantino
5. Kriegslied: Allegro assai con brio
6. Trinklied: Allegro con brio – Trio
7. Deutscher Tanz: Walzer
8. Coda: Allegro vivace

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

In which we meet the important character Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein for the first time. Waldstein arrived in Bonn in 1788 and was a companion of the Elector. He became part of the Teutonic Order, an organisation of German noblemen, and wrote this Knight’s Ballet for a 1791 meeting of the Order of Bonn. Lewis Lockwood writes that he ‘let it appear that the author of the music was Waldstein’.

Daniel Heartz writes how Gotha’s Theater-Kalender for 1792 called it ‘a characteristic ballet in old German costume…with plot and music invented by Count Waldstein. It honoured the main pastimes of our ancestors – war, hunting, courtship, carousing.’ Despite its brevity there is one particular tune that appears at regular intervals, the ‘returning German song’ as Heartz calls it.

Thoughts

Inevitably it is the melody of the German song that lives long in the memory…and our first fully fledged Beethoven earworm is a real charmer. The whole score is light on the ear, full of good humour and melody.

The Marsch, Jagdlied (Hunting Song), Trinklied (Drinking song) and Deutscher Tanz would not be out of place in a Mozart Serenade or a Haydn Divertimento, while the Kriegslied (War song) is full of bluster. Meanwhile the Romanze is short but perfectly formed, led by pizzicato strings.

Where Beethoven scores particularly highly is in following each of these contrasting sections with the ubiquitous German song, which will have softened even the most hardened features by the end.

Recordings used

Swedish Chamber Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard (Simax Classics)
Berliner Philharmoniker / Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon)
Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia / Béla Drahos (Naxos)

Comparisons between the Dausgaard and Karajan versions are fascinating. Karajan is bold, striding forward with weight and purpose in the Marsch and Kriegslied – but entertaining too. Dausgaard is sprightly with a leaner gait but also enjoys the subtle humour of the returning German Song – and the harmonic tricks Beethoven plays near the end. When compared to those two the Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia and Béla Drahos feel a little more polite, though still elegant.

Spotify links

Swedish Chamber Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard (Philips)

Berliner Philharmoniker / Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon)

Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia / Béla Drahos

Also written in 1791 Haydn Symphony no.96 in D major ‘The Miracle’

Next up 24 Variations on ‘Venni Amore’ WoO 65

Listening to Beethoven #20 – Piano Trio in E flat major WoO 38


Piano trio – an image used by the Viennese music publisher Artaria on the title page of several of its publications of the mid-1780s

Piano Trio in E flat major WoO 38 for piano, violin and cello (1790-91, Beethoven aged 19)

Dedication not known
Duration 17′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

The piano trio was a growing form in the latter part of the 18th century, thanks principally to the work of Haydn and Mozart. Haydn tended towards works which gave the piano most prominence, with violin and particularly cello in a more accompanying role. Mozart was a little more lenient with the stringed instruments, but as we will see it was Beethoven who fully freed up the form.

This early work, however, stays true to the example of its predecessors, a mark in the sand if you will. Richard Wigmore, writing for Hyperion’s fine cycle of the piano trios from the Florestan Trio, sums it up. He describes the E flat work as a work that was ‘doubtless played with members of the Elector’s orchestra. This slender, amiable three-movement work seems almost tentative beside the ambitious Opus 1 trios. But it contains much charming, unassuming music, together with occasional prophetic touches’.

Wigmore delights in the subtle inventions of the third movement in particular, including a ‘quiet sideslip to a surprise key in the coda’…an ‘early example of a Haydnesque gambit which Beethoven would fruitfully exploit in the years to come’.

Thoughts

The piano leads off, setting the scene for a work where the violin and cello play largely second fiddle, so to speak, to the keyboard. It is an attractive theme, and Beethoven develops it in a relatively safe way.

However the second movement, subtitled as a ‘Scherzo’, is also in E flat major – and does not really exhibit the qualities of a scherzo as we might expect, with not a great deal of wit or daring, which Beethoven would later introduce to the form. The trio feels like a much safer composition as a result.

With no slow movement, the third movement is also based in E flat major, by which time we have pretty much had enough of this key, despite the attractive, open writing. There are some more adventurous moments in this movement, a couple of moves towards the minor key and some lower and quite intriguing murmuring in the inner parts that Wigmore highlights – but these are all relative.

Beethoven has got the form of the piano trio under his pen with relative comfort, but the feeling persists there will be many more radical statements to come in this form.

