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Hyperion Records

CDS44471/4 - Beethoven: The Complete Music for Piano Trio
CDS44471/4
(Originally issued on CDA67327,369, 393 & 466)

Recording details: Various dates
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: October 2011
DISCID: 690E2508 EE0E2E12 B610C70B 630E4508
Total duration: 251 minutes 45 seconds

The Complete Music for Piano Trio
The Florestan Trio 4CDs Boxed set (at a special price)  
CD1
Presto  [7'28]
Allegretto  [4'45]
Finale: Allegro  [7'42]
CD2
Allegro moderato  [12'38]
Scherzo: Allegro  [10'39]
Introduzione  [4'34]
Tema  [0'34]
Variation 1  [0'37]
Variation 2  [0'36]
Variation 3  [0'43]
Variation 4  [0'39]
Variation 5  [0'40]
Variation 6  [0'40]
Variation 7  [0'50]
Variation 8  [0'39]
Variation 9  [1'44]
Variation 10  [1'50]
Allegretto  [1'45]
CD3
Allegro  [9'23]
Adagio cantabile  [6'47]
Presto  [7'12]
Presto  [7'16]
Allegro moderato  [4'04]
CD4
Allegro con brio  [9'45]
Prestissimo  [7'26]
Allegro con brio  [9'18]
Adagio  [4'32]

Each instalment of The Florestan Trio’s Beethoven Piano Trio cycle was rapturously received. Reissued as a special-price box-set, this superb series of benchmark recordings should not be missed.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
In early November 1792 the twenty-one-year-old Beethoven left his native Bonn for Vienna, then vying with London as Europe’s musical capital. His plan was to study composition with Haydn, by now an international celebrity, before conquering the city as a composer-performer. For all their ‘despairing frivolity’ (to quote A J P Taylor), the fin de siècle Viennese aristocracy was the most musically enlightened in Europe; and with the help of aristocratic contacts, the fiery sans-culotte quickly made his mark in the city’s salons. Soon after his arrival he became a house guest of Prince Karl Lichnowsky, a talented amateur pianist who kept his own string quartet. The Prince held regular private soirées at which Beethoven would astonish the company with his brilliant keyboard improvisations; and it was at one of these soirées that he chose to introduce his first important Viennese compositions, the set of three piano trios which he published by subscription in August 1795 with a dedication to Lichnowsky.

Beethoven was determined to impress and challenge the Viennese musical elite with this first published opus. And with their largely emancipated string parts, their weighty, extended sonata structures and their intensity of musical dialectic, the three works must have seemed like a headlong assault on the traditional notion of the piano trio as a small-scale domestic genre. Each of the trios is in four movements rather than the two or three expected in chamber music with piano: these are not elevated divertissements, but symphonies for three instruments. And if the cello sometimes doubles the keyboard bass, as it rarely does in Beethoven’s later trios, it often asserts its individuality in a way that Mozart only intermittently and Haydn almost never allowed.

Beethoven seems to have laboured long on the trios, revising them extensively before publication. He began work on No 2 in 1793, and on No 3 in 1794, while sketches for No 1 almost certainly date back to the Bonn years. Beethoven had first ventured a piano trio in 1791, and it was no accident that he chose the medium to announce himself to the wider musical world. The combination of violin, cello and piano was a favourite with amateurs, promising healthy sales. It assured Beethoven a star role on his own instrument. And unlike, say, the string quartet and the symphony, it had not been central to the output of Mozart or of Haydn, whose wonderful series of late trios was introduced to Vienna only after his return from London in August 1795.

Beethoven’s Op 1 was enthusiastically received by both ‘connoisseurs’ and amateur musicians (‘Kenner und Liebhaber’—a favourite eighteenth-century distinction), and made the composer a handsome profit.

