Listening to Beethoven #114 – 12 Variations on the Russian Dance from ‘Das Waldmädchen’, WoO 71

Ludwig van Beethoven and Paul Wranitzky (right, in a portrait by Johann Georg Edlinger)

12 Variations on the Russian Dance from Wranitzky’s ‘Das Waldmädchen’, WoO 71 for piano (1797, Beethoven aged 26)

Dedication Countess Anna Margarete von Browne
Duration 10′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

The theme is a Russian Dance from Paul Wranitzky‘s ballet Das Waldmädchen (The Forest Maiden), completed in 1796. Wranitzky, a Czech composer, moved to Vienna in the 1770s and was reportedly given the task of conducting the premiere of Beethoven’s First Symphony in 1800.

Background and Critical Reception

This is another set of variations from Beethoven with links to the ballet, a trait noted by Daniel Heartz. The theme is from a contemporary of the composer’s, Paul Wranitzky – resident in Vienna for a number of years having moved from Prague.

Writing about the variations in the booklet note for Cécile Ousset‘s account, Jean-Charles Hoffelé notes some unusual qualities. ‘The theme…has an irregular rhythm that Beethoven clearly cherishes, composing a set whose harmonic experiments go far enough for one to see the beginning of a new stylistic phase.’

Thoughts

Once again Beethoven serves up a dramatic set of twelve variations on a theme, with a satisfying ebb and flow, all of them wrapped up in ten minutes – even allowing for quite a substantial coda with the twelfth variation.

Initially the mood is quite restless, with the changing harmonies, but Beethoven can also be celebratory (the garland of the right hand in the fourth variation for instance.

This set of 12 is also notable for the appearance of three minor-key variations. The third is quite serious, but the seventh is a flurry of virtuosity. The penultimate variation is the most striking of the set, Beethoven leaning very heavily on one particular note – an ‘F’ natural – to create an atmosphere of uncertainty. This is dissipated in the final variation and coda. Beethoven begins with a Bach-style dialogue between the parts but develops to what sounds like the cadenza of a solo concerto, before ending gracefully.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Emil Gilels (piano) (EMI)
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Cécile Ousset (piano) (Eloquence)
Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano) (BIS)

The Spotify playlist below includes all of the versions listed above. There are some terrific accounts here. Gilels and Ousset, among the older guard, generate a terrific sense of occasion. Ronald Brautigam’s fortepiano account recreates something of the wonder Beethoven’s original audiences would have felt when presented with this music. Vladimir Ashkenazy seemingly has a soft spot for this set, pairing it with his Diabelli Variations recorded in 2007.

Also written in 1797 Dussek Piano Trio in E flat major Op.37

Next up 2 Rondos Op.51