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Beethoven Suites
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Adagio ma non troppo, for mandolin and piano, WoO 43b [5:04]
Sonatina in C minor, for mandolin and piano, WoO 43a [5:04]
Sonatina in C major, for mandolin and piano, WoO 44a [2:16]
Johann Nepomuk HUMMEL (1778-1837)
Grand sonata for mandolin and piano Op.37a [16:10]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Andante con variazione, for mandolin and piano, WoO 44b [9:05]
Allegretto from Symphony No. 7 op.92 (transcribed by Hans Sitt) [8:26]
Corentin APPARAILLY (b. 1995)
Lettre l’immortelle bien-aime [4:45]
Fritz KREISLER (1875-1962)
Rondino on a theme by Beethoven [2:36]
Walter MURPHY (b.1952)
A Fifth of Beethoven (arranged by Bruno Fontaine) [3:27]
Julien Martineau (mandolin)
Vanessa Benelli Mosell (piano)
Yann Dubost (double bass: Murphy)
Jos Fillatreau (drums: Murphy).
rec. 2019, Auditorium Saint-Pierre-des-Cuisines, Toulouse, France
NAVE V7083 [58:18]

This is an album which should give a good deal of pleasure to mandolin-fanciers (I confess to being one myself), but which may perhaps be of rather less interest to others.

I guess that, with a few exceptions, only the above-mentioned mandolin-fanciers and very well-informed admirers of Beethoven will know that the great composer took an interest (at least for a while) in the mandolin. The mandolin was fashionable in the closing years of the Eighteenth Century and it was in those years that Beethoven encountered at least two players of the instrument and was drawn into writing a few pieces with them in mind, and perhaps in collaboration with them. One was Josephine von Clary und Aldringen a beautiful aristocrat in Prague, who was an amateur singer and who also played the mandolin (she may also have inspired in Beethoven one of those hopeless loves of an aristocratic woman to which he was so susceptible). He may have met her in 1796, when visiting Prague under the patronage of Prince Lichnowsky (In his booklet essay for this CD, Camille De Rijk dates the meeting to 1787). Josephine was the future wife of Count Clam-Gallas, a lover of music to whom Prince Lichnowsky introduced Beethoven. Josephine was a pupil of Jan Kuchař (1751-1829) whose musical accomplishments, as well as being a conductor, an organist and a harpsichordist, included skill on the mandolin. Indeed, he had played the instrument to accompany Don Giovanni at the premiere of Mozart’s opera in 1787 (in Prague), doing much to encourage the vogue for the instrument among the music lovers of the city. Philip Bone, in his enduringly useful and interesting book of 1914, The Guitar and the Mandolin: Biographies of celebrated players and composers for these instruments writes that Kuchař was “a consummate artist on the mandolin and an esteemed teacher whose pupils numbered many of the most aristocratic members of society” (p.170). It seems at least very likely that Beethoven would have met him too.

What is quite certain is that Beethoven did meet another important figure in the mandolin’s history, Wenzel Krumholz (1750-1817). Born near Prague, Krumholz was equally accomplished as a violinist and as a mandolist. In 1796 he was one of the first violins in the court orchestra of Vienna. He and Beethoven became close friends; Wenzel seems to have been a high-spirited and somewhat eccentric character. Beethoven sometimes called him his ‘Narr’ (Jester or Fool). We know that he gave Beethoven violin lessons and he may also have taught him the mandolin; he definitely played the mandolin for Beethoven, who possessed a Milanese mandolin of his own.

The works which carry the identification WoO 43 were probably written with Josephine von Clary in mind, the others in connection with Wenzel Krumholz (None of them were published in Beethoven’s lifetime). It would be dishonest (or perhaps one should say absurd) to claim that any of these pieces add anything to our estimation of Beethoven the composer, even if how they came to be written throws an interesting sidelight on his life. But they do have a period charm, and WoO 44b, the andante and variations, is more than just charming; it has its own kind of complexity and wit, as well as a few moments of genuine beauty.

The problem I have with this disc lies in the combination of mandolin and piano. The surviving manuscripts of at least some of these pieces by Beethoven specify the use of the cembalo (the harpsichord or just possibly the fortepiano). The sheer power of the modern piano makes it a difficult partner for the mandolin. I used to own (probably around 1970!) an old Nonesuch LP on which these Beethoven pieces were played by mandolinist Maria Scivitarro and harpsichordist Robert Veyron-Lacroix. I no longer have the LP, but I was able, in the course of making notes for this review, to track down the recording on Spotify (it was apparently re-issued by Erato in 2019). The sound, as I remember it was on the original LP, is over-bright at times; but another memory which listening to it again revived, even in streamed form, was how much more successful the use of two plucked instruments was, how much more unforced and natural blend and balance were.

I suspect (admittedly on very limited evidence) that Julien Martineau and Vanessa Benelli Mosell are, in one might call an absolute sense, finer musicians than Maria Scivitarro and Robert Veyron-Lacroix. But there is no doubting the fact that the combination of mandolin and piano presents them with problems. One can almost ‘hear’ Mosell reining in her instrument but, for all her skill – and the efforts of the sound engineer (Pierre-Emmanuel Triffault) the instrumental balance sounds unnatural and at times simply frustrating and unsatisfactory.

Leaving aside the question of instrumentation, I think it is the Andante with variations which comes off best on this disc – perhaps because it has musical virtues of construction and elaboration, of multiple perspectives on one idea, that are less dependent on matters of colour and sonority than Beethoven’s other music for mandolin. Still, it is strange to note that it is also in WoO 44b that Mosell produces from her piano passages in which the instrument sounds most like a fortepiano. The fifth variation, led by the mandolin engages the emotions and the sixth and last variation is quite striking, given that it begins as a lively polka but closes quite soberly. This work was not published until 1940.

