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′

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

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

Listening to Beethoven #50 – Piano Trio in E flat major Op.1/1


View of coffee house in Praterallee, Vienna (1810, thought to be by Joseph Koll)

written by Ben Hogwood

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

Dedication Prince Charles Lichnowsky
Duration 32′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Opus 1 was an extremely important milestone in the life of Beethoven. With it he was determined to make a statement, particularly as a newcomer to Vienna – and the pieces behind that statement were subject to a great deal of care and revision before publication. He chose the medium of the piano trio very deliberately, opting for a form that Haydn and Mozart had not dominated, and where there was room for development and innovation.

The second and third trios were begun in 1793, soon after arrival in Vienna, but the first in E flat major is thought to have been started in Bonn prior to that. All three were completed for Prince Lichnowksy, at whose home they were first heard in 1794. It is thought Haydn – now Beethoven’s teacher – heard each of the three pieces before he left for London. There were some reservations about the third work, of which more when that piece is the focus, but the first two were warmly received.

Beethoven’s innovations for Op.1 are set around a recalibration of the piano trio format, giving the three instruments – piano, cello and violin – greater equality. Until now Haydn had used the piano as a dominating instrument with stringed accompaniment, but in the slow movement of the first trio in E flat major Beethoven sides more with Mozart, giving the strings more prominence and greater freedom of expression.

He also changed the structure of the trio, expanding it from three to four movements, thinking along a more symphonic line. The ‘new’ movement would be a Minuet or Scherzo (a quicker movement laced with humour and energy), the structure similar also to string quartets of the time.

Praise for the first trio in the set is uniform. Richard Wigmore, writing in his notes for the Florestan Trio recording on Hyperion, enjoys the ‘luxuriant’ second movement, ‘with a first episode fashioned as a soulful love duet for violin and cello’. The third movement is ‘the first of Beethoven’s true scherzi’…which ‘ leaves its minuet model far in the background’. Meanwhile the finale ‘suggests Haydn in its verve and brilliance, and in the witty capital Beethoven makes of the initial leaping figure’.

Thoughts

Beethoven’s first ‘official’ published statement is in the key of E flat major, his ninth work to date to occupy that key. It is where he feels most at home, and, if the opening melody is anything to go by, it is a place where he can use the simplest of melodies as the basis for a whole movement. The second theme of the first movement is a nice, tender contrast, but both provide plenty of material for the composer to develop, which he does with a smile on his face. This is wonderfully open, airy music, which would have projected far beyond the small confines of the room in which it was first performed.

The slow movement has a songlike appearance (hence its Italian tempo marking Adagio cantabile) and provides a meaningful contrast, with music of real depth. The colours of piano with the stringed instruments’ greater involvement are beautifully shaded. The third movement has an appealing delicacy, again making much from what seems like very little material to construct an appealing dance form. There are some quite sudden interjections here, Beethoven’s ever changing musical moods beginning to surface on a regular basis.

The composer may use an unlikely melody from which to hang the finale, but Beethoven makes it work, taking the unconventional leap at the start of the melody and pushing the music forward with plenty of sparkle and wit. This is music to be enjoyed, though it comes at a price for the performers!

The sound has really filled out compared to Beethoven’s first unpublished essays in the form, with much more body to the strings but also greater technical demands on the pianist, no doubt to impress the Viennese audience and to ensure the pieces were not copied. In an enclosed, private space it would have made an extremely strong impression with its bright colours and heartfelt melodic statements.

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 fortepiano can be a bit too probing in its timbre but there is a really pleasing zip and enthusiasm in the Castle Trio’s performance, further energising the music. Occasionally the fortissimo playing can over-egg the pudding, but generally the balance is good.

The Florestan Trio present a beautifully weighted account, which works firstly because of the dexterity of Susan Tomes, under whom every note has meaning but always with the strings in mind. The Minuet has an appealing delicacy, while the finale really gets airborne at a terrific pace.

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 Haydn Symphony no.100 in G major ‘Military’

Next up Piano trio in G major Op.1 no.2

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