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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Duets (Complete) (A. and S. Hamann)
Beethoven’s compositions for piano duet embrace works written for students as well as those designed for aristocratic acquaintances and friends. This release presents two recordings of the complete works: the first (CD 1) on a modern Yamaha piano, and the second (CD 2) on chronologically accurate reproductions of the fortepianos Beethoven was composing on at the time. The modern piano was recorded in a concert hall, whereas the period instrument recording was made in a much more intimate space, showcasing the salon performance settings of the past.
By Lance Hulme
Early Music America
By Stuart Sillitoe
Preston Recorded Music Society
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Complete Piano Duets
In 1792 Beethoven left his native city of Bonn to seek his fortune in the imperial capital, Vienna. Five years before he had been sent to Vienna by his patron, the Archbishop of Cologne, for lessons with Mozart, but the illness of his mother had forced his immediate return home. Before long, after his mother’s death, he had been obliged to take charge of the welfare of his younger brothers, a task that his father was not competent to discharge.
As a boy Beethoven had had an erratic musical training through his father, a singer in the archiepiscopal musical establishment, later continued on sounder lines. In 1792 he was to take lessons from Haydn, from whom he later claimed to have learned nothing, followed by subsequent study of counterpoint with Albrechtsberger and Italian word-setting with Salieri. Armed with introductions to members of the nobility in Vienna, he soon established himself as a keyboard virtuoso, skilled both as a performer and as an adept in the necessary art of improvisation. In the course of time he was to be widely recognised as a figure of remarkable genius and originality. At the same time he became known as a social eccentric, no respecter of persons, his eccentricity all the greater because of increasing deafness, a failing that became evident by the turn of the century. With the patient encouragement of patrons, he directed his attentions largely to composition, developing the inherited classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart and extending its bounds in a way that presented both an example and a challenge to the composers who came after him.
Beethoven’s Sonata in D major, Op 6, for piano duet, was issued by Artaria in 1797. Presumably intended for pupils, the work has a forthright first movement, followed by a simple Rondo, with the expected contrasting episodes, the first in D minor.
The association of Count Waldstein and Beethoven is clearly remembered in Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata. The Count had met Beethoven in Bonn. A younger son, Waldstein was of distinguished ancestry and in 1788 was inducted into the Teutonic Order in Bonn, where he was on terms of close friendship with the Elector, Maximilian Franz, a younger brother of the Habsurg Emperor. Beethoven’s Eight Variations on a Theme by Count von Waldstein in C major, WoO 67, were written during the composer’s early years in Bonn, probably around 1790, and were published by Beethoven’s friend in Bonn Nikolaus Simrock in 1794. The matter is the subject of a letter from Beethoven to Simrock on 18th June 1794 in which he complains that Simrock has apparently started engraving the piece without consulting the composer, telling him that if he goes ahead with the publication he can send the corrected version of the Variations to Count Waldstein in Bonn, to ensure their accuracy. He makes it clear that he would have preferred that the work had remained for the moment unpublished and, in any case, expects to receive at least two dozen free copies. A further letter, dated 2nd August in the same year, is friendlier in tone, apologizing for delays in correcting the engraved version of the Variations and praising the standard of Simrock’s work.
The simple C major theme, which touches briefly on the minor, is marked Andante con moto. It is followed by a triplet variation and a version making use of semiquavers. The third variation gives prominence to the secondo and the fourth opens with strongly marked chords with acciaccature. The fifth variation has accompanying semiquavers and the sixth makes use of triplet semiquavers. The primo and secondo share the melodic interest in the seventh variation, while the eighth starts in C minor, marked Un poco adagio, proceeding to a cadenza, a return to the major key in 6/8 and other changes of tempo and mood before the final Presto.
In 1799 Beethoven wrote a setting of Goethe’s Ich denke dein and four variations for piano duet on the theme for two pupils, the Countesses Therese and Josephine Brunsvik, daughters of a family with which Beethoven remained friendly through much of his life. In 1803 he added two more variations and the song and variations were published in 1805. The song theme is heard first, marked Andantino cantabile, followed by a semiquaver variation and a second version with a running semiquaver accompaniment played by the secondo. The third variation is slower and is followed by a fourth with triplet quavers. The fifth variation is in D minor, and the major key returns for a cheerful final version of the material and a concluding coda.
The young Ferdinand Ries had, through Beethoven’s good offices, been employed by Count Johann George von Browne-Camus, member of an Irish family and in the service of Catherine II of Russia, as a house-pianist. During the Count’s stay in Baden in 1802 Ries tells how he had often been required to play music by Beethoven, either from the music or by heart. Tired of this, he had entertained the company with an improvised march which he attributed to Beethoven and which won general praise. He goes on to tell how Beethoven’s arrival in Baden the next day proved embarrassing, when Ries was asked to play the piece again. At first annoyed, Beethoven took the imposture in good part and went on, according to Ries, to write a set of Three Marches, commissioned by the Count and dedicated to Princess Esterházy. The Marches are inevitably similar in mood. The first, in C major, is marked Allegro ma non troppo and has a contrasting Trio. The second, marked Vivace, is in E flat, with an A flat Trio that provides a continuing drum-beat in the lowest register. The third March, another Vivace is in D major and lacks a formal Trio.
In his sixteen string quartets, the first set of six published in 1801 and the last published in the year of his death, 1827, Beethoven was as innovative as ever, developing and extending a form that seemed already to have reached a height of perfection. It was not until 1823, after a gap of thirteen years, that he returned to the form in a remarkable final series of works. He completed his Quartet in B flat major, Op 130, in 1825 with a fugal final movement. On the advice of friends and publisher he was persuaded to replace the fugal movement, a challenge to both players and audience, and to issue the Grosse Fuge as a separate work, Op 133, dedicated to his friend and pupil, the Cardinal Archduke Rudolph. Artaria had already had questions from customers about the possibility of a piano duet version of the work, and this was entrusted to Anton Halm, a former army officer in the struggle against Napoleon and a competent pianist, who had, years before, appeared in performances of works by Beethoven. When he saw Halm’s arrangement of the Grosse Fuge Beethoven was dissatisfied, particularly, we are told, by Halm’s attempts to avoid hands crossing by dividing the voices differently between the two players. Artaria, who had commissioned the arrangement, paid Halm for his work, but was induced to buy a version Beethoven made himself, the form in which the duet was published.
The movement starts with a passage with the title Overtura. This introduces the theme in octaves, followed by three versions of it, to be the basis of the fugal sections built on them. The first fugal section starts with a hushed and tentative indication of this theme, now as a countersubject, then proceeding to the forthright fugal subject, with its wide leaps and brusque rhythm, to the accompaniment of the countersubject, as the fugal exposition continues. The dotted rhythms are soon combined with triplets in a variation of the material, followed by a triplet variation from which dotted rhythms are absent. There follows a G flat major passage of fugato marked Meno mosso e moderato, now dominated by smoothly moving semiquavers, with the theme eventually introduced, originally by the viola, as a countersubject. There is a modulation to B flat major once more in a passage marked Allegro molto e con brio, an introduction to an A flat major fugue, after a loud sustained lower A flat, originally from the cello, that brings in again the first theme as a countersubject. In a passage marked meno mosso the theme is heard from the upper voice against accompanying semiquavers, leading to a series of chords based on a low register trill. This brings a return to B flat major and once more to the Allegro molto e con brio. The conclusion of this massive, complex and often enigmatic movement brings reference to the Overtura and the two themes on which the whole work has been based.
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