The first two movements of the Piano Trio in E flat major, Op 1 No 1, are the most obviously Mozartian in the set, though the opening Allegro’s textural richness, thematic abundance and sheer breadth of scale are hallmarks of the young Beethoven. There is expansion at almost every level: say, in the second group’s leisurely proliferation of themes, beginning with a quiet chorale-like melody spiced with sforzando accents; or in the huge coda, in effect a second development, where first piano and then strings further exploit the movement’s opening ‘rocket’ figure, at one point nonchalantly turning it upside down.

The Adagio cantabile in A flat is just as expansive, a luxuriant rondo with a first episode fashioned as a soulful love duet for violin and cello (in its eloquent middle and upper registers) and an impassioned second episode in the outré key of A flat minor—calculated to appeal to the ‘Kenner’ among Prince Lichnowsky’s audience. The third movement is the most subversively original in the work, and the first of Beethoven’s true scherzi: with its initial tonal ambiguity (the music feints at C minor, F minor and B flat before finally establishing E flat in bar 15), its comical obsession with the ‘flicking’ opening figure, and its mingled cussedness and mercurial lightness, it leaves its minuet model far in the background.

If the spirit of Mozart lies behind the first two movements, the sonata-form finale suggests Haydn in its verve and brilliance, and in the witty capital Beethoven makes of the initial leaping figure. But the coda is again expanded beyond Haydn’s dimensions into a second development. Its sly opening shift from E flat to E major and subsequent fortissimo wrench back again are an early example of a Beethoven ploy that will find its comic apotheosis in the finale of the Eighth Symphony.

The Piano Trio in G major, Op 1 No 2, immediately establishes its symphonic scale with an imposing slow introduction—something unheard of in a piano trio, and rare even in a string quartet. But the start of the Allegro vivace lightens the atmosphere with a wispy, capricious theme that hovers on the dominant rather than emphasizing the tonic, G—shades here of Haydn’s ‘Oxford’ Symphony. Haydnesque, too, is the way this theme derives from phrases in the introduction. Beethoven is less lavish with his material than in the E flat Trio, though there is a delightfully jaunty second subject, proposed by the violin and then elaborated by the piano. But the first theme dominates both the development and the typically ample coda, where Beethoven continues to make witty and whimsical play with the theme’s opening phrase.

Haydn and Mozart wrote many Andantes in gently swaying 6/8 siciliano rhythm. But only rarely did they compose a siciliano in the slower, Adagio tempo. It is characteristic of the young Beethoven’s search for increased profundity of expression that the second movement of the G major trio combines a siciliano lilt with an unprecedented hymn-like solemnity. The tempo marking, Largo con espressione, is itself novel and significant; and the rapt atmosphere is enhanced by the choice of key, E major, which sounds remote and radiant after G major. Beethoven shows a typical feeling for long-range tonal planning when he later plunges dramatically (with a sudden fortissimo) from B major to the work’s home key of G, initiating a searching modulating development of the opening theme.

Though definitely a scherzo rather than a minuet, the third movement is less wilful than its counterpart in Op 1 No 1, playing insouciantly with rising and falling scales, à la Haydn. The trio turns to B minor for a laconic waltz of comic banality—the kind of music likely to turn up in Beethoven’s works from the early years right through to the visionary late quartets. After the return of the scherzo Beethoven appends a brief coda that toys with the theme’s opening figure before dying away to pianissimo.

The finale was originally in 4/4 time. But at an early run-through the cellist Anton Kraft (best-known for his association with Haydn) suggested that the music would be better notated in 2/4 and Beethoven duly adopted the idea. Opening with a catchy ‘riding’ theme in rapid repeated notes (perfect for the violin, but artfully refashioned when the piano takes it over), this is another movement that infuses Haydn’s spirit with Beethoven’s own brand of boisterousness. The music is full of aggressive sforzando accents, rough dynamic contrasts (at their most extreme in the coda) and mysterious or dramatic plunges to distant keys. The development alights for a while in E major, the key of the Adagio—another instance of Beethoven’s large-scale tonal strategy. But perhaps the wittiest moment of all comes with the start of the recapitulation. Here a smooth new figure in octaves on the piano seems to be preparing for the return of the ‘riding’ theme, which then enters unobtrusively, before we realize it, while the piano octaves continue as if nothing has happened.

