Listening to Beethoven #108 – 12 Variations on ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ Op.66

Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (right, in a portrait by Johann Georg Edlinger)

12 Variations on ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte Op.66 for piano and cello (1796, Beethoven aged 26)

Dedication thought to be Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia
Duration 10′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

The theme is Papageno’s aria, from Mozart’s opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), where he expresses his desire for a wife over a glass of wine:

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s flurry of activity writing for the piano and cello in 1796 yielded four works. Alongside the two groundbreaking sonatas published as Op.5 came two sets of unpublished variations, seemingly inspired by the same dedicatee and performers. The first set had fun with music by Handel, yet – as the excellent Beethoven’s Cello book reveals – this one has slightly more serious origins.

‘In all likelihood Beethoven finished these variations after his return to Vienna’, says the book. They were not published until 1819, when they were assigned the opus number 66 – overlooked when the Fifth Symphony was published ten years earlier. The book suggests Beethoven encountered The Magic Flute in Berlin, thanks to Frederick William II’s promotion. The roots of the piece, however, appear to lie in Beethoven’s competitive edge. They may have been designed in response to Abbé Gelinek, a pupil of Beethoven’s teacher Albrechtsberger and a popular piano teacher in Vienna.

Gelinek had already completed a set of ‘frivolous piano variations’ on Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen three years earlier. ‘Beethoven seems to have taken his lead from Gelinek’s six variations by producing twelve’, says the book, ‘starting in the same manner so he could eventually ‘out-compose’ his rival’. Gelinek’s is entertaining and pleasing, but not musically adventurous; Beethoven’s more assertively tests the limits of the theme and probes the possibilities for constructing a little musical drama around it. A contemporary review questioned Beethoven’s potential as a composer, for he was guilty of unusual tonal movements and ‘harmonic harshness’.

Thoughts

Beethoven has a lot of fun here. A perky introduction of the theme sees piano and cello in level partnership, with straightforward musical punctuation. Then, as the variations proceed, both instruments really start to express themselves. The piano offers a nicely weighted variation before the cello shows off its prowess in the higher register. This is Steven Isserlis’ ‘nightmarish’ second variation, the most difficult – and it’s easy to see why, with a high register and some very tricky jumps.

Once that’s over there is a lot for the cello to enjoy in rich, expressive exchanges with the piano, Beethoven’s bubbling stream of ideas showing no sign of letting up. Some are quickfire and virtuosic, others slow and profound, showing off the expressive tone of the cellist. There are also a couple of brisk marches, the second with block chords from the piano. As often seems to be the case with these pieces, the minor-key variation (the tenth) proves pivotal, a plaintive start growing into a substantial and emotional duet with unusual, questioning harmonies. Coming out of this, the two instruments have renewed energy and finish with a flourish.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Adrian Brendel (cello), Alfred Brendel (piano) (Decca)
Mischa Maisky (cello), Martha Argerich (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Miklós Perényi (cello), András Schiff (piano) (ECM)
Steven Isserlis (cello), Robert Levin (fortepiano) (Hyperion)
Nicolas Altstaedt (cello), Alexandre Lonquich (piano) (Alpha)

The Spotify playlist below includes all but one of the versions listed above – with the opportunity to hear a clip from Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin’s version on the Hyperion website

Again it is Robert Levin and Steven Isserlis who get the measure of the piece, from its light hearted moments to the deep and questioning minor key variation.

Also written in 1796 Haydn Saper vorrei se m’ami, Hob.XXVa:2

Next up Ah! Perfido Op.65

Listening to Beethoven #107 – 12 Variations on ‘See The Conquering Hero Comes’ from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus WoO 45

Ludwig van Beethoven and George Frideric Handel (right)

12 Variations on ‘See The Conquering Hero Comes’ from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus WoO45 for piano and cello (1796, Beethoven aged 26)

Dedication thought to be Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia
Duration 12′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

Handel’s theme is a chorus from his oratorio Judas Maccabaeus. It is a popular tune which has been turned into a popular Christian hymn, Thine be the glory.

Background and Critical Reception

Soon after the success of his two Op.5 sonatas for piano and cello, Beethoven wrote a couple of sets of variations for the same instrumental combination. The dedicatee appears once again to have been Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia, with the cello-playing Duport brothers seemingly closely involved.

