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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
12 Contredanses WoO 14 (Kaspar Karl van BEETHOVEN (1774-1815) No. 8 & 12) (?1801/2) [9:15]
12 German Dances WoO 8 (1795) [20:37]
6 Minuets WoO 9 (c.1795) [13:17]
11 Mödlinger Tänze WoO 17 (?1819) [19:50]
L’Orfeo Barockorchester / Michi Gaigg
rec. Anton Bruckner Privatuniversität, Linz 1-3 November, 2004. DDD
cpo 777 117-2 [66:30]
 


The kind of ‘popular’, socially functional dance music which is quite prominent in the work of, say, Haydn and Mozart plays a less central role – for all kind of obvious reasons – in the output of Beethoven. But such music does exist, and here is a fine, richly enjoyable anthology of it.
 
The twelve German Dances (WoO 8) were written for the annual masked ball of the Pension Society of Viennese Painters, held on 14th November, 1795. The society had a tradition of commissioned distinguished composers to write new music for the ball – Beethoven’s predecessors included Haydn and Dittersdorf. The young Beethoven’s contribution is, by his standards, rather slight in nature, but the dances have real charm and are not without a degree of sophistication. No.6, for example, employs some unexpected accents over a pseudo-rustic drone in a manner that is quite engaging. No.5 has some pleasant writing for the clarinets; no.10 makes entertaining use of the piccolo and of the triangle and tambourine in a kind of alla turca idiom. No.12 has a surprising coda, with a solo for posthorn, before a rather grand conclusion – so grand, indeed, that it must surely have taken the dancers by surprise!
 
The six minuets (WoO 9) belong to the same period, but are for strings alone (supplemented here by a harp). They are simple pieces, pleasantly melodic and largely unambitious in execution. In no.3 the alternations between pizzicato and arco are attractive; in no.5 the triplet accompaniment by the second violins has a particular grace.
 
Beethoven’s 12 contredanses (kontretänze) (WoO 14) were again written for the ballrooms of Vienna, a few years after the earlier sets of dances. They are lively and politely brilliant. In some of them one seems to detect touches that belong to Beethoven rather than just to the genre in which he was writing. It is certainly interesting to note that the seventh and the 11th dances share material with Beethoven’s ballet music The Creatures of Prometheus; the seventh is also echoed in the final movement of the Eroica.
 
The final set of dances on this CD belongs to a later period. The eleven ‘Mödlinger’ dances were, it seems likely, written in the wooded suburb of Vienna which bears that name, in 1819. That, we should remind ourselves, is the year of the Hammerklavier sonata and of the commencement of the Ninth symphony. These, in short, are the work of a fully mature Beethoven. Beethoven had real financial problems at this time, so it may well be that these dances were written for primarily commercial reasons; but it would, I think, be wrong to imagine that Beethoven didn’t take their composition at all ‘seriously’. Certainly they are far more sophisticated than the dances considered so far. They explore a range of forms – there are four waltzes, five minuets and two ländlers. There is a genial smile to all of the music; there are plenty of sparkling passages as, quite without condescension, Beethoven writes wonderfully accessible music. But it is also music that gets better at second and third hearings. These are delightful, small-scale masterpieces, in their own way just as worthy of attention as the far greater works that Beethoven wrote at much the same time.
 
The performances of L’Orfeo Barockorchester, playing on period instruments and directed by Michi Gaigg, are exemplary. The sense of scale is perfectly judged, distinctions of tempo and rhythm are clear but unexaggerated; the sound of the winds is particularly well-blended and the strings play with zestfully clear articulation. The sense is of an orchestra that sounds as though it is enjoying its work and is eager to share its own pleasure. One doesn’t often get the chance to hear these dances – and one certainly doesn’t often get the chance to hear them played so well, with both energy and sensitivity.
 
Glyn Pursglove

 

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