Recordings used

Florestan Trio (Hyperion)

Beaux Arts Trio (Philips)

Wilhelm Kempff (piano), Henryk Szeryng (violin), Pierre Fournier (cello) (Deutsche Grammophon)

ALl three recordings are excellent, though perhaps inevitably the superstar trio of Kempff, Szeryng and Fournier bring impressive gravitas to even the slightest of music in this piece. They also employ a couple of daring held passages, pulling back the reins on the tempo before moving off again. Either of the three performances has much to recommend it – the Beaux Arts are charming and light footed, while the Florestan Trio are affectionate.

Spotify links

Beaux Arts Trio (Philips)

Wilhelm Kempff (piano), Henryk Szeryng (violin), Pierre Fournier (cello) (Deutsche Grammophon)

Also written in 1791 Mozart Piano Concerto no.27 in B flat major K595

Next up Musik zu einem Ritterballet WoO 1

Listening to Beethoven #19 – Klage (Lament)


Schroder and his toy piano, drawn by Charles M. Schulz (c)PNTS

Klage WoO 113 (Lament) for voice and piano (1790, Beethoven aged 19)

Dedication not known
Text Ludwig Hölty
Duration 2’40”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

This setting of poetry by Ludwig Hölty continues Beethoven’s current preoccupation with downcast songs, having recently set the Elegy for a dead poodleKlage (translated as Lament) starts in a more positive light, describing the silver light of the moon, but soon talks of how ‘no peace smiles on me’, and ‘soon your silver light will shine on the tombstone that hides my ashes’.

Writing his programme notes for a collection of Beethoven songs on the Hyperion label, Julian Haylock describes this song as ‘an early setting that, despite its deceptively simple outlines and such delightfully naive effects as the doubling of right hand and voice in the first verse, touches an emotional nerve in the young composer’s psyche that was to be amongst his most enduring expressive traits – an exemplary handling of the minor mode.’

He also notes the stark closing postlude for piano, and its anticipation of similar instances in songs by Schumann.

Thoughts

If you listened to this song without a clue who the composer was, it would be hard to place. Although Beethoven does indeed use some of the ‘naive’ tactics described by Julian Haylock, his musical language is definitely looking forward to the likes of Mendelssohn and Schumann rather than backwards.

Again the topic is a relatively sorrowful one, suggesting that Beethoven’s downcast mood has lingered for a while since the death of his mother. The telling moment comes at the end of the first verse, when the silver light of the moon fades and the song turns to the minor key. Darkness falls, and tragedy with it, with little hope at the end. The bare chords from the piano offer little consolation as a closing statement.

Recordings used

Stephan Genz (baritone) & Roger Vignoles (piano) (Hyperion)

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

Matthias Goerne (baritone), Jan Lisiecki (piano) (DG)

Peter Schreier (tenor) & Walter Obertz (piano) (Brilliant Classics)

The version for tenor and piano, beautifully sung by Peter Schreier with Walter Obertz, is set in E major / minor, while the version with baritone and piano is a third lower, beginning in C. For his version with Jan Lisiecki, Matthias Goerne has an ideally measured tone, with Lisiecki’s final chords completely bare. Stephan Genz and Roger Vignoles are the ideal match, while Hermann Prey operates at a much slower tempo with Leonard Hokanson, giving an even darker impression.

Spotify links

Hermann Prey (baritone) & Leonard Hokanson (piano)

Matthias Goerne (baritone), Jan Lisiecki (piano) (DG)

Peter Schreier (tenor) & Walter Obertz (piano)

Also written in 1790 Hummel Piano Quartet in D major

Next up Piano Trio in E flat major WoO38

Listening to Beethoven #18 – Cantata on the Accession of Emperor Leopold II WoO88


The Coronation of Leopold II at Bratislava (1790) Austrian School, 18th century, Mestske Galerie, Bratislava

Cantata on the Accession of Emperor Leopold II WoO88 for soloists, choir and orchestra (1790, Beethoven aged 19)

Dedication Emperor Leopold II
Text Severin Anton Averdonk
Duration 23’30”

Watch

Chen Reiss sings the flagship aria Fliese, Wonnezahren, fliese (Flow, tears of joy, flow), the second number in the score:

Background and Critical Reception

When Beethoven received his commission for the Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, he was also enlisted to help celebrate the accession of his successor, Leopold II, again with text from Severin Anton Averdonk.. In the event neither piece fulfilled their function, due mainly to time constraints but also – possibly – due to the difficulty of learning and rehearsing new and challenging music for the time.

Thus the cantata was not heard in Beethoven’s lifetime, not emerging until the 1880s. Lewis Lockwood argues for its acceptance as a positive, optimistic counterpart to the tragedy of the Joseph cantata, anticipating in this early period Beethoven’s later way of contrasting two opposed expressive domains in consecutive works in the same genre.

