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Hyperion Records

CDA67879 - Beethoven: Bagatelles
House on the Water (1930) by Paul Klee (1879-1940)
Private Collection / Photo © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: July 2011
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: May 2012
Total duration: 67 minutes 2 seconds


'It's part of Osborne's personal excursion to seek the individual potency of each Bagatelle … the more you listen (aided by a plausibly lifelike recording), the clearer it'll become that Osborne has delved deep to extract so much from cameos that pack emotional enormity within small spaces' (Gramophone)

'The joy of having a player of Steven Osborne's spare, rhythmically incisive brilliance … these pieces display Beethoven's genius for creating artistic grandeur from the most miniature of pianistic forms' (The Observer)

'Steven Osborne plays with pearly, silky insouciance … this disc follows on from his one of Beethoven sonatas, and it ignites a similar joy in the way that he conveys ideas so lucidly and with such subtle shades of tone, distilling the essence of each miniature with potency and freshness' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Beautifully poised and unfailingly intelligent … the crystal clarity of Osborne's exquisitely polished pianism is an unalloyed joy to the ear' (International Record Review)

'Pure joy … Steven Osborne … plays with razor-sharp attack and articulation' (Pianist)

'Steven Osborne includes all the published bagatelles and some of the miscellaneous pieces and plays them superbly … a classy pianist' (Dominion Post, New Zealand)

'Steven Osborne's new CD of the Bagatelles, recorded with all the artistry and attention you expect from Hyperion, catches all the whimsy that Beethoven's title suggests' (The New Zealand Herald)


Following his highly acclaimed Beethoven ‘Moonlight’, ‘Pathétique’ and ‘Waldstein’ Sonatas release, Hyperion’s Gramophone-award-winning artist Steven Osborne turns his talents to Beethoven’s complete Bagatelles. Though the composer himself referred to these thirty short piano works, which he penned throughout his life, as ‘trifles’, these are nonetheless trifles from the mind of a genius. In this polished album, Osborne lends his remarkable artistry to everything from the Six Bagatelles of Op 126, which at times occupy the same rarefied spiritual world as the late quartets and were the very last works Beethoven ever wrote for the piano, to the composer’s most famous stand-alone piano piece, the mysterious little A minor Bagatelle known to all the world as ‘Für Elise’.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Beethoven composed bagatelles, or what he called Kleinigkeiten (‘trifles’), for piano throughout his career. He kept a collection of them in a folder, awaiting a time when he could prepare them for publication, and the first volume of such pieces to appear in print was issued in 1803, as his Op 33. It included items that went right back to the composer’s early years in Bonn; and in attempting to pinpoint a date for the first piece in the series he optimistically assigned it to the year 1782. He would have been a boy of twelve at the time, and he is unlikely to have sanctioned its publication so many years later without at least having revised it thoroughly. Perhaps the intricate, improvisatory runs that embellish the main theme (they become more elaborate with each appearance) were a later addition. Certainly, the rushing scale fragments that herald each return of the theme mirror the type of nervously abrupt style Beethoven cultivated in the mid-1790s.

The spasmodic rhythm of the C major No 2, with its off-beat accents in the right hand and timpani thuds in the left, is soon offset by a smooth and shadowy section in the minor, with fleeting left-hand triplets. This, however, turns out not to be the real trio, which, when it arrives, features staccato ascending scales in thirds.

The following number, in F major, is a gentle piece in pastoral style whose theme has a second half that charmingly echoes the first from a comparatively distant D major. Much more incisive is the fifth Bagatelle, which has lightning-quick semiquaver triplets for both hands which are continued by the left hand beneath the broader melody of the minor-mode middle section. The last piece of the series is a dazzling Presto in the expanded scherzo form, with the trio appearing twice between three statements of the scherzo itself, that came to be a hallmark of Beethoven’s symphonic style from the Razumovsky string quartets Op 59 and the Fourth Symphony onwards.

The two jewels of the set are, perhaps, the much more relaxed and lyrical fourth and sixth numbers. The melody in the first of these is inextricably woven into the two upper strands of the texture, but towards the end it moves down into the bass, and then into the tenor voice. As for the sixth Bagatelle, Beethoven wanted its gentle melody played with a speech-like quality. Following an embellished version of the melody which is in essence a variation, the piece comes to a close with chains of slowly descending thirds above a syncopated pedal-note that moves progressively downwards by octaves, allowing the music to fade away into the distance, in a pastoral atmosphere.

