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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
Canons and Musical Jokes
Claudia Schlemmer (soprano); Stefan Tauber, Martin Weiser (tenors); Franz Schneckenleitner (bass)
Luka Kusztrich, Benjamin Lichtenegger, Lara Kusztrich, Dominik Hellsberg (violins); Wolfgang Däuble (cello)
Ensemble Tamanial
Cantus Novus Wien/Thomas Holmes (piano)
rec. 2018/19, 4tune audio productions, Vienna
NAXOS 8.574176 [54:53]

As one might expect, Naxos have made numerous welcome and enterprising contributions to the celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday: one thinks, for example, of Leif Segerstam’s discs of little-known vocal and incidental music (review, review, also his recordings of König Stephan (8.574042) and imperial cantatas (8.574077)). Meanwhile the artists featured most prominently on the present recording have themselves made what amounts to a companion CD of rare secular vocal music, often using Italian texts (8.574175); and here they turn their attention to still slighter fare. The disc’s blurb nowhere claims to offer all the authentic canons that have been preserved (though it does state that it includes four world premiere recordings). As far as I can tell, however, the only canon which is omitted is WoO 162 (Ta, ta, ta, ta, lieber Mälzel), presumably on the grounds that it is now reckoned to be by someone else palpably based on the second movement of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony. On the other hand, Cantus Novus Wien do include six authentic items which are not found on an otherwise directly comparable recording by Accentus on Warner Classics (WoO 181/2-3, 201-2, Hess 263-4). As my list of items indicates, the picture is complicated still further by the fact that Naxos include two pieces (WoO 171 and 204) that are now regarded as being by Michael Haydn and Beethoven’s Karl Holz respectivelyand by the fact that, of the disc’s 56 tracks, only some 45 contain canons as such.

In the end, of course, none of the detailsmatter – particularly bearing in mind that most of the music on the disc finds Beethoven in unbuttoned mood and having his fun. None of the items recorded in any way constitutes great music or essential Beethoven, but most are highly enjoyable. The disc begins with the composer teasing his rotund friend the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzig (elsewhere referred to as “Falstafferel” (‘little Falstaff’), and several times as an ass) in a tiny but brilliantly inventive musical joke. Two other pieces are based entirely around the audible similarities between the words “Graf” (‘Count’) and “Schaf” (‘sheep’, but also ‘fool’); and Beethoven delights in puns on people’s surnames, such as those of the composers E. T. A. Hoffmann, Friedrich Kuhlau and Carl Schwencke. Sometimes also he engages in exclusively musical puns, or at least parodies: the short, mainly Italian text of Signor Abate is set to the kind of old-school Italian opera tune say, Rossini’s Bartolo would have delighted; and the 1825 puzzle canon Gott ist eine feste Burg has more than a few echoes of Luther’s great chorale. There is, then, quite a lot of what you might call schoolboy humour – fundamentally unsophisticated, but harmless and (cf. Mozart’s canons!) remarkably free smut or out-and-out scatology.

Some of the texts that Beethoven set to canons or the like are even slighter than the ones just quoted, amounting to no more than “Happy New Year” (WoO 165, 176, 179), “Farewell” (WoO 181/2) or “Enjoy Life” (WoO 195). Others, though, are by way of more serious aphorisms: we hear two settings, for example, of Schiller’s statement “kurz ist der Schmerz und ewig die Freude” (‘the pain is brief and the joy eternal’), and one of Goethe’s “del sei der Mensch, hüfreich und gut, ja gut” (‘oble is man, helpful and good, yes good’); and there are moments during these where one feels that Beethoven is taking the act of composing seriously and showing at least passing glimpses of his genius. Overall, though, what we have is a set of miscellaneous musical jottings, analogous to the verbal ones that most of us might put into a notebook, an e-mail, or even a text message. As such they are inconsequential, but no less fascinating for that.

A good few of these slight ‘occasional’ pieces raise questions which they then leave tantalizingly unanswered: for whom, for example, might Beethoven have set the words “Ewig dein” (‘Ever yours’) in 1810?hat was it about his encounters with the English musician Charles Neate in 1816 that inspired him to send Neate settings of two short texts, one about silence and the other about when to speak?hat exactly possessed him to write a canon inviting the recipient to “write out for me the scale of E flat” (WoO 172) in 1818? Of course, we don’t know and don’t need to. I was struck, though, by the extent to which these canons would be useful to any biographer of Beethoven, not least with regard to the decade between 1816 and 1825, from most of them date (I had lazily assumed that most of the canons were early works, but that’s not the case). And even the non-specialist gets from this (well-annotated) disc a fascinating glimpse of Beethoven’s circle of friends and the way he related to them. A set of early nineteenth-century Enigma Variations these are not; but they are dedicated, obviously in friendship, to a wide range of people – including, in addition to those I’ve already mentioned Hummel, Spohr, Albrechtsberger, Rellstab and a plethora of patrons, publishers and pupils. And the Beethoven who comes across from them is one who, for all his childish unpredictability and irascibility, could also be affectionately childlike and, above all, good company.