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, recently returned from his second triumphant London visit, warmly praised the E flat and G major trios. But he suggested that the third trio, in C minor, would not be easily understood by the Viennese public—a well-intentioned remark that the ever-touchy Beethoven put down to envy on the part of his former teacher.

Whatever Haydn’s misgivings, Beethoven’s earliest masterpiece in his most characteristic key gradually became one of his most popular chamber works. The mysterious, ‘pregnant’ unison opening is, coincidentally or not, reminiscent of Mozart’s piano concerto in the same key, K491 (still unpublished in 1795). But 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. The famous heroic narratives of Beethoven’s ‘middle period’ are already in view.

The exposition ranges restlessly across an exceptionally wide tonal spectrum—E flat minor in the stormy transition, then A flat minor and E flat minor, again, in the second of the two second subject themes. There is a thrilling moment at the start of the development where the original pianissimo echo of the main theme a step higher now moves a semitone lower, spiriting the music to a strange new tonal region (C flat major, enharmonically spelled as B major). Typically of Beethoven, the quiet opening phrase is reinterpreted as a strenuous fortissimo at the start of the recapitulation. Then, in perhaps the most breathtaking stroke of all, the music slips into C major (with the cello taking the lead, itself unusual in 1795) and then to the ‘Neapolitan’ key of D flat for a new cantabile development of the main theme.

In a classical minor-keyed work, a slow movement in the major usually, though not invariably (think of Mozart’s G minor Symphony and String Quintet), offers a measure of respite. Beethoven’s slow movement, a set of variations in E flat on a characteristically plain, hymn-like theme, certainly lowers the tension. But there are plenty of inventive, authentically Beethovenian moments: the boisterous third variation, with its brusque sforzando accents and twanging string pizzicatos; the fourth, in E flat minor, with its plangent cello solo; or the coda, initiated by a rich chromatic reharmonization of the theme. Beethoven lifted the coda’s final bars for the little C major Bagatelle, Op 119 No 2, probably composed much earlier than its opus number suggests.

The third movement, somewhere between a minuet and a scherzo, returns to the C minor world of the first movement, with its restless pathos, irregular phrase lengths and explosive dynamic contrasts. In the C major trio Beethoven has fun roughing up the cello’s lilting Ländler tune with cussed offbeat accents. The Prestissimo finale (the tempo marking is typical of the young Beethoven’s determination to be ‘extreme’) juxtaposes violence, suppressed agitation and, in the eloquent E flat major second theme, lyrical tenderness. In the recapitulation the second theme, enriched with a new cello counterpoint, turns from C major to C minor, with deeply pathetic effect. The astonishing coda, held down to pianissimo for virtually all of its eighty-seven bars, slips mysteriously to B minor and then moves, via C minor and F minor, to C major. But the ending is uneasy and equivocal, with minimal sense of resolution (the recent memory of F minor is too strong for that), let alone of major-keyed optimism.

The Trio in B flat major, Op 11, started life in the winter of 1797–8 as a trio for the rare combination of clarinet, cello and piano. But with an eye on maximizing sales, Beethoven published it in an alternative version for orthodox piano trio, transferring the clarinet part, with minimal adjustments, to the violin. Compared with the ambitious Op 1 trios, this B flat trio, in three movements only, is a work of relaxation, showing the composer in genial, urbane mode. Or so it sounds to us. When it was published, though, the ultra-conservative critic of the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung found the trio ‘difficult’ and took Beethoven to task for writing ‘unnaturally’!