In the summer of 1822 the Leipzig publisher Carl Friedrich Peters wrote to Beethoven, inviting him to compose, among other things, some Bagatelles for piano. Beethoven, who was hard at work on his Missa solemnis and the Ninth Symphony, was slow to respond, and it was not until February 1823 that he finally sent Peters the half-dozen Bagatelles we now know as Op 119 Nos 1–6. Peters, however, was highly critical, and did not mince his words: ‘I have had them played by several people’, he told Beethoven, ‘and not one of them will believe me that they are by you. I asked for Kleinigkeiten, but these are really too small, and in addition most of them are so easy that they are unsuitable for more advanced players, and for budding pianists there are from time to time passages that are too difficult … Perhaps my expectations were too high, for I imagined small appealing things, which, without having any great difficulties, are nevertheless friendly and attractive—in short, things where the artist would show that it’s also possible to write small things that make an effect etc. In order not to be misunderstood, I will say no more about it, other than that I will never print these Kleinigkeiten, but will rather lose the fee I have already paid.’

Beethoven lost no time in looking elsewhere, and he dispatched the Bagatelles to his former pupil Ferdinand Ries, who was living in London. ‘You will receive 6 Bagatelles or Trifles, and a further five that belong together with them, in two parts’, Beethoven told Ries. ‘Dispose of them yourself as well as you can.’ The Bagatelles duly appeared under the imprint of the London-based publisher and composer Clementi, who issued them as Trifles for the Piano Forte, Consisting of Eleven pleasing Pieces Composed in Various Styles by L. Van Beethoven. This was the first appearance in print of Nos 1–6, but Beethoven had composed the last five pieces specifically for inclusion in the third volume of the Wiener Piano-Forte-Schule issued in 1821 by the horn player and publisher Friedrich Starke. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that Beethoven removed an additional piece originally destined for Starke, and used it instead to form the opening movement of his Piano Sonata Op 109.

Among the Bagatelles composed for Starke, two pieces in C major, included as the seventh and eighth numbers of the collection, are related to Beethoven’s work on the ‘Diabelli’ Variations, Op 120. The first of the pair is a study in trills, and at the end the pianist’s right hand climbs upwards in a continually accelerating spiral, above a rumbling trill in the bass, until it propels a fortissimo arpeggio that sweeps down the keyboard to bridge the gap in registers between the two. No 9 is a panting piece in A minor with the curious tempo marking of Vivace moderato. However compressed it may be, it is surpassed in brevity by the following number, which must be the most aphoristic piece Beethoven ever published. Its mere thirteen bars (the first eight are repeated) of lively staccato played above a syncopated bass line go by in a flash. The last number in the collection is a miniature, too, though its theme, and the manner in which the melody finds itself transported to the top of the keyboard for its continuation, breathes an air of spaciousness that belies the music’s brief time-span.

The remainder of the Op 119 series is of considerably less recent vintage, though the C major second piece seems to straddle Beethoven’s early and late styles. Its pervasive triplet figure reappears in a similar form in the coda of the variation slow movement from the Piano Trio Op 1 No 3; but the Bagatelle’s own delicate coda, with its ‘rocking’ figuration in the keyboard’s highest register, transports us momentarily to the ethereal world of the ‘Arietta’ variations in Beethoven’s last Piano Sonata, Op 111, and the concluding variation from the ‘Diabelli’ set. The following Allemande seems to cling more firmly to the world of Beethoven’s youth, though if it is of very early origin he must subsequently have revised it, since its topmost notes require a keyboard range that he did not have at his disposal prior to the Piano Trio Op 70 No 2, of 1808.

The gentle lyricism of the fourth piece is offset by the severity and clipped rhythmic style of the following number, in Beethoven’s characteristic C minor vein; while following its recitative-like slow introduction, the last of the Bagatelles preceding Starke’s group (No 6) is based on a tiny ‘bouncing’ figure repeated with almost obsessive insistence. Towards the end, the figure undergoes a rhythmic acceleration, and a change in metre, before this transparently scored piece disappears into thin air.