As Arcana discovered in a previous article, Beethoven’s love of the music of Handel ran deep. Later in his life he was to acquire Samuel Arnold’s first collected edition of Handel’s music (1787-97). Beethoven’s Cello – an excellent and compelling study of his music for the instrument by Marc D. Moskovitz and R. Larry Todd – has an engaging account of the work’s genesis.

It seems likely Beethoven attended a concert of Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabaeus in Vienna in April 1794, but that his decision to use the ‘conquering hero’ theme came later. There are accounts of a concert in Berlin in 1796, when he improvised on the theme and, as Beethoven’s Cello recounts, ‘his listeners were so moved that they crowded around him and wept’. The decision to include cello ‘is not clear, but perhaps Duport played some role’, says the book.

There are twelve variations, beginning with keyboard-led music but gradually giving greater prominence to the cello. The seventh variation features a challenging display of tumbling triplets in the cello, noted by Moskovitz and Todd as having an affinity with Duport’s sixth etude. This variation is described by Steven Isserlis as the ‘one hideously difficult’ variation of the twelve.

Thoughts

Beethoven’s inspiration flows freely in this immediately likable work. The theme is memorable, one of Handel’s best tunes, and its triumphal air makes an early impact. The two instruments have an enjoyable and lightly spiced interplay, briefly turning baleful in the fourth, minor key variation but resuming its infectious optimism immediately afterwards.

The seventh variation is indeed a nasty one for the cellist, with skittish figures dancing all over the place, but then it’s the pianist’s turn, with a thundering statement. The two resume their ‘dance’, with a triumphant tenth variation – more bravura from the piano – and a substantial coda, with some slower thoughts, which leads to a subtly joyful finish.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Adrian Brendel (cello), Alfred Brendel (piano) (Decca)
Mischa Maisky (cello), Martha Argerich (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Miklós Perényi (cello), András Schiff (piano) (ECM)
Steven Isserlis (cello), Robert Levin (fortepiano) (Hyperion)
Nicolas Altstaedt (cello), Alexandre Lonquich (piano) (Alpha)

The Spotify playlist below includes all but one of the versions listed above – with the opportunity to hear a clip from Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin’s version on the Hyperion website

There are some starry accounts of these variations, from father and son pairing Alfred and Adrian Brendel, from Martha Argerich and Mischa Maisky, and András Schiff with Miklós Perényi to name just three excellent versions. However it may not surprise you to learn that Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin pip them at the post with a thoroughly enjoyable account, recreating something of the air in the concert hall after Beethoven’s instinctive improvising in Berlin. Also highly commended is a new version from Alexander Lonquich and Nicolas Altstaedt.

Also written in 1796 Haydn Guarda qui, che lo vedrai Hob.XXVa:1

Next up 12 Variations on ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ Op.66

In concert – Gould Piano Trio @ Wigmore Hall

Gould Piano Trio [Lucy Gould (violin), Richard Lester (cello), Benjamin Frith (piano)]

Mozart Piano Trio in G major K564 (1788)
Clarke Piano Trio in E flat minor (1921)
Ravel Piano Trio in A minor (1914)

Wigmore Hall, London, 29 October 2020

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

This latest event in the Wigmore Hall season saw a welcome recital by the Gould Trio, now well into its third decade and whose frequent appearances at this venue have always featured music from right across the medium of the piano trio; with tonight’s programme no exception.

A medium to which Mozart came relatively late in his career, producing five such works in little more than two years. Last in this sequence, K564 has rather remained in the shadow of its predecessors; unfairly so, as motivic interplay across and between its three movements is comparable to any of his more imposing pieces of this time. Such was affirmed in a reading which brought out the muscular interplay of its Allegro, the wistful elegance of its Andante then the relaxed nonchalance of a final Allegretto as ranks among Mozart’s most endearing.