The bulk of the performances are given by an expert smallish choir, Cantus Novus Wien, under its music director since 2001, Thomas Holmes. Some nine other items feature vocal soloists or the SATB a cappella Ensemble Tamaliel; and instruments appear five times. The entertaining miniature “Bester Magistrat, Ihr friert” (‘Dear Magistrate, you’re freezing’) has a cello making appropriate shivering sounds; Thomas Holmes accompanies two items (including, appropriately, the mock Italian aria) on the piano; and, rather out of the blue, the discs final two items, WoO 160/1-2 are performed by four violins, presumably because they are canons with no surviving texts. For the most part the singing is assured and polished, though comparison with samples of the Accentus recording mentioned above suggest that it can be just a tad lacking in character. That is not the only respect, though, in which the two recordings differ. Accentus field far fewer singers, with the result that we are aware not just of their individual vocal character but also of their individual vocal flaws (such as prominent vibrato); all their performances are a cappella; they are available (at least separately) only as a download and without texts; and their issue contains around eight minutes’ less music. In practice, then, the Naxos issue has the CD field to itself, but for the reasons given can also be regarded as the first choice for downloaders. If you do not have access to the texts, translations and invaluable explanatory notes that Naxos provide in the CD booklet, these are also available online.

Of course, as I say, this is not an essential item for any collection. But anyone who buys the disc will find it entertaining, interesting, and instructive in an unusual way about Beethoven’s life and music. Hence I welcome it warmly.  

Nigel Harris

Lob auf den dicken Schuppanzigh, WoO 100 [0:37]; Graf, Graf, liebster Graf, WoO 101 [0:41]; Im Arm der Liebe ruht sich’s wohl, WoO 159 [1:36]; Ewig dein, WoO 161 [1:23]; Freundschaft ist die Quelle wahrer Glückseligkeit, WoO 164 [1:16]; Glück zum neuen Jahr!, WoO 165 [0:34]; Kurz ist der Schmerz, WoO 163 [1:06]; Brauchle, Linke, WoO 167 [0:38]; Das Schweigen, WoO 168, No. 1 [1:22]; Das Reden, WoO 168, No. 2 [1:36]; Ich küsse Sie, WoO [0:58]; Ars longa, vita brevis, WoO 170 [0:58]; Ich bitt’ dich, schreib’ mir die Es-Scala auf, WoO 172 [0:48]; Hol Euch der Teufel! B’hüt’ Euch Gott!, WoO [0:41]; Glaube und hoffe, WoO 174 [0:31]; Sankt Petrus war ein Fels – Bernardus war ein Sankt, WoO 175 [0:29]; Bester Magistrat, Ihr friert!, WoO 177 [0:51]; Glück, Glück zum neuen Jahr!, WoO 176 [1:01]; Signor Abate!, WoO 178 [1:39]; Seiner Kaiserlichen Hoheit! – Alles Gute, alles Schöne, WoO 179 [1:34]; Hoffmann, sei ja kein Hofmann, WoO 180 [0:52]; Gedenket heute an Baden!, WoO 181, No. 1 [1:02]; Gehabt euch wohl, WoO 181, No. 2 [0:50]; Tugend ist kein leerer Name, WoO 181, No. 3, [0:49]; O Tobias!, WoO 182 [0:34]; Bester Herr Graf, Sie sind ein Schaf!, WoO 183 [0:36]; Falstafferel, lass’ dich sehen!, WoO [1:28]; Edel sei der Mensch, hülfreich und gut, WoO 185 [2:22]; Te solo adoro, WoO 186 [0:50]; Schwenke dich ohne Schwänke!, WoO 187 [1:03]; Gott ist eine feste Burg, WoO 188 [0:32]; Doktor sperrt das Tor dem Tod, WoO 189 [1:06]; Ich war hier, Doktor, ich war hier, WoO 190 [0:37]; Kühl, nicht lau, WoO 191 [1:02]; Ars longa, vita brevis, WoO 192 [0:39]; Ars longa, vita brevis, WoO 193 [0:34]; Si non per portas, WoO 194 [0:41]; Freu dich des Lebens, WoO 195 [0:43]; Es muss sein!, WoO 196 [0:55]; Da ist das Werk, WoO 197 [0:53]; Wir irren allesamt, WoO 198 [0:46]; Ich bin der Herr von zu, WoO 199 [0:46]; Ich bin bereit! – Amen, WoO 201 [0:38]; Das Schöne zum Guten, WoO 202 [0:23]; Das Schöne zu dem Guten, WoO 203 [0:22]; Languisco e moro, Hess 229 [0:40]; Te solo adoro, Hess 263 (sketch of WoO 186) [0:45]; Herr Graf, ich komme zu fragen, WoO 221 [1:50]; Esel aller Esel, WoO 227 [0:36]; Kurz ist der Schmerz, WoO 166 [1:30]; Canon in G Major, WoO 160, No. 1, “O care selve” [1:15]; Canon in C Major, WoO 160, No. 2 [1:14]
Michael HAYDN (1737–1806): Glück fehl’ dir vor allem, MH 582 (attributed to Beethoven as WoO 171) [0:50]
Karl HOLZ (1799–1958): Holz geigt die Quartette so (attributed to Beethoven as WoO 204) [0:30]

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