Beethoven: ‘Für Elise’, Bagatelles — Paul Lewis — Harmonia mundi

by | Jul 23, 2020 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

BEETHOVEN: Fur Elise, WoO 59; 7 Bagatelles, Op. 33; 11 Bagatelles, Op. 119; 6 Bagatelles, Op. 126; Fantasia in G minor, Op. 77; Klavierstücke, WoO 60, 61 and 61a – Paul Lewis, piano – Harmonia mundi HMM 902416, 71:17  (7/10/20) [Distr. PIAS] ****:

Despite his penchant for and mastery of large forms, particularly the piano sonata as a means of experiment and exploration, Beethoven throughout his active career created piano miniatures, what he termed  Kleinigkeiten, or throwaway trifles. Even as a teenager Beethoven composed short, compact and expressive pieces – he counted 1782 as the year of such initiation – that somewhat anticipate the remark of Robert Schumann: “Discount not the short piece, for composers may say in moments what for others requires whole symphonies.” The official, published group of seven such pieces, Op. 33, appeared in 1803. Each Is set in a major key, and each contains aspects of Beethoven’s capacity for improvisation, such as runs, explosively abrupt dynamic shifts, subtle metric transformations, and the building up of scalar kernels that may become emotionally compelling.

If the No. 1 E-flat Major exerts a gentle, folkish aspect in a kind of dialogue, the runs anticipate exactly the opening we hear in the later Op. 77 Fantasy. An excursion into the minor and pianist Lewis’ desire not to repeat exactly provide a sense of adventure. In No. 2 in C, feelings emerge in the minor, accompanied by triplets. Ascending scales in staccato thirds mark the trio section. The quirky metrics leave us unresolved at the coda. The F Major Allegretto No. 3 moves placidly, with a second half in pungent resonance in D. No. 4 Andante in A feels equally serene and balanced. Some real bite occurs in No. 5 in C, Allegro ma non troppo, in quick motion in both hands, and the middle section exploits the minor modality. Beethoven’s singing style appears in No. 6 in D Major, marked Con una certa espessione parlante, much in the spirit of folk song, with variations and chains of descending thirds over a syncopated pedal. A dazzling Presto, the last of the set, expands Beethoven’s burgeoning notion of the scherzo, here in A-flat, with the trio’s appearing twice, a device that defined later Beethoven and the same procedure in Schumann.

In 1822, Beethoven sent a partial series of the Op. 119 Bagatelles to the publisher Peters, who found them either too simplistic or too hard, so neither the gifted amateur nor the practiced professional would be pleased.  So, Beethoven sent his now-completed set to Clementi by way of Ferdinand Ries, and we note that some elements of the eleven pieces in varying styles would appear in late sonatas, like the E Major, Op. 109 and in passing moments in the Diabelli Variations.  For sheer compression, few pieces by Beethoven compare to the ninth and tenth members of this set: the Vivace moderato in A minor moves spasmodically in accelerated, leaping arpeggios; the A Major Allegramente offers 13 measures of brisk mania. But several others warrant more than one listening or run-through: No. 7, in C Major, Allegro ma non troppo wanders into circuitous harmonic paths and has pedal point trills that beg to compete with the second movement of Op. 111.  The No. 6 in G anticipates the Tchaikovsky B-flat Concerto, with its six-measure introduction that had no further relation to the remainder of the work. The last of the set may well have appealed to Brahms: “innocent and singing,” its B-flat Major moves alla musette, in the imitation of a musical box, which Lewis realizes with careful clarity.

Portrait Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven,
by Hornemann

My own models for the 1809 G minor Fantasy been Rudolf Serkin, Edwin Fischer, and Andor Foldes; the Schnabel version of Op. 119, long (and still) suppressed by EMI, came into my possession several years ago, and I broadcast it over KZSU-FM, Stanford.  The G minor Fantasy—like the remarkable Choral Fantasia, Op. 80—even beyond the opening of the Emperor Concerto provide us a palpable sense of Beethoven’s improvisational style.  The so-called home key appears and then disappears—permanently. Cascading scales and chordal phrases define the first gestures. The ennobled, martial theme immediately strikes a violent and passionate note, moving through an array of keys to wind up in B Major. Typically, the various registers of the piano seem to war for dominance—six different keys and six  different tempos—only to cede to an eight-bar tune that Beethoven subjects to seven variations.  Lewis captures the music’s impulsive, brilliant patina that moves to a coda of uncertain harmony that indulges the main theme in C Major. The cascade motif reappears in B Major, now colored by a fiercely whimsical humor that must have characterized the Beethoven experience of his most potent years.    

Beethoven conceives the Six Bagatelles, Op. 126 (1825) as a succession of lyrical or introspective pieces alternating with more active, dramatic ones. These six pieces constitute Beethoven’s last work for the piano, and they invoke many of the contrapuntal techniques that we find in the more “serious” works, like the contemporary Missa Solemnis and Ninth Symphony. The habit of separating polyphonic voices several octaves apart – as we hear in the Overture to the Consecration of the House – combines with Beethoven’s capacity for both rigor and imaginative freedom. Small gestures or kernels of musical energy have the potential to explode into cosmic, metaphysical declarations. Of particular, noteworthy energy, No. 4 in B minor drives its counterpoint against a more lyrical impulse. The G Major, No. 2 seems derived from Bach studies that manage to retain a playful manner. The first of set, No. 1 in G Major, offers tempo changes and a brief cadenza that, again, suggests the Master’s late, improvisational style. The E-flat Major, No. 3, alters its texture as it proceeds, and it exploits varying registers in the piano. Syncopated triplets mark No. 5 in G Major, a piece subdued but expressive. The last of the set, No. 6 in E-flat, opens with an unruly barrage and ends with another controlled bit of mania.

No. 1 in G major unfolds fluidly as a single thought, despite changes in time signature and even a little cadenza that offers a coquettish flight of fancy in the middle. No. 2 in G minor has a driving energy but still manages to channel that energy in playful directions. There is a noble simplicity about No. 3 in E flat major that sustains it through many changes in texture, including washes of piano tone floating up from the bass and sparkling ornamentation in its middle section. The melodic content suggests a song Chopin might covet, but the ideas abound and often digress into canny humor.

Anyone who has purchased or audited this album has awaited the Lewis performance of the ubiquitous “Fur Elise” Bagatelle in A minor (1810).  Its haunted beauty has had innumerable performers, Alfred Brendel and Artur Schnabel among them.  That Beethoven loved and courted one Theresa Malfatti has led to endless speculation about the inspiration for the little gem. The remaining trifles likely derive from the young Beethoven’s notebooks, but all of the pieces, as played by Paul Lewis, testify to a consummate command of the Beethoven idiom.

—Gary Lemco