Tuesday 23 March 2021

Beyond Beethoven: Anneke Scott and Steven Devine explore how other composers followed the example of Beethoven's horn sonata with works exploiting the abilities of the natural horn

Beyond Beethoven - Ries, Steup, Starke, Thürner; Anneke Scott, Steven Devine; Resonus Classics

Beyond Beethoven
- Ries, Steup, Starke, Thürner; Anneke Scott, Steven Devine; Resonus Classics

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 March 2021 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
An exploration of the horn sonatas that came after Beethoven's; four contrasting works which exploit the possibilities of the natural horn to the utmost.

Beethoven's Sonata in F major for piano and horn was premiered in 1800 at a time when the commissioner, horn player Giovanni Punto was far more famous than the composer. The form was not common at the time, but following Beethoven's example there was a positive explosion of sonatas for piano and horn. Punto (who was in fact Czech, born Jan Václav Stich) pioneered hand-stopping techniques on the natural horn which meant the instrument could play a wider range of notes, which was a boon for composers such as Beethoven.

On this disc from Resonus Classics, Beyond Beethoven, Anneke Scott (natural horn) and Steven Devine (fortepiano) play sonatas by four of Beethoven's contemporaries - Ferdinand Ries, his pupil and secretary, Friedrich Eugen Thürner, his regular dining partner who played in the orchestra for Fidelio, and two composers influenced by Beethoven, Friedrich Starke and Hendrik Coenraat Steup which demonstrate how composers followed Beethoven's example in exploiting the variety and versatility of the natural horn (the instrument which Beethoven wrote for, and which Scott plays on this disc). Anneke Scott plays a Lucien Joseph Roux cor solo from around 1810 whilst Steven Devine plays a Viennese fortepiano by Johann Peter Fritz from 1815 (from the Richard Burnett collection).

Anneke Scott and Steven Devine
Anneke Scott and Steven Devine

Ferdinand Ries was born in Bonn where his father was a violinist who was one of Beethoven's teachers. The French seizure of Bonn in 1794 mean that the young Ferdinand was somewhat itinerant but he ended up in Vienna in 1801 where he would have lessons with Beethoven as well as working as his secretary and copyist. Ries' career remained peripatetic (including conscription into the French army because of the continued French occupation of Bonn), but he ended up in London in 1813. It is from Ries that we have a story about Beethoven writing his horn sonata the night before the premiere, but as we are not quite certain whether Ries was actually in Vienna at the time, the story might be taken with a pinch of salt. Ries' Grande Sonate in F major Op.34 was written in 1811 in Kassel, which had just become the seat of the King of Westphalia, Jerome Bonaparte. It is one of a pair of major horn works (the other is a double concerto) that Ries wrote in Kassel for the horn playing brothers Gottfried and Michael Schunke. 

Another of Beethoven's students, Carl Czerny described Ries as a distinguished writer for the horn. The sonata is certainly grand, starting with a movement lasting 13 minutes! We have an opening Larghetto which makes full use of the various timbres of the horn; throughout the disc we notice how composers took advantage of the huge variety of the instrument, each note has a different timbre which of course, makes the key of the piece of prime importance. And what is noticeable here too is the way that the horn contrasts with the bright light tone of the piano with it reverberation far shorter than a modern instrument. Ries writing takes full advantage of the instrument in Beethovenian fashion, this isn't a sonata for piano with horn. The atmospheric second movement is highly Beethovenian, with a charming finale that shows it chops with the complexities of the development.

Friedrich Eugen Thürner was born to a flautist in the employ of the Duke of Wurttemberg, but orphaned at four he was raised by a family friend in Kassel where he made his public debut performing a Mozart piano concerto at the age of 7. By 1801 he had moved to Munich where he studied composition with Franz Danzi, and then 1804 took him to Vienna where Thürner was very influenced by Beethoven and his style. His subsequent life was complicated by the alterations in the structure of German states by Napoleon's creation of the Kingdom of Westphalia in 1807, but Thürner worked with the new court orchestra including the Schunke brothers. By 1813, the Kingdom of Westphalie was gone and the Electorate of Hesse re-instated; Thürner became an intinerant musician but he had a number of mental health issues and ended up committed to an asylum in Amsterdam.

His Grande Sonata Op.29 was written in Kassel in 1812, the year after the premiere of Ries' sonata in Kassel so we might presume Thürner's work was inspired by that of Ries and in fact one of the Schunke brothers premiered it! Perhaps of equal significance is that fact that Thürner's sonata uses the same layout of movement lengths as Ries, very large opening movement, short slow movement, medium-sized finale. His opening movement is perhaps a little too long, though there is plenty of charm and somd drama too. The short second movement is highly atmospheric whilst the finale is positively jaunty.

Beethoven and Giovanni Punto played Beethoven's sonata a number of times, but Beethoven also performed it with others, and one was horn player, pianist and composer Friedrich Starke. Born in Saxony, Starke does not seem to have settled in Vienna until 1814 where he would be one of Beethoven's regular dining partners. Beethoven helped Starke become a member of the Kartnertor Theatre where Starke took part in the 1814 performances of Fidelio. Starke's Grand Sonata in F for piano and horn is currently lost, but his Adagio und Rondo, Op.105 was published in 1821. Around the same time Starke published his Wiener Pianoforte Schule, Op 108. Starke's piano had five pedals and in the Adagio und Rondo he provides instructions for use of a number of these. The Adagio gives us some fabulous horn drama and then the Rondo is so jaunty it reminded me of Rossini and I realised there was something positively operatic about this piece.

Heinrich Conrad Steup was born in the Landgraviate of Hesse-Kassel, but we know little about him till he pops up in Amsterdam in 1801where his career encompassed performing, composition and entrepreneurship including music publishing and running a business selling musical instruments. His Sonata Op. 11 was published in 1820 on his own imprint, and the publication even reminds listeners that the first six bars of Steup's sonata recall the theme of Beethoven's Horn Sonata. We don't know who Steup wrote the sonata for, but Anneke Scott's lively article in the CD booklet suggests a number of intriguing possibilities.

The lively finale makes the horn do a key piece of hand-stopping on the leading note of the main theme which colours it wonderfully, in a way which would not happen on a valved instrument, and this feeling for the colours of the instrument continues with the atmospheric slow movement, and the work finishes with another jaunty finale.

The use of colour, timbre and drama in these four works makes you wish that Beethoven had spent a little more time writing his sonata, and perhaps even returning to the genre. Apart from Beethoven's sonata, the repertoire for horn from this period has somewhat languished and on this terrific disc, Scott and Devine take us on a real journey. Both relish the variety the the composers provide for their instruments, and we should not take for granted the sheer technical prowess that is required to play this music; both Scott and Devine make it seem easy. A fascinating and uplifting disc.

Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838) - Grande Sonate in F major, Op. 34 (1811)
Friedrich Eugen Thürner (1785-1827) - Grande Sonate in E major, Op. 29 (1812)
Friedrich Starkke (1774-1835) - Adagio und Rondo, Op. 105 (1821)
Henrik Coenraad Steup (1778-1827) - Sonate in E flat major, Op.11 (1820)
Anneke Scott (natural horn)
Steven Devine (fortepiano)
Recorded in Waterdown House, Tunbridge Wells, Kent on 28-31 October 2019

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