Listening to Beethoven #164 – Sonata for piano and violin no.4 in A minor Op.23

joseph-anton-koch-mountain-scene

Mountain Scene (1796) by Joseph Anton Koch

Sonata no.4 for piano and violin in A minor Op.23 (1801, Beethoven aged 30)

1. Presto
2. Andante scherzoso, più allegretto
3. Allegro molto

Dedication Count Moritz von Fries
Duration 20′

Listen

by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

A relatively quick return for Beethoven to the duo sonata, with a pair of works for piano and violin. He worked first on Op.23 and then immediately began Op.24, the Spring sonata, its much more famous sibling. The two works were published together, like the Op.12 trio of sonatas, but due to an error in the engraving they were assigned separate opus numbers. Both pieces were written for Count Moritz von Fries, a banker who was an important patron to Beethoven around this time.

Many see the separate publication of the two works as an appropriate move, for commentators regard the Op.23 sonata as the chalk to the Spring sonata’s cheese. Daniel Heartz gives Op.23 a surprisingly wide berth, and his detailed examination of early Beethoven only finds one short paragraph for the work. ‘It seems dour and astringently contrapuntal compared to the lushly endowed siren before us in Op.24’, he writes. ‘In competition with alluring beauties, overt sagacity has rarely won the day, nor does it do so here’. He does however point out that ‘it was the composer’s habit to work simultaneously on works of disparate character’.

William Drabkin is more complimentary, marking the influence of Mozart throughout. Writing in The Beethoven Companion, Nigel Fortune notes the rarity of A minor in Beethoven’s output, before observing that the sonata ‘is unique, too, in being dominated by so much tense and bare linear movement’.

The outer movements are prime examples of this, he says, while the ‘slow’ movement includes – exceptionally – ‘a fugato on a theme that contrasts vividly with the slurred and halting motion of the opening idea’.

Thoughts

This unusual piece has the feeling of a work Beethoven had to get out of his system. The key of A minor was one he very seldom used – nor, incidentally, did Haydn – and in fact this violin sonata is his only large-scale work to use the key. There is a marked tension between A minor and A major throughout, the sort of duel that would become a feature of the mature works of Schubert, who often used ‘A’ as a centre.

The bare opening of the first movement finds both instruments in unison, and though it looks like it should be playful on the page it proves rather acerbic. The movement proceeds with a stern dialogue, unwieldly but still effective.

Signs of warmth appear in the slow movement, where Beethoven switches to the major key. Rhythmically the two instruments are very much in step, with a stop-start feel to the tune, and as Beethoven constructs variations on it the music becomes a little more flowing. The unusual fugue passage would have been a big surprise to the audience of the time, and still feels a little odd here.

The third movement bursts out of the blocks in the same spirit of the first, and again feels more like a duel than a collaboration – but the simplicity of the second theme brings a tender contrast, a reminder of the warmth that can still be found in spite of Beethoven’s lean and slightly mean approach in this piece.

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)

Once again the fresh approach of Midori Seiler and Jos van Immerseel is invigorating, and the relative lack of vibrato from Seiler’s violin suits the character of the music without making it too dark. Yehudi Menuhin has a much fuller sound by contrast, but this brings a welcome warmth to the slow movement in particular, as does the responsive playing of Wilhelm Kempff. Josef Suk and Jan Panenka have a similar profile, while the newest version – from Frank Peter Zimmermann and Martin Helmchen – is quite a powerhouse, sweeping forward impressively.

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 1801 Vanhal – Clarinet Sonata in C major

Next up Sonata for piano and violin no.5 in F major Op.24 ‘Spring’

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

santa_maria_maggiore_in_rom
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 #52 – Piano Trio in C minor Op.1/3


The Cafe Griensteidl, on Michaelerplatz, Vienna by Reinhold Völkel

written by Ben Hogwood

Piano Trio in C minor Op.1 no.3 for piano, violin and cello (1792-94, Beethoven aged 23)

Dedication Prince Charles Lichnowsky
Duration 32′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven was already leading his audiences into new sound worlds and structures with the first two piano trios of his Op.1 set – but with the third installment he cut many of the cords tying him to the past. In his booklet notes accompanying the Florestan Trio’s recordings of the trios on Hyperion, Richard Wigmore takes up the story.

