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Despite Beethoven’s immense popularity, some of his best compositions remain neglected. Discover Beethoven's lesser known musical gems.
Ask anyone to name their all-time Beethoven Top 10 and his symphonies, concertos, piano sonatas and string quartets are sure to figure highly. Yet hidden away amongst the many dozens of other pieces he composed are a number of cherishable works that are also worth seeking out.
One of the most delightful is the sunny Rondo in B flat for piano and orchestra, known as WoO 6, originally intended as the finale of the Second Piano Concerto; also the two violin Romances, which possess the same idyllic calm and serenity that marks out the slow movement of the Violin Concerto.
No Beethoven collection would be complete without a selection of his bracing orchestral overtures, including the mighty Coriolan and the four (!) associated with his one and only opera, the immortal Fidelio. Other classics include the overtures to his incidental music for Egmont and The Ruins of Athens, and his enchanting ballet score The Creatures of Prometheus.
And just in case you thought Beethoven was incapable of letting his hair down, try the irresistible 12 Contradances for small orchestra and Wellington’s Victory, a musical re-enactment of Wellington’s triumph over Napoleon at Vitoria, complete with muskets and cannon.
Those listeners who like their chamber music meaty and substantial should lose no time in investigating Beethoven’s piano trios (most notably the Ghost and Archduke), violin sonatas (the Spring and Kreutzer are firm favourites) and cello sonatas, especially the radiant No.3. Fans of the composer’s sturm und drang in C minor style should also make a beeline for the grippingly intense String Trio, Op.9, No.3.
More relaxed in feel are the Clarinet Trio, Op.11, Piano Quintet, Op.16, and Horn Sonata, Op.17, while on the lighter side, the Septet, Op.20, for clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello and double bass should on no account be missed, nor the insatiably upbeat Serenade, Op.25, for flute, violin and viola.
Those wishing to hear the young Beethoven at his most dazzlingly individual should give the 32 Variations, WoO 80, a spin, while the Diabelli Variations offer a transcendental experience rivalled only by Bach’s Goldberg Variations. For musical expression of a more rarefied nature, the three sets of Bagatelles, Ops 33, 119 and 126, effectively redefine the Classical piano miniature.
Beethoven was not the most idiomatic of composers for the human voice, yet even here there are a number of gems along the way. His two Mass settings – the Missa Solemnis and Mass in C – possess a symphonic grandeur guaranteed to send the spirits soaring.
Rather less familiar are Beethoven’s 83 songs, including the serene Adelaide and the first great song-cycle in the Romantic tradition, An die Ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved).
Other memorable scores well worth tracking down include the aria Ah Perfido!, the cantata Calm Sea and a Prosperous Voyage and the oratorio Christ on the Mount of Olive. Above all, make sure you don’t miss the multi-faceted Choral Fantasy for piano, soloists, chorus and orchestra, which was effectively a trial run for the Choral Symphony’s Ode to Joy finale.
TOP FIVE RECORDINGS
Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra/ David Zinman
Zinman conducts all 11 overtures with an authentic, spick-and-span exhilaration that hurtles the music along on a surging, inspirational tide. Arte Nova 82876
Violin Sonatas Nos 5, Spring, & 9, Kreutzer
Itzhak Perlman (violin), Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
Two master musicians at their incandescent finest, revelling in Beethoven’s coruscating invention with beguiling spontaneity and virtuoso sparkle.
Decca 475 7509
Piotr Anderszewski (piano)
Anderszewski’s lightning musical reflexes and scintillating technique combine to mesmerising effect in Beethoven’s all-encompassing set of variations.
Virgin Classics 503 4062
Soloists, Vienna Singverein, Berlin Philharmonic/Herbert von Karajan
A classic account of Beethoven’s exalted choral masterwork, featuring playing and singing of ravishing tonal allure and intense spirituality. Deutsche Grammophon 453 0162
Gundula Janowitz (sop), Christa Ludwig (mz), Fritz Wunderlich (ten), Walter Berry (bass-bar), Philharmonia Choir & Orchestra/Otto Klemperer Klemperer’s granitic intensity and electrifying concentration galvanise the listener’s attention, climaxing in a final scene of uncontainable jubilation.
EMI Classics 567 3642