“BEETHOVEN’S BEETHOVEN” = Symphony No. 2 arr. for piano trio by Beethoven; Quintet for Piano and Winds arr. for p. quartet by Beethoven – Van Swieten Society – Quintone

by | Apr 30, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

“BEETHOVEN’S BEETHOVEN” = Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 36, arr. for piano trio by Beethoven; Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat Major, Op. 16, arr. for piano quartet by Beethoven – Van Swieten Society – Quintone Q 08003 [Distr. by Naxos], 59 min. ****:
We’re so used to hearing the works of important composers in arrangements by other hands that it’s surprising to find these two works, especially the very symphonic Symphony No. 2, reworked by none other than Beethoven himself. There are practical reasons for their reincarnation. In the early nineteenth century, there was a lively market for music by the masters suited to performance in the home by gifted middle-class amateurs. Since amateur musicians in Beethoven’s day would have been more likely to receive lessons on the piano or a string instrument, it made sense for Beethoven to turn his 1796 Quintet for oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, and piano into a quartet for string trio and piano, publishing the two versions together in 1801. Beethoven dropped many of the horn bits in the original, though he assigned some of the music to his three string players. He retained the piano part as it was in the original but added some extra music for the strings that didn’t appear in the first version. Certainly, it is a different enough piece of music in terms of sonority to be enjoyed as a separate musical experience. Since I think winds and piano are not always a felicitous combination, I tend to prefer Beethoven’s reworking.
The arrangement of the symphony was presumably done with the same monetary considerations in mind, but that’s not clear from the record. In any event, the symphony was published by the formidably named organization of Bureau des Arts et d’Industrie in 1804, while the arrangement was published two years later by the same body. A critic for the influential Allgemeine Mujsicalische Zeitung made some conjectures about the arrangement that might not have entirely thrilled Beethoven: “We may well presume it is for those who do not entirely hear this very difficult work completely, or who, amid the abundance of artistically interwoven ideas and perhaps amid the all too frequent use of the shrillest instruments, cannot understand it well enough. Finally, it is also for those who through recollection want to repeat the pleasure of the complete performance and look over and examine more calmly whatever was not entirely clear or particularly to their liking.” Lest we come away thinking that the reviewer is damning with only faint praise, he goes on to speak of the great expertise Beethoven shows in capturing the flavor of the original, as well as writing thoroughly idiomatic music for his greatly reduced forces.
It is a pretty remarkable job, given that the Second Symphony is the first in which the real Beethoven emerges, with its huge dynamic contrasts; its muscular, almost demonic allegros; and of course the first appearance of a symphonic scherzo. Perhaps the reviewer is right, that this reduced version is most useful in allowing a musician to study and render the music at first hand, but it makes for an attractive listening experience as well—more so the more you are familiar with the original. It’s interesting to see how Beethoven handled those big climaxes, with brass blaring and drums thumping. Mostly, it’s a matter of packing the climax with loads of tremolos in all three instruments, but also it entails a fidelity to the dynamic hairpins in the score—all those many szforzandi, subito pianos, and double fortes—plus some fairly massive writing for the piano, which isn’t as apparent in this recording thanks to the use of a rather high-strung copy of a fortepiano by Viennese piano maker Anton Walter. It seems the light and jangly nature of the instrument, which isn’t altogether unpleasant, is accentuated by the rather dry recording—surprising since it was made in a church. I hear a tad more openness and warmth in the recording of the Quintet/Quartet, but I think both would have benefited from the added sheen that well-managed resonance brings.
I have no such reservations about the performances of the Van Swieten Society players of the Netherlands, who have obvious affection for this music and a thorough understanding of the large shift in idiom that Beethoven’s music underwent between the 1790s and the 1800s. This is very attractive music-making.
—Lee Passarella

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