Movement 1: Allegro con brio
Movement 2: Adagio
Movement 3: Theme and Variations on 'Pria ch'io l'impegno'
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.
from notes by Richard Wigmore © 2004