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 #166 – Serenade in D major Op.25

A View of the Karlskirche, Vienna by Bernardo Bellotto

Serenade in D major Op.25 for flute, violin and viola (1801, Beethoven aged 30)

Dedication Countess Maria Wilhelmine von Thun
Duration 22′

1. Entrata, Allegro
2. Tempo ordinario d’un Menuetto
3. Allegro molto
4. Andante con Variazioni
5. Allegro scherzando e vivace
6. Adagio – Allegro vivace e disinvolto

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

This attractive trio was initially thought to have been written around the same time as Beethoven’s Trio for clarinet, cello and piano – but as Richard Wigmore observes, writing in a booklet note for Hyperion, its actual date is three years later.

The flute was a very bankable instrument thanks to Frederick The Great, and Wigmore describes how ‘the Serenade, like the Septet, is a delightful late offshoot of the eighteenth-century divertimento tradition’.

There are six movements in a piece which appears not to have been written with any particular person in mind, more for the Viennese domestic market.

Thoughts

Beethoven looks back to Mozart and Haydn with this piece, using the form of a Serenade to its full potential. Like Mozart he brings the most out of seemingly small forces. On the face of it the combination of flute, violin and viola is relatively slight, but not in Beethoven’s hands. Each of the instruments gets a thorough workout in music that is both vivacious and touching.

The air of Spring, so prevalent in the sonata for piano and violin of the same name, is here in abundance too. The bright sound of the flute is one of the reasons for this, but so are the busy parts Beethoven assigns to violin and viola. There are few if any breaks for the instruments, and because of the almost complete lack of a bass instrument the piece has the lightest of textures.

The first movement is fun, the flute imitating a piper with the catchy main theme, but in the second movement Beethoven brings through a number of dance rhythms, with a minuet and two contrasting trio sections. The third movement is a rustic dance, with busy strings and lively flute.

The centrepiece, however, is the theme and variations movement, the strings introducing the theme with double stopping that makes them sound like a full quartet. As the music progresses each of the three protagonists gets their turn in the spotlight, which the audience would have enjoyed.

There is more, too – a scherzo where the instrumentalists are all at play, and a final Rondo where Beethoven heightens the folksy mood with the use of open strings on the violin and viola. The abundance of tunes and good humour in this piece make it a treat for audiences and listeners alike.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Gaudier Ensemble (Jaime Martin (flute), Marieke Blankestijn (violin), Iris Juda (viola) (Hyperion)
Members of the Berliner Philharmoniker (Karlheinz Zoeller (flute), Thomas Brandis (violin), Siegbert Uebershaer (viola) (Deutsche Grammophon)
James Galway (flute), Joseph Swensen (violin), Paul Neubauer (viola) (RCA)
Emmanuel Pahud (flute), Daishin Kashimoto (violin), Amihai Grosz (viola) (Warner Classics)
Melos Ensemble of London (Richard Adeney (flute), Emmanuel Hurwitz (violin), Cecil Aronowitz (viola) (Eloquence)

There are some fine versions of this piece available, the musicians clearly enjoying Beethoven’s high spirits throughout. The two I enjoyed most are from members of the Gaudier Ensemble on Hyperion, beautifully recorded, and the bright tones of three members of the Berliner Philharmoniker on Deutsche Grammophon, a recording made in 1969 that stands up very well.

You can listen to these versions on the playlist below:

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 Piano Sonata no.12 in A flat major Op.26

Listening to Beethoven #81 – String Quintet in E flat major Op.4

View of the Kohlmarkt from Michael-platz by Karl Schütz (18th century)

String Quintet in E flat major Op.4 (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

1. Allegro con brio
2. Andante 3. Menuetto più Allegretto – Trio 4. Presto

Dedication unknown
Duration 29’30”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

In which Beethoven returns to his Octet for wind in E flat major, eventually published as Op.103. At this point however the work was only privately known, so Beethoven followed the example of Mozart in reworking a work for wind ensemble for string quintet, part of a response to a double commission from Count Apponyi. Mozart’s revised work was the conversion of the Serenade in C minor K388, also for octet, into the String Quintet published as K406.

In spite of their acknowledged quality, Beethoven’s two string quintets are relatively neglected, in spite of their acknowledged quality. In them Beethoven skirts around the string quartet, writing for it directly but disguising his efforts either with the addition of two horns or an extra viola. In a sense he was playing it safe until fully ready to enter a pressurised arena.

Lewis Lockwood notes how Beethoven’s String Quintet makes considerable advances on the music of the Octet. “Especially revealing of Beethoven’s musical growth from the final apprentice years to his first true maturity in Vienna is his revision of the Wind Octet as a String Quintet”, he writes. “The whole revision – which is no mere arrangement but a true recomposition – exemplifies Beethoven’s command even more than does his use of Bonn material in the piano sonatas of Op.2.”

Richard Wigmore writes perceptive notes for the recording made by the Nash Ensemble for Hyperion. He notes Beethoven’s new-found maturity to be ‘not least because of his intensive contact with Haydn’s latest symphonies and string quartets’, and shows how those encounters are manifested in the Quintet. “No-one could guess”, he says, “that this music – or large tracts of it – was not originally conceived for strings.”

