Listening to Beethoven #36 – 14 Variations in E flat major Op.44


Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (left) and the young Ludwig van Beethoven

14 Variations in E flat major Op.44 for piano trio (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

Dedication not known
Duration 15′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

Very simple – but Dittersdorf‘s theme has comic potential, as you might expect from a humorous stage work. In the right (or wrong!) hands this could be a bit po-faced.

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven wrote a lot of chamber music for trio in his Bonn years – and a good deal in the key of E flat major too. This piece was not published until 1804, but is thought to have been completed in 1792 before he left for Vienna. Choosing a simple theme from a comic operetta by Dittersdorf, Das rote Käppchen (‘The little red cap’), he wrote 14 variations of varying character.

Writing to accompany the Florestan Trio recording of this piece on Hyperion, Richard Wigmore compliments Dittersdorf, whose ‘comically rudimentary tune is a vision of dry bones, as bare as the famous ‘Eroica’ theme which it faintly resembles.’ He also notes the glint in Beethoven’s eye and his predilection for mischief in several of these variations, most notably the ‘delicately tripping twelfth…’disrupted by an uncouth fortissimo outburst – Beethoven gleefully sticking out his tongue at rococo decorum’.

Thoughts

This set of variations is great fun, and you really get a sense of Beethoven flexing his compositional muscles and trying a few new things. From the first variation there are strong hints that he is going to have some fun with this theme – and so it proves. In the second variation the pianist enjoys the opportunity to flex the rhythms, bringing in the violin for a capricious third variation, before the baton passes to the cello for the benefit of its richer tone.

The ensemble passages have great energy, and for almost the first time we are getting a sense of the terrific forward drive in Beethoven’s music, especially in the propulsive movement of the sixth variation. A slow minor key deviation follows (variation 7), the cello and violin exchanging mournful thoughts, before the distant chugging of the violin and cello support a piano theme given in octaves. Variation 9 is lively and fun, while the syncopations of the tenth feel particularly advanced at this stage in Beethoven’s development.

As we approach the end, the second minor key variation (13) is even slower and more drawn out. This only makes the reappearance of the ‘home’ key all the happier, before a striking passage where the piano takes a sort of cadenza over the bare bones of the strings. Finally we return to the simplicity of the theme’s profile from the start, before a rush to the finish.

The variety and virtuosity of these variations is reminiscent of the earlier Venni Amore variations for piano, in their wide breadth of moods and techniques – and in their entertainment value, too.

Recordings used

Florestan Trio (Susan Tomes (piano), Anthony Marwood (violin), Richard Lester (cello) (Hyperion)
Wilhelm Kempff (piano), Henryk Szeryng (violin), Pierre Fournier (cello) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Daniel Barenboim (piano), Pinchas Zukerman (violin), Jacqueline du Pré (cello) (originally EMI Classics)

The superstar trio of Henryk Szeryng, Pierre Fournier and Wilhelm Kempff take their time with Dittersdorf’s theme in a very deliberate presentation, and Variation 2 finds Kempff in particularly airy mood – but it is really well judged. That said, they are still a good deal quicker than another superstar ensemble, including husband and wife team Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline du Pré.

The best modern version of the variations comes from the Florestan Trio on Hyperion, which enjoys not just the sparkling pianism of Susan Tomes but also the closely-matched Anthony Marwood and Richard Lester. They all embody the first principles of chamber music by clearly listening to each other and responding in kind. As a result their recording is instinctive and fun.

Spotify links

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

Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zukerman, Jacqueline du Pré

You can hear a clip from the Florestan trio version on the Hyperion website

Also written in 1792 Haydn Symphony no.73 in D major ‘La Chasse’

Next up An Minna

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