Would that Rebecca Clarke had followed up her solitary contribution; the Piano Trio belonging to a clutch of pieces that should have laid the basis for a composing career but were destined to remain the peak of her achievement. The influence of Debussy and Ravel is often cited, but the vehemence of Bartók’s music from this period is equally evident – witness the emotional volatility of the first movement (which predates the similarly conceived opening movement of the Hungarian composer’s First Violin Sonata), fraught eloquence of the central Andante then driving impetus of the final Allegro; its powerful culmination subsiding into a resigned coda whose defiant ending feels almost in spite of itself. A fine performance by an ensemble which was championing this piece well before it attained the recognition it now justly enjoys.

If Ravel’s Piano Trio has never lacked for advocacy over the century and more since it was first performed, it remains a tough challenge both technically and interpretively. The present account was perhaps a shade under-characterized in the simmering dance rhythms of the first movement, with the Scherzo’s deft syncopations similarly downplayed at least until the sheer effervescence of its closing bars. No doubts, though, as to the ensuing Passacaglia – building methodically yet irresistibly to its baleful climax before winding down into the depths of the piano, from whence the finale steals in. The latter movement has been criticized for exuding near-orchestral sonorities, but Ravel’s handling of this is astutely judged – not least in a coda whose hard-won triumph in the face of encroaching adversity was powerfully conveyed here.

It certainly made for an impressive conclusion to this recital, just the sort of programme that feels necessary at such a time as this. Hopefully, these next few weeks will bring no cessation on the part of Wigmore Hall or the Gould Trio – their activities necessary now more than ever.

This concert can be streamed again until 29 November via the YouTube link above, or through the Wigmore Hall website here

These Wigmore Hall concerts are free to view but the venue is relying on the generosity of its audience to make them possible. If you do watch the concert, please consider making a donation, either at the Wigmore Hall website or via PayPal

Listening to Beethoven #42 – 12 Variations on ‘Se vuol ballare’

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (left) and the young Ludwig van Beethoven

12 Variations on Mozart’s aria ‘Se vuol ballare’ WoO40 for piano and violin (1793, Beethoven aged 22)

Dedication Elenore von Breuning
Duration 12’30”

Listen

What’s the theme like?

Mozart’s theme is from the first act of Le nozze de Figaro – Se vuol ballare being an aria for Figaro himself, on discovering the count’s schemes.

Background and Critical Reception

‘I should never have written down this kind of piece, had I not already noticed fairly often how some people in Vienna after hearing me extemporize of an evening would note down on the following day several peculiarities of my style and palm them off with pride as their own. Well, as I foresaw that their pieces would soon be published, I resolved to forestall these people’.

Beethoven’s statement, made in a letter in 1794, confirms he was now in Vienna – and already attracting great interest. In the covering note with the piece, he also makes reference to the extra prominence for the violin in the work – now seen alongside the piano. ‘The variations will be rather difficult to play, and particularly the trills in the coda. But this must not intimidate or discourage you. For the composition is so arranged that you need only play the trill and can leave out the other notes, since these appear in the violin part as well.’

Nigel Fortune, writing in The Beethoven Companion, suggests Beethoven included these features in his work to embarrass the pianists who tried to play his music, giving them music of extra difficulty.

Thoughts

Beethoven’s statement of the theme is unusual, choosing to announce the tune through pizzicato violin with the softest of piano accompaniments. In this way he imitates a guitar, mirroring the way the tune is first heard in the opera.

As the variations unfold the piano takes the lead, particularly in a thrilling fourth variation which has the mood of a Bach sonata with its bubbling counterpoint, passed back and forward between the instruments. The fifth variation enjoys subtle humour with the figure of a trill exchanged, but then the mood darkens.

The sixth variation moves to the minor key, and the violin plays a mournful melody as the piano adopts a slow, bell-like toll. The roles are reversed for the seventh variation, the music still in the minor key but with a few longer dissonances. Soon the sun returns, the music flowing forward through variations eight and nine, the latter generating terrific energy in its fast moving writing for piano alone, the violin taking a brief rest.

The final variations find the instruments close together, the music flowing and in affirmative mood, but then in the coda Beethoven unexpectedly moves into a new key (D major), which takes the listener by surprise and opens up the music completely. This is however shortlived, the false ‘departure’ quickly coming home to rest with a rather touching finish led by soft trills on the piano.

Beethoven’s first Viennese work is a strong statement, and a very enjoyable one at that. Anyone wishing to capture his music on paper would have had a hard time, for his music is starting to show invention and imagination at every turn.

