A Second Dive into Beethoven’s “Kitchen Sink”

Six more CDs sampled from the Naxos 90-disc every-note-he-wrote collection

After what was mostly a taste of major and personal favorite works a few weeks ago, this installment of reviews from Naxos Records 90-CD ultra-complete Beethoven collection stays mostly off the beaten path. And in sum…it was a whole lot of fun!

From the Orchestral section, disc 6 features overtures, namely “Coriolan,” “Name Day Celebration,” “Leonore” overtures 1 and 3 — and a real rarity, the “Music for a Ballet of the Knights,” WoO 1. They are divided between the Slovak Philharmonic under Stephen Gunzenhauser and the Nicolaus Esterhazy Sinfonia conducted by Bela Drahos. It is most enjoyable, and the real delight was in discovering this earliest (1790) unpublished work of Beethoven, the “Ballet of the Knights.”

The first unexpected revelation of the set came with disc 32, from the Keyboard category. This consists of no fewer than 62 tracks of fragments, arrangements and sketches for piano, coming in at just over 73 minutes. My first hearing (as usual) came in the car, and the overall impression was that I was dreaming of Beethoven music, familiar and new. Since the majority of the fragments are under a minute long, one would just begin to follow an idea, then it would trail off, and then something else entirely came along. Occasionally one would hear an arrangement familiar in a different guise, and it was an endlessly fascinating journey. Some of the longer highlights include: a fragment from a string quintet, completed by Diabelli, a three-minute segment of the opening of the Symphony No. 7, and Beethoven’s two cadenzas for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20.

From the Chamber section, disc 55 was chosen, offering two string quintets. Long immersed in most of Beethoven’s string quartets, I had never managed to get to these works, the first being a C Major work, Op. 29. From 1801, it falls after the breakthrough Op. 18 quartets, and it is easy to fall in love with the piece. This is due in large part to the playing of the Fine Arts Quartet, especially first violin Ralph Evans (Gil Sharon is the guest member on second viola). The companion is the Op. 104 arrangement of the early Op. 1, No. 3 piano trio. In the original the C Minor trio is arresting on its own terms, and one does tend to miss the keyboard part; but there is no quibble again with the Fine Arts and friend’s performance.

Disc 68 was picked from the Stage Works, principally for the complete version of the incidental music for Konig Stephan, Op. 117. I have been a fan of the overture of this 1811 work since my freshman year in college, and was intermittently curious about the rest of it. The work is nearly 40 minutes in length, with four different speakers, and is performed by The Key Ensemble, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Leif Segerstam. It prompted me to go to http://www.naxos.com/beethoven250 for more details and text, but there was a problem with the link. The first half of the generous 84-minute disc contains Act II of Fidelio, with a compelling Gosta Windbergh as Florestan and Inga Nielsen his intrepid and faithful wife.

Disc 73 was plucked from the Choral section, and consists mostly of another new work to yours truly, “The Glorious Moment,” Op. 136 of 1814. It is a sort of propaganda work, part of the celebrations and hopeful restoration of a more stable Europe after Napleon’s exile to Elba. The first performance included in the audience the Empress (of Austria, presumably), the Tsarina of Russia and the King of Prussia. The ho-hum text is elevated by Beethoven’s use of a vocal quartet, a children’s chorus, a mixed chorus and large orchestra. Coming in at nearly 40 minutes, it is another fun discovery, and warrants at least a second hearing. The disc is filled out by the fun precursor to the finale of the Ninth Symphony, the “Choral Fantasy,” Op. 80 for five vocalists, piano, chorus and orchestra.

Finally, another lifelong curiosity satisfied, with disc 78 from the Vocal section. This would be the 31 Irish Songs, WoO 152, dating from 1810-1813. The sources of the texts include Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, among many less familiar names. Beethoven became involved with George Thomson, who was deeply involved with Haydn and a couple of hundred settings of Scottish songs, before the latter’s advancing age led him to put it aside. Beethoven and Thomson apparently clashed over the ease of performance for amateurs versus musical expression that Beethoven cared about, and on balance, it’s safe to say Beethoven won the battle. Many of the songs include chamber ensembles, with the majority accompanied by piano; all in all, a delightful journey — and there are only another half dozen discs of similar bent!

 

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