Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Beethoven Transformed: volume 1 of Boxwood & Brass' new project

Beethoven transformed - Boxwood & Brass - Resonus
Beethoven arr. Czerny Septet, Beethoven Sextet, Boxwood & Brass; Resonus
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 November 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Beethoven's early Septet re-cast for Harmonie ensemble, showcasing the fine musicianship of Boxwood & Brass

Harmoniemusik is a style of wind ensemble music written in the 18th century generally in German speaking countries. It was often designed for performance outside, though not exclusively so. And though many major composers wrote for the genre, there were plenty of others who had their music arranged for wind ensemble. The ensemble, Boxwood & Brass, is the UK's only period instrument ensemble exploring this repertoire, giving us the opportunity to hear the music on historically correct instruments. [see my interview with Boxwood & Brass's Emily Worthington and Robert Percival for a full discussion of Harmoniemusik].

For the Boxwood & Brass' latest disc, on Resonus Classics, it has turned to a contemporary arrangement of one of the best loved large-scale chamber pieces of the Classical period, Beethoven's Septet. Written in 1799, the original was for a mixed ensemble of wind and stringa, but it is here performed in an arrangement for Harmonie sextet - two clarinets, two horns & two bassoons (Emily Worthington, Fiona Mitchell, Anneke Scott, Kate Goldsmith, Robert Percival, Takako Kunugi) by Beethoven's pupil, Carl Czerny. Also on the disc is Beethoven's early Sextet Op.71 which sees Beethoven exploring the wind sextet not as Harmoniemusik but as real chamber music.

The disc is part of a project (with more discs to come) from Boxwood & Brass, Beethoven Transformed, which aims to explore early 19th century Viennese Harmoniemusik in the context of Beethoven's music for wind, and to show that the genre was more complex than mere background music.

In 1805, Beethoven asked his former pupil Carl Czerny to make the piano reduction of his opera Leonore. Czerny was in fact only 14, but he had had lessons from Beethoven in 1802 and 1803. Also dating from 1805 is a version of Beethoven's Septet (for a mixed ensemble of wind and strings) arranged by Czerny for Harmoniemusik, wind sextet. The background to the arrangement is unclear, but the timing makes it suggestive that Czerny was working to a commission from Beethoven, though Beethoven came to be annoyed by the success of his early Septet which he did not feel reflected his current compositional style! The booklet article by Emily Worthington also suggests another possibility, that Czerny was working for the clarinettist who owned the manuscript of Beethoven's Septet. And, in fact, the arrangement is not quite complete, and it is rather more virtuosic than a lot of contemporary Harmoniemusik.

The original Septet is modelled on a serenade, with six movements, so its translation to Harmoniemusik is very apt, and it creates quite an out-doorsy sort of feel. Boxwood & Brass play on period instruments which brings a whole new set of colours and timbres into the mix. The modern woodwind and brass instruments are far more technologically advanced than their early 19th century predecessors, making playing easier and more stable, and making the instruments tonally even throughout their range. The drawback is that there are a huge range of colours which are only available on the period instruments. For example, with horns using hand-stopping to create chromatic notes (rather than the more modern valves), each note has a different tonal and timbral quality. Of course, the earlier instruments are tricky to play, but one of the delights of listening to Boxwood & Brass is that the players are all admirably well versed in their instruments and the disc has little indication of the work that must go on to achieve such beautifully balanced tone.

The results are delightful and very, very full of colour. If you know Beethoven's Septet only in its original version and on modern instruments, then here you experience two layers of difference - the move from wind and strings to wind only and the move from modern to period instruments. The range of colours is magical, much of the music is clarinet led just as string chamber music of the period tended to be violin led (something that Beethoven would change with his innovative writing for string quartet). Yet the other instruments are given a chance to shine, such as with the 'Andante con Variazioni' where Czerny gives other instruments moments in the spotlight, the two bassoons competing with each over with clarinets accompanying, or the bassoon and the horn calling to each other, and there is even a cadenza-like moment for the second bassoon. Whilst the first horn is brought to the fore in the trio of the following Scherzo.

Rhythmically the performance is full of an engaging bounce and lightness, and the Tempo di Menuetto and the Scherzo both make me want to smile. Being a serenade, the music in the Septet veers towards the lighter side, Beethoven enjoying himself. And it is clear that the musicians of Boxwood & Brass were doing so as well, and this enjoyment is clearly conveyed.

Not a lot is known about Beethoven's Sextet, he offered it to his publishers after the success of the Septet, but it was written earlier, probably prior of 1796 for the court of the Elector of Bonn where Beethoven spent his early years. Also in the ensemble there was the horn player, and future publisher, Nicolaus Simrock and the flautist and future composer Anton Reicha, whose include Josef Reicha led the orchestra. Josef Reicha's wind music is cited as an influence of Beethoven.

The Sextet moves away from Harmoniemusik. It is in four movements, so is not Serenade-like but aspires to more serious works, and Beethoven writes for the six instruments individually like chamber music, whereas in Harmoniemusik they tend to move in like pairs (two clarinets, two bassoons etc). The first movement starts with a slow introduction leading to a perky Allegro where different groups of instruments engage in dialogue. Throughout the movement we notice the wide range of colours that the instruments bring to the music. There is a gentle lyricism to the Adagio, where the music is clarinet led but everyone gets their moment, and after the lively Menuetto & Trio we have a march-like Rondo which seems to get us closest to the world of Harmoniemusik.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) , arr. Carl Czerny - Septet in E flat, Op. 20
Ludwig van Beethoven - Sextet in E flat, Op. 71
Boxwood & Brass (Emily Worthington & Fiona Mitchell clarinet, Anneke Scott & Kate Goldsmith natural horn, Robert Percival & Takako Kunugi bassoon)
Recorded at the National Centre for Early Music, York, 31 January to 2 February 2019
RESONUS RES1249 1CD [61.40]
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