Notes and Editorial Reviews
Another insightful, informative album of early Beethoven from Naxos.
A few months ago, Naxos released a recital of Beethoven’s earliest piano variations, which I thought in my review a fascinating look at the young composer’s evolution. Now we have an even more interesting angle on that same moment in music history. “Beethoven and His Teachers” skillfully mixes the young man’s early works for piano four-hands with those of his mentors. The “Grosse Fuge” is added as an uncommonly huge bonus.
The turn of the nineteenth century was a time when piano four-hands was a genre which amateurs eagerly played at home, and much of the music in the amateur repertoire would have been for them. Such is Christian
Neefe’s arrangement of six numbers from Mozart’s
Magic Flute: genial, not too far removed from the original songs, and making a wholly pleasant impression. Today we have the luxury of saying things like ‘I do miss Papageno’s voice in his unforgettable Act I aria,’ but the whole point of this music is that most households of Neefe’s time would never get to hear a Papageno. This arrangement is probably the closest they could come to his charming song. My only really important criticism of Neefe is that the selections are - Mozart’s order notwithstanding - in reverse order of interest, the last part the anti-climactic forty-five second “Klinget, Glöckchen, klinget”.
Two more teachers are represented here: Johann Albrechstberger, by a prelude and fugue receiving its first recording, and Joseph Haydn. That Albrechstberger is represented by a fugue is apt: he was Beethoven’s counterpoint teacher in Vienna. That he is represented by a fugue in
B flat is especially apt: it is catchy and enjoyable, true, but it is also in the same key as the
Grosse Fuge. The Haydn is the Divertimento in F —
Il Maestro e lo Scolare, a fortuitous bit of programming if there ever was one. Il Maestro wrote this in 1766-7, although it would be merest conjecture to suggest that he ever played it with his most famous Scolare. If they did, they would have played vintage Haydn: witty, clever, only mildly taxing perhaps, emotional smooth sailing.
Into this context arrives the young Beethoven, whose works are interspersed throughout the album. As must be the performers’ intention, he does indeed strike the ear as both a logical descendant of his disc-mates and something intriguingly new. The sonata in D, Op. 6, is surely the most academic piece here, though it is nonetheless very pleasant, and exceedingly modest in its dimensions: two three-minute movements. An even earlier set of variations on a theme by Count Waldstein has an interesting tension between major and minor modes, thanks to Waldstein’s intriguing tune. This is nothing like the extraordinary Eroica variations of a few years later, but it has its own charms. As is usual in even these early works, Beethoven takes the theme on a circuitous journey; there’s a trademark fake ending or two thrown in as well. An interesting contrast here, parallel to the two B flat fugues on the album, is the fact that the Beethoven variations will necessarily be compared to the variations movement in the Haydn.
Three Marches, Op 45 date from 1804, but they are cheery, good-natured little marches - domestic tunes rather than military calls. CD 2 will surprise you if you haven’t looked too closely at the notes, for it begins with the big, appealing voice of soprano Maria Ferrante, singing a tune called “Ich denke dein” to sensitive accompaniment. The pianists then get to play variations of the tune while Ferrante listens, presumably. The last Beethoven contribution is the
Grosse Fuge, sounding not too forbidding on this instrument, the voices very clear in this transcription, the performers very well-equipped with the necessary stamina.
Cullen Bryant and Dmitry Rachmanov are the able partners who communicate all this music with immediacy and who play some of the less thrilling bits, like the Neefe Mozart arrangements, with affection. I think it would be fair to say that this album offers a good idea of what one might have heard at the family pianoforte during the early 1800s, though the two instruments chosen here (by Caspar Katholnig, c. about 1810 and Johann Tröndlin, 1830) are not nearly the most appealing pianofortes I have heard. They aren’t particularly warm, compared to Graf or Pleyel models used by the likes of Michele Boegner and Paul Komen. The Katholnig has a tinkly action with lots of little noises. Still, the fortepiano is never a problem, and as an admirer of the instrument I don’t mind at all.
A few of the individual works have been played elsewhere, though not as much as you think: the Haydn divertimento is currently available on just two discs, this one and an earlier Naxos release with Jeno Jandó and Zsuzsa Kollár. Jörg Demus and Norman Shetler have done the
Grosse Fuge arrangement for Deutsche Grammophon’s complete edition, and all the other Beethoven pieces have appeared on a Praga collection of his piano four-hands music. I confess to no familiarity with the competition, but they certainly cannot claim a program as interesting as this, or a booklet essay explaining the project with such clarity and scholarship.
So this is another intriguing, informative Beethoven album from Naxos. My only gripe is that the two-disc set adds up to barely more playing time than one full CD. At most online retailers, this is taken into account by charging only a bit more than the standard Naxos one-disc price - though Amazon have, at time of writing, got it in their heads that this is worth twice as much as even that. The sound, from a small church, is good to the piano if a bit close, but Ferrante’s brief contribution is boomy and there is a pronounced echo of all her words. Regardless, if you’re a Beethoven aficionado, you’ll very much want to hear this. It sheds a fascinating light on the
-- Brian Reinhart, MusicWeb International
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