Friday, 15 February 2019

Delightful harmonies: Carl Czerny's arrangement of Beethoven's Septet

Boxwood and Brass - Takako Kunugi, Fiona Mitchell, Anneke Scott, Kate Goldsmith, Robert Percival, Emily Worthington (Photo Tom Bowles)
Boxwood and Brass - Takako Kunugi, Fiona Mitchell, Anneke Scott, Kate Goldsmith, Robert Percival, Emily Worthington
(Photo Tom Bowles)
Beethoven/Czerny Septet, arranged for harmonie sextet; Boxwood and Brass; St john's Smith Square Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 February 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Period instruments bring a lovely range of colours to a contemporary arrangement of Beethoven's Septet

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.

At St John's Smith Square's lunchtime concert on Thursday 14 February 2019, Boxwood and Brass (Emily Worthington, Fiona Mitchell, Anneke Scott, Kate Goldsmith, Robert Percival, Takako Kunugi) gave us the chance to hear Beethoven's Septet in Carl Czerny's arrangement for two clarinets, two horns, and two bassoons.

Boxwood and Brass is an ensemble that specialises in performing wind chamber music and Harmoniemusik of the classical and early-Romantic periods. Harmoniemusik is the name given to a very particular genre of German and Austrian music written, or arranged, for a wind ensemble based around clarinets, oboes, bassoons and horns. [see my interview with Boxwood and Brass's Emily Worthington and Robert Percival for a full discussion of Harmoniemusik]. It was very popular in the period, and Czerny's arrangement of the Septet would probably have been done with a view to increasing the popularity of an already popular work (Beethoven himself made an arrangement of the Septet for clarinet, cello and piano).

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 and Brass play on period instruments which brings a whole new set of colours and timbres into the mix. The modern woodwind 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 draw back 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 and Brass is that the players are all admirably well versed in their instruments and during the concert we had few, if any, suggestions of the work and perhaps struggle that must go on to achieve such beautifully balanced tone.

The results were delightful and very, very full of colour. If you know Beethoven's Septet only in its original version and on modern instruments, then you had two layers of difference to experience. I found the range of colours quite magical. Much of the music was 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 there were plenty of moments when the other instruments were given a chance to shine. I was particularly taken with the Andante con Variazioni in which 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 was even a cadenza-like moment for the second bassoon. Whilst the first horn was brought to the fore in the trio of the following Scherzo.

Rhythmically the performance was full of an engaging bounce and lightness, and the Tempo di Menuetto and the Scherzo both made me want to smile. Being a serenade, the music in the Septet veers towards the lighter side, Beethoven enjoying himself. And it was clear that the musicians of Boxwood and Brass were doing so as well, and this enjoyment was clearly conveyed to the audience. This was a delightful way to spend a lunchtime, and I look forward to Boxwood and Brass's recording of the work which is due to be issued in 2020.

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