The expansive opening Allegro con brio, with its arresting unison opening, has little of the dialectical urgency of the first movements of the Op 1 trios. But Beethoven being Beethoven, there are many arresting and piquant touches. After an emphatic close in the dominant (F major), for instance, the music is slyly deflected through D major and G minor before the expected second subject (a gracious, dolce tune, rhythmically related to the first) finally emerges. The soulful theme of the E flat Adagio, sounded by the cello in its tenor register, is akin to the minuet of the recently composed G major Piano Sonata, Op 49 No 2, later recycled in the Septet, Op 20 (in Beethoven’s sketches the two themes were virtually identical). There is a typically dramatic and poetic modulation from E flat minor to a pianissimo E major at the movement’s centre; then, with the restoration of E flat major, the theme is embellished with glistening keyboard figuration. It was probably the Viennese clarinettist Joseph Bähr, for whom Beethoven wrote the original version of the work, who suggested the theme for the variation finale: a favourite number from Joseph Weigl’s new comic opera L’amor marinaro (‘Love at sea’), premiered at Vienna’s Burgtheater in October 1797. According to Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny, the composer often contemplated writing an alternative finale and letting the variations stand as a separate piece—presumably because he found them too lightweight. In fact, these nine variations are among the most inventive in early Beethoven. Highlights are the spare-textured No 2 for violin and cello alone, the two free variations in the tonic minor (Nos 4 and 7) and the trenchantly polyphonic final variation, which then pivots the music from B flat to G major for the start of the witty syncopated coda.

With the Variations in E flat major, Op 44, Beethoven responded to the contemporary fashion for sets of variations on popular themes from operas. Carl von Dittersdorf’s Singspiel Das rote Käppchen (‘The little red cap’) was first produced in Vienna in 1788 and reached Bonn in 1792, during Beethoven’s last months there. One of the opera’s hit numbers was the naive ditty ‘Ja, ich muss von ihr scheiden’ (‘Yes, I must part from her’), which Beethoven duly took as the starting point for his variations. The work was probably finished by the time the composer left Bonn (a brief sketch dated 1792 survives), though it did not appear in print until 1804—hence the misleadingly high opus number.

Dittersdorf’s comically rudimentary tune is a vision of dry bones, as bare as the famous ‘Eroica’ theme which it faintly resembles. On it Beethoven builds fourteen variations, decorative in the eighteenth-century tradition (the theme is always easily recognizable), but entertainingly contrasted in spirit and texture. The lusty, syncopated tenth variation, for instance, is followed by an almost exaggeratedly demure dialogue for the strings, while the delicately tripping twelfth is disrupted by an uncouth fortissimo outburst—Beethoven gleefully sticking out his tongue at rococo decorum. There are two slow variations in E flat minor (No 7 and No 13), a jolly, hunting-style 6/8 final variation and a coda that recalls No 13, now in C minor, before a brief Presto send-off.

Beethoven had announced himself to the wider musical world in 1795 with his three piano trios Op 1. He then abandoned the medium for over a decade, returning to it only after completing the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony in the summer of 1808. Beethoven originally envisaged following the symphony with two piano sonatas, or another symphony; but, as he wrote to his publisher Breitkopf & Härtel, he decided on a pair of trios ‘because there is a shortage of such works’. Both Op 70 trios were sketched and composed with comparative ease. The D major was finished around the end of September, the E flat a month later. That autumn Beethoven was living at the home of his close friend and (for a time) business adviser, Countess Marie von Erdödy, and it was at her musical salons that the new trios were first performed, the D major on 10 December, the E flat on the 31st. They were published in the spring of 1809 with a dedication to the Countess, though by then Beethoven, true to form, had stormed out of her home after a violent quarrel over a servant.