Thoughts

The neglect in which the Op.4 string quintet is held is surprising, given its obvious quality. Pleasant though the material for the wind octet is, this feels like a real step up in terms of structural command and instrumental invention. The mood is much more purposeful, the dialogue between the strings containing music of deep substance and featuring impressive development of Beethoven’s themes.

The first movement is tautly argued, its ten minutes passing quickly with concentrated musical thought. The second movement finds a much more tender spot, a lovely Andante where time slows and the subject becomes more lyrical.

The scherzo is closely linked to the Octet, and its theme flits across the five instruments, an insistent rhythm working away like a persistent insect. The big difference is in the two trio sections. The first is what seems like a throwaway phrase that Beethoven works between the parts beautifully, while the second – for quartet alone – is quite chromatic, the melody sliding by step but very fluid in its execution.

The finale is quick and wraps up the quintet with a nice balance of wit and purpose.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Nash Ensemble [Marianne Thorsen, Malin Broman (violins), Lawrence Power, Philip Dukes (violas), Paul Watkins (cello)] (Hyperion)

Endellion String Quartet [Andrew Watkinson, Ralph de Souza (violins), Garfield Jackson (viola), David Waterman (cello)], David Adams (viola) (Warner Classics)

Two excellent recordings.

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 Haydn Symphony no.103 in E flat major ‘Drum Roll’

Next up Seufzer eines Ungeliebten und Gegenliebe

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′

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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

Listening to Beethoven #51 – Piano Trio in G major Op.1/2


Vienna coffee house (18th century) (Anonymous painter)

written by Ben Hogwood

Piano Trio in G major Op.1 no.2 for piano, violin and cello (1792-94, Beethoven aged 23)

Dedication Prince Charles Lichnowsky
Duration 33′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

The second of Beethoven’s three piano trios, Op.1, is a substantial work. As with the first it sets out a number of innovations in the form – structured in four movements rather than three, and giving the strings much more say in the melodic material so that they are on an even footing with the piano. This time Beethoven adds an expansive introduction to the first movement, taking it even closer to the profile of a Haydn symphony.

While the first piece in this triptych of piano trios had its origins in Bonn, this second instalment appears to wholly originate from Vienna, Beethoven working at it through 1793 and 1794. Its choice of key, G major, presents it as a complement to the oft-used E flat major of the first trio, meaning the set of three could be performed in a sequence if the performers had the stamina!

The extra demands on the performers are noted, however. Susan Tomes, talking to Arcana about this work, noted that “Op.1/2 is extremely difficult for the piano particularly, and it has to sound so effervescent, like a Mozart opera in piano trio form. It’s actually very difficult.”

Richard Wigmore, in his notes for the Florestan Trio’s recording on Hyperion, writes how the G major trio ‘immediately establishes its symphonic scale with an imposing slow introduction – something unheard of in a piano trio, and rare even in a string quartet’. Of the slow movement, he writes, ‘It is characteristic of the young Beethoven’s search for an increased profundity of expression that the second movement…combines a siciliano lilt with an unprecedented hymn-like solemnity.’ Meanwhile the finale ‘is another movement that infuses Haydn’s spirit with Beethoven’s own brand of boisterousness.’

Thoughts

The expansive first movement shows Beethoven completely at home in this medium. He allows plenty of time to set out the key and allow a few decorative but meaningful flourishes from the piano, harking back a little to the Baroque period. Soon however he becomes more impatient, and the music moves smoothly into the main body of the movement. A charming statement from the piano is picked up by the strings and the three instruments have fun developing its dance-like qualities.

There is often the sense that Beethoven is playing with his listener, and this comes through in the exchanges that close out the first movement. Elsewhere the music softens, nowhere more so than the second movement, marked Largo con espressione, where the composer opts for the more exotic key of E major to express his feelings. This is a beautiful and restful ten minutes of music, with both violin and cello given plenty of melodic material in their higher registers.

A pure sense of musical enjoyment comes through in the last two movements. The cello takes the lead in the third movement Scherzo, possibly for the first time in this form, while the trio section hints at a darker diversion but quickly returns to the light courtesy of trills on the piano. This is a slightly furtive movement, but gives way to a sparkling finale, emulating Haydn with some of its jokes. The running theme resembles Rossini’s William Tell overture (still 35 years away)

Beethoven’s second is the most substantial Piano Trio to date – but little would have prepared his listeners on what was to follow.

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 again invaluable guides on how this music might of sounded in its first performance. Their sound can be brittle (to our ears at least) in the slow movement especially, no matter how affectionately it is played. Again the Florestan Trio are excellent in this music, with an affectionate ear for Beethoven’s inventions and in the finale a tempo which really does justice to the composer’s marking of Presto. Wilhelm Kempff, Henryk Szeryng, Pierre Fournier clock in at just over 35 minutes in a very expansive version, lovingly played if offering a lot more heart-on-sleeve. Again the Beaux Arts Trio are excellent guides in their long-established recording from 1964.

Spotify links

The playlist below compiles the recordings made by the Castle Trio, Beaux Arts Trio and the Szeryng-Fournier-Kempff trio:

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 Viotti Violin Concerto No.27 in C major

Next up Piano trio in C minor Op.1 no.3