Everything else in Martineau and Mosell’s programme has connections (of various kinds) with Beethoven. Hummel was a friend of Beethoven, though the relationship between the two didn’t always run smoothly. To a degree they were rivals too, especially as pianists. However, Hummel was to be part of the procession at Beethoven’s funeral (according to Ferdinand Hiller, Hummel was one of eight pallbearers). Hummel’s ‘Sonata’ was published as a sonata for violin or mandolin. It is in three movements: Allegro con spirito – Andante moderato siciliano – Allegretto pi tosto allegro, of which the first movement is twice as long as each of the other two. Given Hummel’s reputation as a keyboard virtuoso, it comes as no great surprise to discover that the writing for the keyboard is somewhat more dazzling than that for the mandolin. The two instruments take turns in the spotlight, however, and the whole (especially the opening Allegro) is enjoyable, if not exactly profound.

Fritz Kreisler’s Rondino on a theme by Beethoven, written in 1915, uses a theme from Beethoven’s ‘Rondo in G minor, WoO 41’, written about 1793-1794; it is, that is to say, roughly contemporaneous with Beethoven’s pieces for mandolin. Given the way in which the violin and the mandolin were often seen as ‘doubles’ of a sort in the late classical-early Romantic period – consider just the two instances already mentioned, the title of Hummel’s sonata on its original publication and the fact that Krumholz played both instruments – and it seems perfectly reasonable that Kreisler’s Rondino for violin and piano should be performed on mandolin and ‘keyboard’. Though the bulk of the piece is Kreisler rather than Beethoven, it largely captures the spirit and manner of early Beethoven. The result is a charming miniature.

In closing, I turn to the contributions of two (three if one counts Bruno Fontaine) modern composers. The young French composer Corentin Apparailly gives his musical reflections on those mysterious love letters by Beethoven (we needn’t here worry about who they were addressed to) and seeks, in effect, to ‘translate’ verbal statement into music. Apparailly’s music is a good deal more lucid than Beethoven’s letters to the ‘beloved’ which, as Maynard Solomon puts it are “confused in thought, and ridden with conflicting emotions”. There is an attractive sensitivity in the music’s opening. Initially I felt that there was insufficient passion, but the middle section grows in intensity, as the piano largely dominates, before a return to the opening music. This engaging, well-made piece here gets its premier recording.

The album closes with a perfect example of what Camille de Rijck calls, in his booklet essay, “Beethoven’s disco side”. This is Walter Murphy’s A Fifth of Beethoven, in an arrangement for piano, mandolin, bass and drums by Bruno Fontaine. A Fifth of Beethoven is based on the opening movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – though the word ‘Fifth’ in Murphy’s title puns on the word’s use as a measure of wine or spirits formerly much used in the USA, a fifth being a bottle roughly equal to 75 ml. Murphy’s adaptation was written as a disco-style instrumental and a recording released as a single in 1976. According to Wikipedia, it reached No. 1 in the Billboard Hot 100 chart later that same year.

I have left one track undiscussed so far. Not because I don’t like it, but because some aspects of it puzzle me. The track list in the CD booklet lists it thus: ‘Allegretto from Symphony No. 7 op.92 (transcribed by Hans Sitt)’. The only Hans Sitt I know of was a Hungarian violist, violinist, composer and pedagogue (1850-1922). He held the viola chair in the Brodsky Quartet from 1883-1895 and was Professor of violin at the Leipzig Conservatory from 1884-1921; he wrote many studies for both violin and viola, some of which were still in use half a century ago. (I wonder if they still are?. They are certainly for sale online). Did he really make this transcription? If so it would surely have been made for the violin, not the mandolin? Searches online – libraries being inaccessible at the time of writing due to Covid 19 – failed to produce any evidence for the existence of such a thing. Elsewhere in the CD booklet there is a dialogue between Julien Martineau and Vanessa Benelli Mosell. In the course of it Martineau says “To perform one of the most famous symphonic movements in the history of music in a trio formation (mandolin, piano and double bass) is something one can only do with the greatest respect! There is a very fine transcription by the musicologist Hans Sitt, absolutely faithful to the original, which was our starting point for developing our own version. Yann Dubost, who accompanies us in this movement, has often played the symphony in an orchestra; Vanessa, who is also a conductor, knows it right down to the tiniest detail, both in the orchestral version and in the transcription by Liszt. We therefore combined our different perspectives with the aim of rediscovering the essence of the original symphony”. I haven’t previously come across a musicologist called Hans Sitt, but it surely cannot be the case that the man named by Martineau is the same person as the violist and violinist mentioned earlier. I wonder if I am right in thinking that the input of Martineau, Mosell and Dubost, talked of by Martineau in my quotation above, implies that the transcription on which they based their version wasn’t for this precise instrumentation?

Whatever questions might remain as to how precisely this version was arrived at, it certainly works well. The instrumental balance is pretty good (I think the bass player Yann Dubost deserves a deal of credit for the piece’s success, as he gives emphasis to the harmonies and pushes the rhythm along) and the ‘bones’ of the Beethoven are clearly discernable. The experience of listening to it is like looking at a top-quality engraving of a great painting. But perhaps it might have been taken just a little faster?

An odd programme, then, but almost everything on the disc is interesting.

Glyn Pursglove

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