In the Op 1 trios Beethoven had already given the two string instruments more of the limelight than they had enjoyed in the keyboard-dominated trios of Mozart and Haydn. But with the Op 70 trios their emancipation is complete. The three instruments now discourse as equals in kaleidoscopically varied textures, rich in the free contrapuntal interplay that is one of the glories of the Viennese classical style. In the Piano Trio in D major, Op 70 No 1, the only one of Beethoven’s mature piano trios in three movements, the explosive unison opening is immediately countered by a dissonant, disorientating F natural high in the cello’s plangent tenor register; the cello then slips back into D major with a beseeching lyrical melody that passes in turn to violin and piano. This opening at once establishes the highly charged, volatile nature of a movement that trades on abrupt contrasts of texture and dynamics and, in the development, some of the composer’s most rugged, rebarbative imitative writing. Inevitably in Beethoven, the flatward pull of the ‘wrong note’ F natural has long-term structural consequences, both in the recapitulation, where it initiates a poetic expansion of the beseeching cello melody in a remote-sounding B flat major, and in the finale.

The D minor Largo assai ed espressivo which spawned the work’s ‘Ghost’ nickname is the slowest slow movement in all Beethoven, and the most impressionistic. The weirdly fragmented thematic material, unstable harmonies and sombre, quasi-orchestral textures, with eerie tremolos in the bowels of the keyboard, combine to produce music of extraordinary tension and Gothic gloom. And it is no surprise to discover that Beethoven noted down the brooding opening theme among sketches for the witches’ music in a projected Macbeth opera. The finale restores us to a world of convivial normality, with its supple, gracious themes and crystalline textures. There is whimsical humour, too, in the main theme’s hesitations and harmonic feints, deliciously amplified in the coda, while the implications of the first movement’s stray F natural make themselves felt in the brusque or ruminative shifts to distant flat keys.

The Piano Trio in E flat major, Op 70 No 2, containing nothing as sensational as the ‘ghostly’ slow movement of the D major, has always been rather eclipsed by its companion. But it is one of the most lovable, as well as one of the most subtle, of all Beethoven’s chamber works, with a mellow, intimate tone that recalls the contemporary A major Cello Sonata, Op 69. The slow introduction, gently ruminative rather than, as so often in Beethoven, charged with mysterious expectancy, is unusually closely integrated with the main Allegro: as the music seems to be moving towards the anticipated dominant key, B flat, Beethoven recalls the introduction’s opening phrase in a mysterious G flat, before deflecting to the expected key for the breezy, waltz-like second subject. Even more surprising is the reappearance of the first part of the introduction, in its original slow tempo, in the coda. The development, characteristically, ‘worries’ at the two-note trilling figure from the main subject before taking the waltz through strange, luminous harmonic regions. Then comes the wittiest and most dramatic stroke of all, when the cello confidently initiates the first theme in D flat major, only to be instantly contradicted by the piano in E flat major: with astonishing sleight of hand Beethoven has spirited us back to the home key and begun his recapitulation before we realize it, a moment well described by Donald Tovey as ‘perhaps the most unexpected return in all music’.

Beethoven’s obvious model for the tight integration of slow introduction and Allegro was the first movement of Haydn’s ‘Drumroll’ Symphony, No 103, likewise in E flat and 6/8 time. The connection between the two works carries over into their not-so-slow second movements. Both are cast as a set of double variations on two alternating and related themes, one in C minor, the other in C major. Haydn begins in C minor and ends in C major. Beethoven reverses the process, opening with a charmingly demure—and distinctly Haydnesque—C major tune, and closing with fragments of the truculent, faintly Hungarian-sounding C minor theme, linked to the C major by its flicking ‘Scotch snap’ figures. After a full variation of each theme (the C major in wonderfully airy, dancing textures), the second variation of the C major tune is drastically shortened; then, in the movement’s climactic section, Beethoven powerfully exploits the C minor theme’s exotic, Hungarian flavour, with violin and cello in turn hurling out the tune against flamboyant keyboard figuration.

