Beethoven and His Teachers
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 (1794) [9:58]
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. 1766-7) [16:37]
Grosse Fuge in B flat, Op 134 (1827) [16:53]
Maria Ferrante (soprano) (Beethoven WoO 74); Cullan Bryant and Dmitry Rachmanov
rec. 13-16 September, 2008, Ashburnham Community Church, Ashburnham, Massachusetts,
NAXOS 8.572519-20 [52:55 + 39:17]
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
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 lo scolare.
Another insightful, informative album of early Beethoven from Naxos.