He also notes that ‘though less majestic, it possesses the expressive chorus Stürzet nieder, Millionen (Prostrate yourselves, O millions) which textually associates with Schiller’s Ode to Joy and the Ninth Symphony by means of its passage asking the question ‘Stürzet nieder, Millionen?’ (‘O ye millions, do you fall prostrate?’)

One aria in particular stands out – the substantial Fliese, Wonnezahren, fliese (Flow, tears of joy, flow), written for soprano soloist with key parts for flute and cello, drawn from the orchestra. In his notes for the Hyperion recording of the piece, Nicholas Marston suggests Beethoven’s operatic experience led him to include this ensemble number.

Thoughts

The Cantata on the Accession of Emperor II is a much slighter work than its predecessor mourning the death of Emperor Joseph II, being half the length of that piece. Nor does it quite sustain the high level of feeling Beethoven poured into that work. Having said that it comfortably fulfils its function as a celebratory piece, and demonstrates once again how the composer is fully at home working with larger forces.

There is a strong sense of occasion from the start, through the hushed delivery from both soprano and chorus. The music then swells into more obvious pomp and celebration, now in a ‘pure’ C major as opposed to the fraught C minor of the Joseph cantata. This is surely not a coincidence, and as Marston also notes, it anticipates a similar tactic used in the movement from darkness to light in the Fifth Symphony. Fliese, Wonnezahren, fliese, the big aria, pushes forward with an optimistic look to the future rather than the caught under the heavy tread of the past. It includes some sparkling writing for the soprano soloist that culminates with a high E flat towards the end.

Later the choral writing is more red-blooded, setting the translated text ‘Look up to the lord of thrones who brought you this salvation’. All soloists and high choir are united in their praise of the new leader.

It is a shame for Beethoven that this music was not heard at the time of Leopold’s accession, for while this work does not quite reach the levels of the Joseph cantata it is still a fine and perfectly functioning celebration for the new emperor.

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)

As with the Joseph Cantata, recordings of Beethoven’s ceremonial music for Leopold II were thin on the ground until the release of Matthew Best‘s account with the Corydon Singers and Orchestra by Hyperion in 1996. It is an excellent performance, capped by exceptional female soloists in Janice Watson and Jean Rigby.

Again the performance from Christian Thielemann for DG is a glossier affair, but it is very fine indeed, and Charlotte Margiono is a very fine soprano soloist.

The recent version from Leif Segerstram for Naxos delivers a strong impact too, with full bodied choral singing.

Spotify links

The Hyperion version conducted by Matthew Best is not available on Spotify but clips can be heard on the Hyperion website here

Christian Thielemann (tracks 8-13)

Leif Segerstam (tracks 8-13)

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 1790 Mozart Così fan tutte

Next up Klage

Listening to Beethoven #17 – Elegie auf den Tod eines Pudels


Schroder and Snoopy, drawn by Charles M. Schulz (c)PNTS

Elegie auf den Tod eines Pudels WoO 110 (Elegy on the death of a poodle) for voice and piano (1790, Beethoven aged 19)

Dedication not known
Text unknown author
Duration 3’20”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

While flexing his compositional muscles with ever more ambitious pieces such as the Cantatas for Emperor Joseph II and Leopold II, Beethoven was continuing to get to grips with the German Lied. This latest example was certainly his darkest effort to date, described by Lewis Lockwood as ‘marginally more ambitious’ than his first attempts at writing Lied.

The dead poodle in question is not known – and nor is the author of the text – but in the little that is written about this song there is general agreement that it is one of Beethoven’s most original early works. By coincidence it appears around the same time that Mozart wrote a lament for his dead starling.

Thoughts

It is not thought Beethoven ever owned a dog…but this tribute to the passing of a poodle suggests he would know of the sadness the death of a pet can bring! It is set in F minor, which was to become a significant key for the composer later in life.

There are clouds for the first few verses but then the mood picks up unexpectedly and a ray of light shifts the music into F major.

Recordings used

Hermann Prey & Leonard Hokanson (Capriccio)

Peter Schreier & Walter Obertz (Brilliant Classics)

Schreier’s account does not use any repeats so is half the length of the version from Hermann Prey and Leonard Hokanson. Prey’s bass, an octave lower than Schreier’s tenor, gives the song a more sorrowful air, as does his use of a slower tempo. Schreier and Obertz speed up considerably for the final stanza.

Spotify links

Hermann Prey & Leonard Hokanson:

Vincent Lièvre-Picard and Jean-Pierre Armengaud:

Peter Schreier & Walter Obertz

Also written in 1790 Kozeluch Clarinet Concerto no.1 in E flat major

Next up Cantata on the Accession of Emperor Leopold II