The third movement, noted as a minuet in the composer’s sketches but in the autograph marked simply Allegretto ma non troppo, is in A flat rather than the expected E flat major. The trio is thus the earliest instance in Beethoven of a work with movements in three different keys, a pattern he repeated in the ‘Harp’ Quartet of 1809, where the tonal centres are again E flat, A flat and C. Hearing this exquisitely tender, lulling music ‘blind’, many listeners would exclaim ‘Schubert!’. And it left a profound effect on the younger composer in a piece like the A flat Impromptu, D935 No 2. Yet this romantic intermezzo, with its contrasting ‘trio’ that dissolves magically back into the main section, also recalls Haydn by quoting the beginning of the famous Largo from his Symphony No 88. Could it be that Beethoven, who had made peace with the now frail old man at a performance of The Creation in March 1808, consciously or unconsciously conceived the whole trio as a homage to his former teacher? Certainly the genial and exhilarating finale, full of rhythmic wit and good-humoured instrumental repartee, recreates Haydn’s spirit in terms of Beethoven’s own ‘middle period’ style. In keeping with the whole trio, the movement shows a fondness for relationships between keys a third apart: the gloriously exuberant second group of themes is in G major rather than the orthodox B flat, and is later recapitulated in C major. This prolonged emphasis on C major demands a long coda affirming the tonic, E flat. But what Beethoven gives us is not so much a coda as a second, varied, recapitulation that brings back all the themes in reverse order, then subsides to a quizzical pianissimo before generating a rousing send-off from the opening scales.

Beethoven’s ‘middle period’—roughly the years between 1803 and 1814—immediately conjures up images of the furrow-browed, fist-shaking Titan railing against destiny. But the mighty struggles famously embodied in compositions like the ‘Eroica’ and Fifth Symphonies, the ‘Appassionata’ Sonata and Fidelio are far from the whole picture. And in other works, among them the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto, the expanded range and scale of Beethoven’s symphonic thinking goes hand in hand with an unprecedented lyric breadth. In particular, the opening movements of all three—significantly marked Allegro moderato or Allegro ma non troppo—have a sense of serene spaciousness, with moments of profound reflective stillness, that is no less revolutionary or prophetic than the ethically charged strivings of the composer’s ‘heroic’ vein.

In Beethoven’s chamber music these predominantly lyrical, reflective works have their counterparts in a group of masterpieces from the years 1808 to 1812: the A major Cello Sonata, the E flat Piano Trio, Op 70 No 2, the G major Violin Sonata, Op 96, and, noblest and most spacious of all, the so-called ‘Archduke’ Piano Trio in B flat major, Op 97. The Archduke in question was Rudolph, younger brother of the Austrian Emperor, an accomplished pianist and one of Beethoven’s composition students. Though the relationship between composer and his royal pupil-patron inevitably had its fraught and fractious moments, the two men maintained a warm friendship; and Beethoven rewarded Rudolph’s devotion and generosity by dedicating to him a succession of works including the Triple Concerto, the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos, three piano sonatas, the Op 96 Violin Sonata, the Große Fuge and the Missa solemnis, in addition to the B flat Piano Trio—a list that surely makes Rudolph the most richly endowed dedicatee in musical history.

Beethoven began to sketch the ‘Archduke’ in the spa of Baden bei Wien during the summer of 1810 when, true to form, he was also engaged on a composition of radically different character: the violently compressed String Quartet in F minor, Op 95. He returned to the trio in earnest the following March, completing it on 26th; he may, though, have revised it, as was his way, before the first performance, given by Beethoven himself (one of the last times he played in public) with the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh and the cellist Josef Linke at the Viennese hotel ‘Zum römischen Kaiser’ on 11 April 1814.

