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Five overlooked Beethoven gems

Beethoven wrote an enormous quantity of music: nine symphonies, some fifty sonatas, seven concertos, sixteen string quartets, more than a hundred songs… the list goes on and on. It is almost inevitable that certain of these works have been relatively neglected by performers and the listening public alike. Here are a few overlooked gems.

1. Finale of Der glorreiche Augenblick (“The Glorious Moment”), op. 136

This cantata, written to celebrate the heads of Europe who had gathered for the Congress of Vienna in 1814–15, is one of those works that even many Beethoven enthusiasts love to hate, and it’s easy to see why. The text (by an amateur poet) is pompous and the music is largely forgettable. But the brief finale, in praise of Vienna itself, stands apart. A women’s chorus sings the city’s praises, followed by a children’s chorus, and then a soldiers’ chorus, with the last of these accompanied by bass drum, cymbals, and triangle in a way that anticipates the “Turkish March” section of the Ninth Symphony’s finale. It all concludes with a rousing fugue, and it’s easy to imagine that Beethoven had fun writing this movement.

Listen here.

(Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Hilary Davan Wetton, cond.)

2. Piano Sonata in F, op. 54

While it’s hard to call any of the 32 piano sonatas “overlooked,” this two-movement work doesn’t get nearly as much attention as those with catchy nicknames (“Moonlight,” “Tempest,” “Appassionata,” etc.). In its own understated way, however, op. 54 is quite extraordinary. The first movement goes back and forth between an innocent minuet-like melody and a pounding triplet theme: the two seem to have nothing in common, yet Beethoven somehow manages to combine them in the end. The second movement is a rollicking perpetuum mobile with all kinds of strange harmonic twists and syncopations. And what started out very fast gets even faster at the end.

Listen here.

(Maurizio Pollini, piano)

3) Polonaise for piano, op. 89

Beethoven got there well before Chopin, but this polonaise from 1815 has never gained much traction among pianists. It’s a remarkable work, though, starting with a breathtaking virtuosic flourish. The more stately main theme incorporates this Polish national dance’s characteristic syncopated rhythm. The key-signatures change repeatedly in the middle of the piece as it takes all kinds of surprising harmonic turns. Nor was this Beethoven’s first polonaise: he had already written one for wind band five years earlier. It’s a delightful little piece even if doesn’t quite rise to the level of a gem.

Listen here.

(Mikhail Pletnev, piano)

4) “L’amante impaziente” (“The Impatient Lover”), op. 82, nos. 3 and 4, for voice and piano

The text, by the celebrated Italian poet Pietro Metastasio, is a lover’s lament: Where is my beloved? Why does he make me wait? Does he mean to make me suffer? Every hour seems like a day to me, and so on. Beethoven set this text to music in two completely different ways. The first setting marked “Arietta buffa” (“Comic arietta”), is bright, fast, and bouncy: one has the feeling that the beloved will be in deep trouble when he finally does show up. The second, marked “Arietta assai seriosa” (“Very serious arietta”) could not be more different. It draws on every cliché in the repertory of musical laments: minor mode, slow tempo, grinding dissonances, and a hesitant melodic line full of drooping intervals that mimic a lover’s sighs. It’s all done to such an extreme, in fact, that we can hear this setting either as a lament or as a parody of a lament, overdone to the point of farce. The key word here is “seriosa,” which in Italian can mean either “extremely serious” or “overly serious,” as in: serious to the point of absurdity.

Listen here and here.

(Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; David Zobel, piano)

5) Violin Concerto, op. 61a, arranged for piano and orchestra

Why listen to an arrangement when you can have the original? Because Beethoven himself made this one, and he knew how to show off his talents as a pianist, especially in cadenzas, that moment in each movement of a concerto when the orchestra drops out and the soloist improvises alone. Or not: in the written-out cadenza of this particular first movement, Beethoven included a major part for the solo percussionist. The idea of any other member of the orchestra intruding into the soloist’s moment is strange enough, but the percussionist of all people? Bizarre as it may seem at first, it all makes sense in the end, because we realize, in retrospect, that the entire work had in fact opened with a brief percussion solo. A few orchestras have begun to incorporate this feature of the cadenza into their performances of the original violin version of this work; more should do so.

Listen here.

(Daniel Barenboim, pianist and cond.; English Chamber Orchestra)

For the full performances of these pieces and five additional Beethoven masterpieces, listen to the full playlist here, and discover the full context of these songs with Beethoven: Variations on a Life.

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