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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Quartets:
C major, WoO 36.3 (1785) [16:35]
E flat major, WoO 36.1 (1785) [16:03]
D major, WoO 36.2 (1785) [19:06]
E flat major, Op. 16a (1796/1810) [24:41]
Klaviertrio Hannover
Konstantin Sellheim (viola)
rec. 2019, SWR Studio Kaiserslautern, Germany
GENUIN GEN19673 [76:25]

It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that 2020 is a significant year for Beethoven – the 250th anniversary of his birth. There will surely be a plethora of recordings of his works over the coming months, and this new release of the composer’s piano quartets is one of the first out of the blocks. The sleeve notes, however, do ask the question: why should Klaviertrio Hannover be recording his piano quartets as part of the celebrations, pieces, in fact, which the notes go on to describe as ‘early works that hardly anyone knows and hardly anyone plays’.

The answer is, I think, quite straightforward. While Beethoven wrote a number of piano trios throughout his creative life – from the early Op. 1 set, to the ‘Ghost’ Trio, Op. 70 No. 1, and culminating with the epic ‘Archduke’, Op. 97, these have all been recorded by virtually every ensemble at some time or another, whereas the composer wrote only three independent piano quartets – early works which, as the paragraph above confirms, are little known. Yet, despite these first quartets being written when Beethoven was a mere 15 years of age, there are already enough pointers to show how his compositional style would develop, through his three so-named periods of composition. Furthermore these eminently melodious early piano quartets simply ooze pure enthusiasm and youthful verve, something which Klaviertrio Hannover and guest-violist Konstantin Sellheim, not only have in great abundance, but also the matching technical prowess to play them with such consummate gusto.

When the composer wrote his Three Piano Quartets, WoO 36 – ‘WoO’ simply indicating ‘Werke ohne Opuszahl’, or ‘Works without opus number’ – the genre was still quite rare, with Mozart’s Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor (1785), and No. 2 in E flat major (1786) the only significant role models out there. Beethoven’s Piano Quartets may be seen in the light of earlier traditions in which the keyboard had taken the lead in a form of concerto or sonata with string accompaniment. The three quartets were published by Artaria after Beethoven’s death, their authenticity supported by Beethoven’s borrowings from them in his Piano Sonatas, Op. 2. Artaria arbitrarily changed the order of the three works, which started originally with the Piano Quartet in C major, WoO 36, No. 3, and is the order in which they appear on the CD

The quartet’s repeated exposition suggests a piano sonata, with the strings in an accompanying role, although in the development and modified recapitulation they are afforded greater exposure. The movement includes a transitional phrase that later finds a place in the first movement of the Piano Sonata in C major, Op. 2, No. 3, the third of a set dedicated to Haydn in 1796. Beethoven makes later use of the quartet’s slow movement, when he uses its principal theme in the Adagio of the Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 2, No. 1. Interest here moves from the piano to the violin, then to the viola, which is soon followed by the cello. Violin and viola join in the original theme, with the attention then returning to the piano as the movement draws to a close. The piano announces the bouncy and cheerful main theme of the final Sonata-Rondo, followed by the violin. The subsequent episode is accompanied at first by plucked strings while an extended second episode, in the key of A minor, adds some variety, before the return of the main theme, to which the piano most effectively adds some rapid figurations, as the quartet ends on a real high note.  