The serene, Apollonian tone of the Allegro moderato is set by the glorious opening theme, with its broad harmonic motion and mingled grandeur and tenderness. In keeping with the spacious scale of the whole movement, the theme is heard twice, first in a rich piano texture, then, varied and extended, in full trio scoring: already here Beethoven creates a depth of sonority, with the cello ranging across its entire compass, that is one of the work’s hallmarks. It is typical of this most tranquil of Beethoven’s great sonata structures that rather than modulating to the ‘tensing’ dominant, F, the music glides to the more remote G major for the equally lyrical second theme—the kind of key relationship Beethoven was to cultivate increasingly in his later works. In the development Beethoven takes each phrase of the main theme as a cue for calm dialogues between violin and cello, or strings and piano. At its centre is a hushed, mysterious duet for the two strings, pizzicato, against flickering piano trills, leading to a crescendo and the promise of a triumphant return of the opening theme. But Beethoven shies away from clinching the climax; and after a ruminative cadenza-like passage and a prolonged piano trill, the recapitulation steals in almost unobtrusively, dolce and pianissimo. Any sense of triumph is held back until the coda, where the main theme sounds fortissimo in the most majestic sonority of the whole movement.

Beethoven was fond of juxtaposing a broad, lyrical opening movement with a witty, laconic, faintly cussed scherzo—cases in point are the F major ‘Razumovsky’ Quartet, the A major Cello Sonata, Op 69, and the late String Quartet in E flat, Op 127. Like the scherzo of Op 127, the second movement of the ‘Archduke’ makes humorous play with an elementary rising scale. The initial vision of dry bones (note the bare string textures, in extreme contrast to the sonorous close of the first movement) is later transformed into a relaxed, convivial Ländler. Beethoven is at his most eccentric in the trio, which against all expectation far exceeds the scherzo in scale and range. It opens with a groping chromatic fugato in B flat minor (could Beethoven have been intending an ironic commentary on the fugato in the second movement of the contemporary Op 95 Quartet?) and then proceeds incongruously to a splashy salon waltz such as Weber might have written, veering wildly from D flat to E major and finally to B flat. As in many of Beethoven’s middle-period scherzos, the trio comes round twice, after a full repeat of the main section; and the eerie chromatic music makes a final appearance in the coda before dissolving into the rising scale with which the movement began.

For the Andante cantabile Beethoven moves to D major, a luminous key in relation to the preceding B flat (shades here of the turn to G major in the first movement). This is one of the rare slow variation movements in Beethoven’s middle-period works, a series of meditations on a hymn-like theme of sublime simplicity that foreshadows the transcendent finales of the piano sonatas Opp 109 and 111. Each of the four variations preserves the structure and broad harmonic outline of the melody against increasingly elaborate figuration. After the intricate, luxuriant keyboard textures of the fourth variation, Beethoven brings back the opening of the theme in its original guise before feinting at distant keys; then, in a long, rapt coda, violin and cello muse tenderly on a cadential phrase like soloists in some transfigured operatic love duet.

In his middle-period works Beethoven often linked the slow movement directly with the finale, delighting in jolting the listener from timeless contemplation to the world of robust action. The dance-like theme of the rondo finale, with its whiff of Viennese café music, is, in fact, subtly adumbrated in the closing bars of the Andante. Beethoven makes witty capital from the theme’s harmonic ambivalence (it starts as if in the ‘wrong’ key of E flat) on each of its returns, while the central ‘developing’ episode irreverently punctuates an expressive new cantabile melody with fragments of the rondo theme. The Presto coda encapsulates the volatile, wayward spirit of the whole movement, changing the metre to 6/8 and transforming the main theme in an outlandish A major before bluntly restoring the home key.