“In the first two trios Beethoven’s subversiveness was still cloaked in the language of the classical comedy of manners. But in the Piano Trio in C minor Op.1 no.3, it erupted in a work of startling explosive vehemence and dark lyric beauty.” Haydn, who had recently returned to Vienna from London, was in the audience with the work’s dedicatee Prince Lichnowsky. He was full of praise for the first two works in the set but had reservations around the third. Those reservations, according to a diary entry from Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries, led Haydn to advise his pupil not to publish the work. The truth, it seems, was more subtle – Haydn not necessarily critical of the musical content but airing doubts about its difficulty for the musicians of the day and its challenging content for the Viennese audiences. They were not accustomed to hearing music of such assertiveness and drama in the form of the piano trio.

Beethoven was his own man here – with the influences of Mozart less keenly felt. As Wigmore writes, “the music is profoundly Beethovenian in its abrupt, extreme contrasts, with violent rhetoric (the first page alone is peppered with sforzando accents) alternating with intense pathos and yearning lyricism”.

Thoughts

A very different atmosphere inhabits the third of Beethoven’s Op.1 piano trios. From the outset there is a chill down the spine of the music, a shiver as the bare octaves from the three instruments announce the opening theme. The mood is similar to that of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no.24, also in C minor – which gives an idea of the orchestral concepts behind Beethoven’s writing. It sets the tone for further outings in this key, with foreboding tones and a repressed energy suggesting the music could erupt at any minute. In contrast to the first two works in the set, it grabs the initiative and looks forward with every opportunity.

The ‘coiled spring’ is kept largely intact in the first movement, though the music does threaten to run away at times, often countered by the calmer second theme. The next movement is serene but retains a serious demeanour to start with, loosening up as its theme and variations format unfold – shaking off its ‘slow’ tag, too, with variations such as the driving third, with lots of attack on the piano, and the jaunty fifth. The fourth variation, set in E flat minor, is laden with melancholia.

The Scherzo finds Beethoven setting a relatively sombre mood, with the first real smile on the face of the music arriving in the tumbling piano figure that opens the ‘trio’ section. This is where he moves from minor key to major, moving from shade to sunlight.

For many the Finale provides a telling shift in Beethoven’s expression, with the sudden outbursts and syncopated rhythms of its main theme. Here the ensemble sounds so much more than violin, cello and piano, as though a whole orchestra were punching out the statement. This is where the no-holds barred approach has its roots, and the energy levels remain high through towards the end. This makes the closing bars even more striking, a brooding coda only heightening the feeling that this is a beginning, a statement of clear intent. Even at the end there is little resolution, the performers’ emotional energies spent, what little solace, there is clouded by what has gone before.

One can only imagine the atmosphere when the first audiences in Vienna heard it, and Haydn’s relative shock at such a bold, aggressive tone. What a striking piece it is, reaching moods barely hinted at in Beethoven’s output until now. The Piano Trio no.3 sets a precedent for all the other ‘traditional’ forms – symphony, piano concerto, string quartet and instrumental sonatas – combining formal innovation with deeply expressed emotions which liable to change like the wind.

Recordings used

Castle Trio (Lambert Orkis (piano), Marilyn McDonald (violin), Kenneth Slowik (cello) (Warner Classics)
Florestan Trio (Susan Tomes (piano), Anthony Marwood (violin), Richard Lester (cello) (Hyperion)
Beaux Arts Trio (Menahem Pressler (piano), Daniel Guilet (violin), Bernard Greenhouse (cello) (Philips, 1964 recording)
Wilhelm Kempff (piano), Henryk Szeryng (violin), Pierre Fournier (cello) (Deutsche Grammophon)

The Castle Trio are great to listen to here, as they capture the sense of originality that first audience would have experienced. Their account features some very impressive fingerwork from Lambert Orkis and intense expression from the string players. Another recording on ‘period’ instruments to mark up is that by Andreas Staier, Daniel Sepec and Jean-Guihen Queyras. It is superbly played, taken at daring speeds and arguably plumbing even greater emotional depths.

Szeryng, Fournier and Kempff inhabit the drama of the outer movements in particular but there is a great intensity between them throughout. The slow movement variations are more expansive but tastefully so.

Once again the Florestan Trio have the measure of this music but also its inherent drama – where they are well-matched by the superb Beaux Arts Trio.

Spotify links

The playlist below compiles the recordings made by the Castle Trio, Beaux Arts Trio and the ensembles of Kempff-Szeryng-Fournier and Staier-Sepec-Queyras:

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 1794 Haydn Symphony no.101 in D major ‘Clock’

Next up Der freie Mann WoO 117