"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

July 12, 2011

Listening to the complete Beethoven (1)

Some time ago, I started to digitize my CD collection to loss-less MP3s using the excellent EAC program. I thought it would be nice to have a back-up when CDs are getting older and also saw it as a chance to hear my entire collection in chronological order and take stock of what I have. I would try to listen to what I don't have from other sources and see what I still wanted to add to my collection.

The big question was: where to start? I was going to do this by composer. Should I start with Bach or even earlier? By chance, I got a ride in the car of a colleague who all the time was playing a compilation of Beethoven works. I hadn't been listening to Beethoven for quite some time, although he was my favorite composer when I was a teenager. So I decided to start with Beethoven, first with the uncollected works (WoO, Anh. and Hess) and then the opus numbers from opus 1.

Why would Beethoven be popular with young persons? He can be loud (when I was a teenager, I liked loud and fast music like the Fifth), full of action and with a positive belief in life. Beethoven was a man of the Enlightenment and of the French revolution. He believed in the equality of all people. This rationality can be heard in his music. And perhaps in tune with the times, when armies were constantly on the march, his music has something military (or militaristic) as well. Symbolically, you can see that as the Struggle of Life. Perhaps we should call it heroic.

Later, in my 20s, I also learned to appreciate his chamber music. There was a technical reason for this. I had acquired an old-fashioned tape recorder (with those large reels) that I used to tape music from the radio. Due to the quality of the mono recorder, the only music that I could tape with reasonable quality was chamber music: violin and cello sonatas, piano trios and piano quartets, string quartets. That is how I started to listen to and appreciate chamber music - including works by Beethoven.

When in the late 80s I changed from records to CDs (and had done away with the tape recorder) I bought both Beethoven orchestral works (often in new versions played on authentic instruments) and his chamber and instrumental works. My black spot was and is (in general, not only with Beethoven) vocal music. There is a reason for this. The best music for me is abstract music. Words are too concrete and distract from the music, I find.

Let's start our Beethoven survey. There is a useful list of his works on Wikipedia.

Opus 1 consists of three piano trios from 1795. Beethoven was 25 at the time and these works are the compositions of a confident and fully formed composer. There is nothing immature about them. the best of the three is the third trio in c minor - real vintage Beethoven. Why would Beethoven start with piano trios? The piano trio was a new genre (started by Mozart and Haydn) but well suited to Beethoven who at that time tried to win fame as a pianist. For a piano concerto you needed a whole orchestra, but a trio with only violin and cello was easy to bring together and could perform also in private residences. Also among the WoO works of an earlier date are works for piano trio and piano quartet. There is a great seriousness about these works, from the weighty slow movements to the finales, which are real climaxes instead of the throw-away rondos of that period.

Next come the first three piano sonatas (op 2 from 1796), like the trios in four movements and very virtuoso. I have them on pianoforte which is the best way to play these early sonatas. I also remember from my piano study days, that they are fun to play. Although the third sonata is the weightiest of the three, I am most fond of the second one.

Opus 3 is a string trio from 1794. As string trios went at that time, this lovingly modeled work has the character of a serenade and is in 6 parts. Like Mozart's K563 with which its vies in length and wight, this is scored for violin, viola and cello.

We will skip Opus 4 as it is a string quintet version of the wind octet, but instead listen to the wind octet which despite its high (and posthumous) opus number (103) dates from 1792. It is tuneful table music for the court of the Elector in Bonn.

Next we arrive at the two cello sonatas opus 5 (1796). These were written during a sojourn in Berlin for the chief cellist of King Frederic Wilhelm II. With these works, Beethoven stands at the cradle of the cello sonata. I have performances on authentic instruments by Anthony Pleeth (cello) and Melvyn Tan (piano), but have the feeling that they hold back too much - or perhaps that is the drawback of the instruments they use. Both sonatas themselves are also a bit archaic: in two movements, with an adagio introduction before the first movement that is by far the weightiest.

Op 6 consists of the only piano sonata for four hands that Beethoven wrote. It dates from 1797 and is in two easy movements - clearly a work for a pupil, but still entertaining enough.

Op 7 contains Beethoven's fourth piano sonata and is at almost half an hour much more substantial than the previous item. The sonata has been called "Grand Sonata" and consists of four movements. It is also from 1797 and was dedicated to Beethoven's gifted pupil Countess Babette Keglevich. It is a virtuoso sonata, with fast repeated note patterns and therefore lots of momentum. The last movement is uncharacteristically songful. With its rapid mood changes, this a very interesting sonata.

Op 8 (1797) is again a serenade for string trio, a delightful and in length quite substantial piece of light music. It starts and ends with a march with five movements in-between. In spirit it still belongs to the 18th c. and only the brooding adagio twice interrupted by a scherzo foreshadows the new age. The fifth movement is a Polacca.

Op 9 contains three string trios, the last works Beethoven wrote for this combination of instruments (1798). Here we have no light music anymore, Beethoven changes the mood to four movement serious trios like the piano trios. Thematic imagination is impressive, coupled with a pervasive sense of developmental variation. Perhaps Beethoven felt the constraints of the genre, too - thanks to the presence of the piano, a piano trio can be more forceful and a string quartet has more color and melodic lines thanks to the added presence of one more violin.

Op 10 consists of three piano sonatas (Nos 5 to 7), all dating from 1798. All three sonatas are rather angular and experimental. Sonata no 5 in c minor is tragic and heroic at the same time, all in a concise form. The first movement is full of nervous energy, with large contrasts in volume. After a quiet adagio, the last movement is a prestissimo. Sonata No. 6 is more bright and melodious, although here too the first movement is plagued by storms. The second movement has the character of a Bagatelle. Sonata No. 7 is the longest, in four movements. It starts with a presto; the second movement, largo, is a tragic slow movement of great beauty.

Op 11 is again a piano trio ("Gassenhauer"), this time a single one, written in 1798. The first voice can be either a clarinet or violin. It is a charming and melodious work; the clarinet immediately suggests serenade music.

In these first works we see a Beethoven with still one leg in the serenading 18th c. (String trios Op 3 and op 8, Gassenhauer Trio, piano sonata op 6, the two cello sonatas) and another already confidently placed in the 19th c.  (Piano Trios op 1, String Trios Op 9, the piano sonatas).

To be continued... next are the violin sonatas op. 12.