Recordings used

Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Wilhelm Kempff (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Takako Nishizaki (violin), Jenő Jandó (piano) (Naxos)

Menuhin and Kempff are delightful in this piece, playing as though they were at the opera themselves. The minor key variation has a strong pull. Takako Nishizaki and Jenő Jandó are excellent, too – they pull the tempo around less but that works well in the longer scheme of things.

Spotify links

Yehudi Menuhin, Wilhelm Kempff

Takako Nishizaki, Jenő Jandó

Also written in 1793 Haydn Piano Trio in G major Hob.XV:32

Next up Octet in E flat major Op.103

On record – Aurora Orchestra / Nicholas Collon: Music of the Spheres (DG)

Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Sam Swallow (vocalist), Aurora Orchestra / Nicholas Collon

Mozart Symphony no.41 in C major K551 ‘Jupiter’ (1788)
Richter Journey (CP1919) (2019)
Dowland arr. Muhly Time Stands Still (1603)
Adès Violin Concerto ‘Concentric Paths’ (2005)
Bowie arr. John Barber Life on Mars? (1971)

Deutsche Grammophon 4838228 [69′]

Recorded 9 June 2019, Maida Vale Studio 1, London

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Only the Aurora Orchestra could put together an album running from Mozart to David Bowie. Yet as we have seen from their previous themed releases such as Insomnia and Road Trip, there are no gimmicks involved in their musical choices and a clear theme runs through the programming.

Music of the Spheres is no exception, beginning with Mozart’s Jupiter symphony before music from Max Richter (Journey), Dowland via Muhly (Time Stands Still) and the Violin Concerto of Thomas Adès, subtitled Concentric Paths. The soloist here is Pekka Kuusisto, while the Aurora play the Jupiter symphony entirely from memory, as they did in the BBC Proms in 2016.

What’s the music like?

There is something for everyone here. Mozart’s Jupiter symphony is his 41st and final essay in the genre, setting a new bar for the form when it was completed. While the first three movements are particularly fine it is the finale that comes in for the greatest acclamation, for its well-nigh perfect fusion of melody and counterpoint.

Richter’s Journey CP1919, is inspired by and named after the discovery of the first Pulsar star. It fits perfectly onto the tail of the Mozart, running at a slow speed and operating in C minor rather than the earlier piece’s key of C major.

By contrast Adès’ Concentric Paths operates in a wider orbit, the violin soaring at great heights over the compelling orchestral writing, which has in its spiralling strong echoes of the music of Benjamin Britten. As soloist Pekka Kuusisto has described, ‘it’s hyper-emotional music for people in an accelerating world’.

Complementing these instrumental pieces are two songs of identical length but very different form – a serene early 17th century song from Dowland and one of the best-known pop songs of the 20th century. Having heard from Jupiter and CP1919, Sam Swallow asks, to effective arranged accompaniment, is there Life On Mars?

Does it all work?

Pretty much! The Jupiter gets an athletic performance from the Aurora Orchestra – no dallying here, or lingering on expressive notes. That does mean a darkening of the slow movement, and maybe some constricted phrases, but by contrast it means an exciting first movement, a mysterious Menuetto and a lithe finale, busy and brilliantly played.

The Richter is haunting and really effective, its simplicity leaving the orchestra plenty of room to create a remote atmosphere. The songs are great too – Iestyn Davies is the perfect choice for the Dowland, with Nico Muhly’s sensitive orchestration, while Sam Swallow puts his own stamp on Life on Mars? without losing the essence of the original, which is an impressive achievement.

Yet the performance I kept coming back to was Pekka Kuusisto’s white-hot rendering of the Adès. This is terrifically difficult music to play, but he makes it sound easy even at the highest points of the violin range, and the moods range from serenity to power and even anger as the music moves relentlessly forwards. On occasion I have to admit I find Thomas Adès music hard to relate to emotionally, but this is a clear exception and the music digs deep.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The Aurora’s albums are great at bringing music of very different origins together, exposing new elements and old qualities, and it does so again here. Freshly minted Mozart and brilliantly played contemporary works, plus a good deal of imagination. What’s not to love?

Listen

Buy

You can purchase this recording from various digital outlets via the Presto website