Unlike Peters, who had so curtly dismissed the Op 119 Bagatelles, there were those among Beethoven’s contemporaries who were able to appreciate the value of his miniatures, and the first German edition of the series was greeted with an enthusiastic review in the Berlin Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung: ‘A rapid glance shows us eleven pieces of music on a small scale; but an infinite amount lies bewitched in their magic circle! They contain few musical words, but much is said with them—as every initiated person will willingly believe; for is Beethoven not altogether a musical Aeschylus in energetic brevity? To us these eleven bagatelles seem veritable little pictures of life.’

Much the same could have been said of the Six Bagatelles Op 126, which formed Beethoven’s last work for piano. When he offered it to the publishers Schott & Co. in November 1824, together with the Consecration of the House Overture Op 124, he described the pieces as ‘6 Bagatelles or Trifles for solo piano, some of which are rather more developed and probably the best pieces of this kind I have written.’ This is, in fact, music that already belongs to the spiritual world of the late string quartets Beethoven began composing in its wake.

Unlike the composer’s previous sets of Bagatelles, the six new pieces were clearly designed to form a unified cycle from the outset. They are alternately lyrical and introspective, and fast and dramatic, with the two threads drawn together in the final number; and their keys form a descending chain of thirds, beginning in G major and minor, and ending in E flat major. Throughout the set Beethoven treats his material with remarkable freedom, transforming it through intricate ornamentation, as in No 3, or by altering its register—whether downwards into the bass (as in Nos 1 and 6), or upwards (No 5). The final Bagatelle is framed by the identical abrupt passage in Presto tempo, which serves with impeccable logic as both a beginning and an ending. Between the prelude and postlude there unfolds a leisurely and expansive Andante which offers the strongest possible contrast, while at the same time beginning in the nature of a slow-motion account of the material that surrounds it. The reprise of the opening Presto seems to dismiss out of hand the profoundly expressive world of the music that has preceded it—a typically gruff gesture, and an altogether appropriate way for Beethoven to bow out as a composer of piano music.

The remaining pieces on this recording are also essentially Bagatelles, or sometimes simply souvenirs, and Beethoven failed to prepare any of them for publication himself. The C minor Presto WoO52 dates from 1797, and was possibly intended for inclusion in the Piano Sonata in the same key Op 10 No 1. In its definitive form, the Sonata was Beethoven’s first work of its kind to be cast in three movements rather than four, and he may have discarded the scherzo-like piece because its tempo was too similar to that of the finale. It was first published in 1888, in tandem with the C major Allegretto WoO56. That second piece, essentially a minuet and trio, was probably composed in 1804. Its coda begins by inverting the two strands of the minuet’s closing bars, with the right hand taking what had previously been the left-hand part, and vice versa.

The spontaneous-sounding piece in B flat major WoO60 was sketched alongside Beethoven’s work on the Hammerklavier Sonata Op 106. Interestingly enough, Beethoven’s preliminary ideas for the Sonata’s finale include a fugue subject in the same ‘dotted’ rhythm as that of the little piano piece. It was first published in December 1824 in the Berlin Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, where it was described as ‘having been written by invitation on the afternoon of 14 August 1818 by Beethoven’. A second edition appeared the following year in the London Harmonicon, under the title of ‘Impromptu composed at the Dinner Table’; and some years after the composer’s death the Berlin publisher Heinrich Schlesinger issued it under the spurious title of Dernière pensée musicale de Louis van Beethoven.

The tiny Allegretto in G minor WoO61a was written as a souvenir for Sarah Burney Payne, the daughter of the music historian Charles Burney. In an article in the Harmonicon she described her visit to the great composer on 27 September 1825. Also intended as a memento was the Allegretto in B minor WoO61. Beethoven wrote it on 18 February 1821, in the album of his friend Ferdinand Piringer, who was an official in the government Records Office, and also a competent amateur musician.

A mystery surrounds the title by which the most famous among Beethoven’s independent piano pieces has become known. At the time of her death in 1851, the autograph score of the A minor Poco moto WoO59 was owned by Therese Malfatti. However, when the writer on music Ludwig Nohl published the piece for the first time forty years after Beethoven’s death, he maintained that the now-lost manuscript bore the inscription Für Elise am 27. April [1810] zur Erinnerung an L. v. Bthvn (‘As a memento of L. v. Bthvn’). Whether or not Nohl misread the name ‘Therese’ is not known, but it is likely that the piece was actually intended for Malfatti, to whom Beethoven was at one stage romantically attached.

Misha Donat © 2012

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