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.
Beethoven’s 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 maestros and
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Sonata in D, Op 6 (1797) [6:29]
Christian Gottlob NEEFE (1748-1798)
Six Easy Pieces from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (1793) [15:01]
Eight Variations in C on a Theme by Count Waldstein, WoO 67
Johann ALBRECHTSBERGER (1736-1809)
Prelude and Fugue in B flat (1796) [4:47]
Three Marches, Op 45 (1804) [16:42]
Six Variations in D on “Ich denke dein”, WoO 74 (1805) [5:48]
Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Divertimento in F, Hob. XVIIa:1, Il Maestro e lo Scolare (c.
Grosse Fuge in B flat, Op 134 (1827) [16:53]