The second work of the group, the Piano Quartet in E flat major, WoO 36, No. 1, offers a more equitable division of labour between piano and strings. It opens with a long Adagio assai movement – the longest of the three – with the piano at first accompanied by the strings, which then leads into a central section in which they enjoy more prominence. It closes on the dominant chord, and proceeds straightway into the sonata-form second movement, marked Allegro con spirito, in the tonic minor key of E flat minor, and very much looks forward to the composer’s works from the slightly later Sturm und Drang era, where the individual, and stormy temperament of the young Beethoven is heard, something that sets his work apart from Mozart. The quartet ends with a theme and variations. After the opening cantabile melody, the first variation gives the piano running semiquavers, while the second allows the violin semiquaver triplets. The third variation is an Adagio in which the viola takes the lead and the fourth, returning to the original tempo, is given to the cello. The dramatic fifth variation, dominated by the piano, is in E flat minor, and the sixth, in which the piano again takes the lead now in sparkling demisemiquaver figurations, reverts to the tonic major key. With the return of the original theme, now marked Allegretto, the violin joins with the piano and the work ends with a brief coda., and a charming, yet understated close.   The Allegro moderato first movement of the Piano Quartet in D major, WoO 36, No. 2, starts with a call to attention from the piano, then joined by the strings, followed by antiphonal dialogue between the two. The repeated exposition duly moves to a more lyrical second subject and there is a short central development, before a varied recapitulation and coda. The Andante con moto that follows is in F sharp minor, with the opening theme shared by piano and violin. The strings lead toward the ensuing modulation to A major, with the original key restored in the second half of the movement. The quartet ends with a Rondo-Allegro, its principal theme stated first by the piano and then taken up by the violin. Here the spirit of Mozart seems never far away, whether in the theme or the contrasting episodes.  

Between 1796 and 1810 Beethoven wrote a ‘Fourth’ Quartet, Op. 16a, clearly inspired by Mozart’s Quintet for Piano and Winds, which then served as Beethoven’s template for his own Quintet for the Fortepiano accompanied by Four Wind Instruments, Op 16. This particular combination was slightly more compatible with the musical taste of the times, and, of course, being more popular than the piano quartet with strings, would no doubt have been more frequently performed, all to Beethoven’s advantage. But to cover all contingencies, the composer did make this additional arrangement for the piano quartet proper, which was then known as Op. 16a.

The opening Allegro, ma non troppo, is preceded by quite an imposing introduction, marked Grave, which, during its almost three minutes visits a number of different keys, some close relations, while others less so, before leading into the genial and graceful first theme of the Allegro, ma non troppo. This is followed by the Andante cantabile slow movement, which the composer casts in Rondo form, emerging as a charming little miniature of virtual calmness throughout. The Rondo, marked Allegro, ma non troppo, is a typical Beethoven rondo in jaunty 6/8 rhythm, which quite often seem to occur in the key of E flat. The light-hearted mood persists to the very end, which does, though, appear a tad abrupt, and doesn’t quite providing the bigger finish we might have hoped for. Personally I prefer the work in this arrangement for piano and strings, rather than with wind. True the original version offers a somewhat broader palette of individual instrumental timbres, but the homogeneity of the strings when used as a mini-section, is, I think, preferable, and, of course, it requires one fewer player in performance.

As far as I can tell, this would appear to be the debut album for Klaviertrio Hannover – and what a superb first recording it is. The trio – Lucja Madziar (violin), Johannes Krebs (cello), and pianist Katharina Sellheim, whose outstanding contribution deserves special commendation – already have some 80 piano trios in their repertoire, including all the old chestnuts, as well as some interesting party-pieces, too. Adding a viola player to the mix is, of course, pretty easy when you’ve already got one in the family, so to speak. Katharina Sellheim and her viola-playing brother Konstantin have made a number of recordings as Duo Sellheim, so here was the perfect choice to turn trio into quartet, particularly as this ensures that the respective musical bonds between pianist Katharina and the other trio members, and between Katharina and brother Konstantin, form an interlocking structure of combined strength.

Genuin has done a fine job with the recording in every respect. My only small bone of contention is that, while the sleeve notes would appear eminently erudite, I feel they offer little help particularly with regarding the C major Quartet, which begins the CD. There seems to be more of an attempt to link this to specific works by Mozart, without even mentioning the thematic similarity between it and Beethoven’s own Piano Sonatas from his Op 2 set. As soon as I heard the snippet in the First Quartet, as a pianist, I recognised it immediately, but, because of all the mentions of Mozart, initially waded through all his piano sonatas, before realising that it was one of Beethoven’s. Why the note didn’t allude to this, goodness only knows, as it would have saved me a lot of time searching.

But I know that Beethoven will still be delighted to receive this early birthday present from Klaviertrio Hannover – plus one. It will surely bring back happy memories of his early teenage years, as well as providing a welcome new experience and choice of repertoire for all those who will hopefully now get to know his piano quartets for the first time. This highly-enjoyable new CD could hardly make the task any more pleasurable, or easier on the ear.

Philip R Buttall

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