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Sparks fly as the super-virtuosic wind soloists from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra revel in the creative genius of a young Beethoven.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
It is scarcely surprising that Beethoven should have been drawn to Harmoniemusik during what Charles Rosen has described as his ‘classicizing’ period, in which he reproduced various current forms before embarking on a more experimental approach. The Sextet in E flat major, Op 71, belongs to an important tradition of ensemble writing for clarinets, horns and bassoons dating back almost as far as the middle of the eighteenth century. In the 1760s the operas of J C Bach had made a feature of this texture and Mozart later used it for the original version of his Serenade K375 and in the garden scene of Così fan tutte. In Beethoven’s own orchestral works the texture was to reappear with some regularity throughout his career, from the Piano Concerto No 1 to the Symphony No 9. According to his biographer Alexander Thayer, Beethoven’s Sextet was composed in 1796, although it waited almost a decade for its first performance, when it was played at a benefit concert for his violinist friend Ignaz Schuppanzigh in April 1805. In reviewing the event, the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung described the work as ‘a composition which shines resplendent by reason of its lively melodies, unconstrained harmonies, and a wealth of new and surprising ideas’, ironic praise in view of the age of the piece. A further five years elapsed before the Sextet was published by Breitkopf, hence its high opus number close to those of the Symphonies Nos 5 and 6, with which it actually has very little in common. Beethoven takes advantage of the different character of the pairs of instruments to great effect, even though he later dismissed the work as having been written in a single night. All four movements fall into established Viennese classical patterns, though with a characteristically sharper edge. A short introduction leads to a vigorous and virtuosic triple-metre Allegro. Next comes a reflective Adagio, whose dark, serious character has invited some comparison with Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music, K477. A characteristic Viennese Menuetto then precedes a bracing, effervescent Rondo finale.
Earlier in his life Beethoven had already been gathering experience that would bear fruit in his large-scale compositions. During his time as a viola player in the Bonn orchestra from 1789, he came into contact with individual wind virtuosi, such as the horn player (later publisher) Nikolaus Simrock. Among Beethoven’s early teachers, his biographer Anton Schindler listed the singer and pianist Tobias Pfeiffer who also played the oboe, the only wind instrument to inspire Beethoven to embark upon a concerto, whose surviving sketches were probably preparatory material for a completed work. In the Rondino in E flat major, WoO25, composed in the early 1790s but not published until 1830, the oboe writing is confident and the clarinet is taken boldly into the chalumeau register. But the work (originally entitled Rondo by Beethoven) is defined by the duetting horns, a combination which was greatly admired by late-eighteenth-century audiences throughout Europe. As with so many of the wind instruments, the horn’s affinity with the human voice attracted special critical notice, one writer observing that a composer who knew how to use the instrument well could arouse remarkable sensations with it, including love’s complaints, repose, melancholy, horror and awe. The player had much to overcome in the way of embouchure and pitching, but also had at his command a wonderful array of melting, floating and dying-away effects. In the Rondino the radical use of horn mutes expands the range of expression yet further.
The Duo for clarinet and bassoon, WoO27 No 1, is the first of a set of three modest pieces that were at one time unquestioningly accepted as Beethoven’s works, usually regarded as contemporary with the Rondino and Octet, but sometimes (if improbably) dated as early as the mid-1780s. They surfaced in Paris in the second decade of the nineteenth century and it is nowadays accepted that there is little stylistic evidence to prove their authenticity. Nevertheless, they are full of charm, the first of the Duos enhanced by a brief minore central movement that contrasts effectively with the outer movements.
The Octet in E flat major, Op 103, originally styled 'Parthia dans un Concert', was probably written for the excellent Harmonie of Elector Maximilian Franz, Beethoven’s patron in Bonn. It seems, however, that the work was not performed in Bonn before Beethoven moved to Vienna in November 1792 to study with Haydn; in a letter of August 1793 to Simrock in Bonn, Beethoven asked his friend whether the Parthia had yet been played. The work finds a further mention in a letter dated November that year from Beethoven’s new teacher Haydn to the Elector on behalf of his pupil: ‘I am taking the liberty of sending to your Reverence in all humility a few pieces of music—a quintet, an eight-voice Parthie, an oboe concerto, a set of variations for the piano and a fugue composed by my dear pupil Beethoven who was so graciously accepted by your Reverence as evidence of his diligence beyond the scope of his own studies. On the basis of these pieces, expert and amateur alike cannot but admit that Beethoven will in time become one of the great musical artists in Europe, and I shall be proud to call myself his teacher. I only wish that he might remain with me for some time yet.’ Haydn proceeded to ask for more money for his student, explaining that Beethoven’s yearly stipend was insufficient even for basic living expenses and that he had been obliged to lend him a further 500 florins. The Elector was unimpressed; he pointed out that all the music in Haydn’s list had in fact been composed in Bonn, apart from the fugue; furthermore, Beethoven’s stipend was twice what Haydn thought it to be. In view of the lack of serious progress, the Elector wondered whether Beethoven should return to Bonn, before more debts were incurred. In fact, Beethoven stayed in Vienna but discontinued his studies with Haydn by mutual agreement and began to study with Johann Georg Albrechtsberger and Antonio Salieri, receiving no more financial assistance from the Elector.
The Octet was substantially revised in Vienna and completed in 1793. The only surviving autograph, on Viennese paper, is a working manuscript with many corrections. It was eventually published by Artaria only in 1830 and thus acquired another misleadingly late opus number. The autograph suggests that Beethoven originally intended the Rondino in E flat major, WoO25, as part of the Octet, since he began to write it on the page following the Menuetto but only got as far as writing the clef signs and the opening theme in the first horn part before abandoning the movement in favour of the Presto finale. The Octet underwent further revision in 1795 and was published as the String Quintet in E flat major, Op 4, the following year. The music itself is light yet subtle, more rough-edged and abrupt in character than Mozart. Despite its title, the Menuetto is one of the earliest examples of Beethoven’s predilection for replacing the minuet with a more untamed and light-hearted scherzo. Like the Rondino, the Octet is notable for its high-flying, virtuoso writing for the horns, an instrument for which he had clearly established an early understanding. Arpeggios were something of a second horn visiting card and feature dramatically towards the end of the opening movement. This kind of writing is typical of the figures illustrated in such tutors of the period as Heinrich Domnich’s Méthode de Premier et de Second Cor of 1808. Composers and arrangers of Harmoniemusik variously allocated the principal voice to oboe or clarinet; in the Octet the oboe takes the lead in the first three movements, partnering the bassoon in an operatic duet in the Andante; the ensemble colour changes abruptly when a virtuoso clarinet is unleashed to lead the Finale.
During the period 1809-16 Beethoven wrote a number of occasional marches for wind band, variable in their scope and ambition. Preceding them is the little March in B flat major, WoO29, for pairs of clarinets, horns and bassoons which Beethoven wrote in 1797/8. In a slightly altered version, the March re-emerged in a 1932 publication of thirty-two pieces composed by Haydn for musical clock. It seems that Beethoven arranged Haydn’s music and added to it in the course of recasting the material for an ensemble of winds.
Colin Lawson © 2017