In his early Viennese years Beethoven satisfied popular demand for variations on operatic hit tunes with a stream of works involving his own instrument. And though the evidence is not watertight, the Variations on ‘Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu’, Op 121a, (‘I am Kakadu the tailor’) from Wenzel Müller’s 1794 comic Singspiel Die Schwestern von Prag (‘The sisters from Prague’), probably originated at this time. Two decades later, in 1816, Beethoven wrote to the Leipzig publisher Härtel offering ‘variations with an introduction and supplement, for piano, violin and cello, on a well-known theme by Müller, one of my earlier compositions, though it is not among the reprehensible ones’. Wenzel’s opera was revived in Vienna in 1814. And this may well have prompted Beethoven to dust down and revise his youthful variations, taking account of the extended compass of the newest pianos and perhaps adding his ‘supplement’ (i.e. coda) plus the exaggeratedly sombre G minor introduction that gradually outlines the ‘Kakadu’ theme. When the naive, Papageno-ish tune emerges in full, in a blithe G major, it is with an absurd sense of anticlimax—the kind of comic deflation Dohnányi emulated a century later in his Variations on a Nursery Theme. The variations broadly follow the traditional pattern by adorning the melody with increasingly brilliant figuration, though No 5, with its spare contrapuntal textures, and No 7, a delicate imitative duo for violin and cello alone, deconstruct rather than merely decorate the theme. After the traditional Adagio variation in the minor key, No 9, full of chromatic pathos (shades here of the slow introduction), and a jolly 6/8 variation, Beethoven launches a long and capricious coda by turning Müller’s ditty into a mock-learned fugato.

The Piano Trio in E flat major, WoO38, was written in 1790 or 1791 and doubtless played by the composer with members of the Elector’s orchestra. This slender, amiable three-movement work seems almost tentative beside the ambitious Op 1 trios. But it contains much charming, unassuming music, together with occasional prophetic touches like the subtle elision of development and recapitulation in the first movement. The development introduces a new falling arpeggio figure that Beethoven fleetingly recalls in the coda and was to put to more dramatic use a few years later in the Piano Sonata in F minor, Op 2 No 1.

The middle movement is also in E flat, making this a rare Beethoven work that retains the same key and mode throughout. Though labelled ‘scherzo’, this is really a minuet, gentler and more decorous than the examples Haydn was producing by this time. The delightful trio is a bucolic German dance. For the finale Beethoven writes an easy-going rondo whose lilting theme is varied on each of its reappearances. The cello has more independence here than in the earlier movements, especially in the imitative dialogues in the second, ‘developing’ episode. The quiet sideslip to a surprise key in the coda is an early example of a Haydnesque gambit which Beethoven would fruitfully exploit in the years to come.

Beethoven composed the little Allegretto in B flat major, WoO39, in June 1812 for ten-year-old Maximiliane, daughter of Antonie Brentano who is now the favourite candidate as the composer’s ‘Immortal Beloved’. This deliberately easy piece is a sonata movement in 6/8 ‘pastoral’ metre, wholly free of Beethoven’s trademark developmental tension yet full of gentle, guileless charm.

With the little Allegretto in E flat major, Hess 48, we go back to Beethoven’s final years in Bonn before his move to Vienna in 1792. Though the autograph is lost, the work almost certainly dates from around 1790, when the composer was emerging from obscurity in the Bonn chapel and theatre orchestras and delighting connoisseurs with his keyboard prowess. One of Beethoven’s favourite haunts was the Zehrgarten, a cultural and political club frequented by enlightened aristocrats and intellectuals; and it was for members of this circle that he wrote many of his early ‘domestic’ works, including, we may guess, this guileless Allegretto, cast in the form of a minuet without trio.

Richard Wigmore © 2011


Other albums in this series
'Beethoven: The Complete Music for Piano Trio, Vol. 1' (CDA67327)
Beethoven: The Complete Music for Piano Trio, Vol. 1
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'Beethoven: The Complete Music for Piano Trio, Vol. 2' (CDA67369)
Beethoven: The Complete Music for Piano Trio, Vol. 2
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'Beethoven: The Complete Music for Piano Trio, Vol. 3' (CDA67393)
Beethoven: The Complete Music for Piano Trio, Vol. 3
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'Beethoven: The Complete Music for Piano Trio, Vol. 4' (CDA67466)
Beethoven: The Complete Music for Piano Trio, Vol. 4
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67466 
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