BEETHOVEN: Serenade for Flute, Violin, and Viola; Trio for Violin, Viola, and Cello ‒ Andinghello Ensemble / BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 3, “Eroica”; Die Weihe des Hauses Overture; King Stephan Ov. ‒ Beethoven Orchester Bonn/ Stefan Blunier ‒ Both MD&G

BEETHOVEN: Serenade for Flute, Violin, and Viola, Op. 25; Trio for Violin, Viola, and Cello, Op. 3 ‒ Andinghello Ensemble ‒ Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm multichannel SACD MDG 903 1953-6 (2+2+2), 65:29 (6/3/16) ***:

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, Op. 55, “Eroica”; Die Weihe des Hauses Overture, Op. 124; König Stephan Overture, Op. 117‒ Beethoven Orchester Bonn/ Stefan Blunier ‒ Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm multichannel SACD MDG 937 1966-6 (2+2+2), 67:33 (11/4/16) ****:

The intimate Beethoven, the monumental Beethoven: which won the hearts of Vienna and the world?

Beethoven’s second sojourn in Vienna sponsored by the Bonn Elector Maximilian Franz began as a two-year course of study with Vienna-based masters and ended, of course, with Beethoven’s lodgment as the greatest master of all the city’s many musicians. Under mentor Haydn’s questionable tutelage, Beethoven published his Opus 1, three piano trios. Haydn tried to discourage Beethoven from publishing until he had established a broader catalog, apparently supposing the works would not find favor with the conservative musical circles of the city. Beethoven was not discouraged and in fact nursed a grudge against his teacher, thinking Haydn was simply trying to stifle the creativity of a talent he didn’t understand or appreciate. Beethoven the musical firebrand was off and running.

At the same time, the Bonn native was wowing the Viennese with his virtuoso keyboard skills and mounting a charm offensive through which he hoped to win over those well-to-do but conservative music lovers that were the bread and butter of the eighteenth-century professional musician. Most famous among the string of semi-light entertainment vehicles that Beethoven produced during this period was the Septet, Op. 20, of 1799. More modest but just about as entertaining are the two works on the present disc from MD&G. The Trio Op. 3, which Beethoven tinkered with between 1792 and 96, is modeled on Mozart’s Divertimento K. 563. A huge work with virtuoso writing for the three instrumentalists, it is the most ambitious and celebrated of Mozart’s divertimenti, transcending the genre in the significance of its musical statement. That can’t be said of Beethoven’s piece, though the work is a showcase for the three players, giving each his or her chance to shine. Like Mozart’s divertimento, Beethoven’s has two slow movements, the first more genial and laid back than the second, plus two minuets, the second of which features a charming trio in Gypsy style.

More interesting and entertaining still is the Serenade, Op. 25 (1800?), which is very much in the tradition of the musical soiree but with some echt-Beethovenian features. The work is also in six movements; however, Beethoven swaps out the minuets for two mercurial scherzi. As if to counterbalance this slightly audacious gesture, he includes a gentle minuet as the first of his two slow movements. But then Beethoven concludes with a truly vivacious Allegro vivace e disinvolto, disinvolto being translated variously as “confident” or “devil-may-care.” Both of those adjectives describe Beethoven and his music, circa 1800 (year of the First Symphony), pretty well.

In fact, despite what I said at the beginning about Beethoven’s Viennese charm initiative, these performances by the Andinghello Ensemble, while certainly pleasant, could really do with more Beethovenian swagger. Also, the first movement includes some bits of exaggerated rubato that I guess are supposed to inject some graceful insouciance, or maybe irony, into the proceedings. (The notes to the recording hint at ironic overtones in Beethoven’s first two movements, though I fail to hear them.) Whatever the case, these swooning gestures are the kind that become tiring on repeated hearing. I know this is old Vienna, but hold the Schlag, please.

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing Jordi Savall’s excellent performance of the Eroica Symphony, commenting especially on the bracing tempos that Savall chose for the work:  At the same time, I mentioned the “sluggish” tempo that Osmo Vänskä chose for the first movement in his recording with the Minnesota Orchestra (on BIS). Well, as most Beethoven fans know, there is some controversy about the metronome markings in the scores, many of which seem improbably fast. In the notes to his recording, Savall seems to suggest he was following Beethoven’s metronomic lead in the tempos he chose. At the other end of the spectrum, then, is Vänskä and, for that matter, Stefan Blunier in the recording currently under review. If I may, I’d like to take back what I said about Vänskä’s first movement tempo. Having listened again in preparing this review, I can say his approach is expansive but not overly leisurely, which applies as well to Blunier’s performance with the Beethoven Orchestra of Bonn. Both Vänskä and Blunier clock in at around fifty minutes total. While Savall (who is almost five and a half minutes swifter) stresses Beethovenian élan, Blunier goes for grandeur, and the results are equally satisfying. There’s an epic sweep to that grandly unfolding first movement, plus an added gravitas in the second movement Marcia funebre. The scherzo is impetuous as it should be, with a special spring to its step. Perhaps a tad more of that same impetuousness could have found its way into the finale; for me, some of the variations and especially the coda lack dash. But overall, this is a fine performance, very well played by the Bonn orchestra.

It’s enhanced by Blunier’s selection of fillers, two of Beethoven’s less-often-played but still marvelous overtures. The first, The Consecration of the House, was written to commemorate the reopening of Vienna’s Theater in der Josefstadt in 1822. It’s the first number in a set of incidental music to Carl Meisl’s play of the same name. Some listeners have been turned off by the faux-Handelian pomp and circumstance of the overture, but it’s a stately and even exciting work in Beethoven’s late, counterpoint-rich style. Even more immediately attractive is the King Stephan Overture written for the 1812 opening of the Hungarian Theater in Pest. In honor of his subject, Beethoven uses themes with a Hungarian folk flavor, including a lively Csárdás. King Stephan is Beethoven at his most unbuttoned, a joyful romp of a piece. Blunier’s readings are lively and alert even if Consecration is lacking just a bit of the detail I’ve heard in rival performances, especially Abbado’s (DGG 447 748-2, featuring the complete incidental music—worth investigating).

MD&G provides spacious sonics with a true sense of the hall, yet with real body to the instrumental sound as well. I’m glad to find that the engineers have managed to overcome the balance problems they encountered in earlier sessions at the Beethovenhalle in Bonn. A fine job!

—Lee Passarella

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