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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Beethoven Unknown: Solo Piano Works
Polonaise in C major, op.89 (1814) [6:16]
Allegretto in C minor, WoO 53 (1797) [4:02]
Lustig-Traurig in F major, WoO 54 (1802) [2:10]
Rondo in C major, WoO 48 (1783) [2:28]
Bagatelle in C minor, WoO 52 (1795, rev. 1822) [4:04]
Prelude in F minor, WoO 55 (1803) [4:04]
Piano Sonata in F minor, WoO 47/2 (1783) [14:29]
Seven Ländler in D major, WoO 11 (1799) [4:10]
Piece for Piringer in B minor, WoO 61 (1821) [2:40]
Piece in B-flat major (Ziemlich lebhaft), WoO 60 (1818) [1:15]
Six Ecossaises in E-flat major, WoO 83 (1806) [2:19]
Minuet in E-flat major, WoO 82 (1805) [3:40]
Sonatina in F major, Anhang 5/2 (published 1807; if authentic probably dates from Beethoven’s years in Bonn 1783-1792) [4:32]
Six Piano Variations on an Original Theme in F major, op.34 (1802) [13:45]
Waltz in E-flat major, WoO 84 (1824) [1:55]
Andante in C major, WoO 211 (1793) [1:21]
Piece for Piano in G minor, WoO 61a (1825) [1:00]
Matthias Kirschnereit (piano)
Recording details not supplied
BERLIN CLASSICS 0301409BC [74:08]

While Beethoven is well known for his sonatas and sets of variations for piano, he also composed quite a few much-less-well known works. This disc featuring Matthis Kirschnereit on piano ambitiously attempts an overview of these overlooked compositions, ranging from some of the earliest pieces by the twelve-year-old Beethoven to one written just two years before his death, and about three years after the final piano sonata.

Most of the pieces included are rather short and are more in the nature of a bagatelle or a dance that didn’t fit in other sets of such compositions. This review will primarily focus on three of the more important works on the disc.

The Piano Sonata in F minor, WoO 47/2, is one of the young Beethoven’s earliest compositions. It nevertheless finds him already breaking the mold at age twelve in fairly momentous ways that certainly presage interesting things to come. In this sonata he anticipates his own Pathétique sonata by fifteen years with a very slow introduction that recurs later in the first movement; this was a completely unprecedented move. Kirschnereit provides some good dynamic differentiation, but like most pianists he’s hesitant to take young Ludwig seriously when he demands a delicate pianissimo suddenly become a pounding fortissimo and then back again. Like Jörg Demus, Kirschnereit gets close, as do Ronald Brautigam and Ulrich Stark, but they’re the exceptions. Perhaps most others consider the beginning composer lacking in taste here, but he really does require a much bigger contrast than even the most adventurous pianists are willing to provide. However, in the second movement Kirschnereit disregards the marked contrasting piano and forte moments completely. He has a tendency to embellish and he takes some liberties with the score throughout. For the most part that’s not a problem, until we get to the third movement, a strict two-four Presto that has its effect rather spoiled by Kirschnereit’s introduction of some uncalled-for triplets that are fully out of character. He does take the movement at a very exciting tempo. Repeat signs are frequently disregarded throughout.

One of the highlights of this disc is Kirschnereit’s rendition of the Prelude in F minor, WoO 55 (1803). This standalone piece is reminiscent of Bach, seen through a Classical lens. It’s very much underappreciated and susceptible of many different interpretations, such as the raw emotion of Martin Stadfeld’s recording. Kirschnereit opts for a mysterious, wistful and moving reading, and he makes the most of the piece.

I confess to being a bit puzzled by the inclusion of the Six Variations on an Original Theme in F, op.34; while it’s not the best known of Beethoven’s set of variations, it’s hardly an obscurity. That said, it’s also probably deserving of being better known. Kirschnereit plays the theme and opening variation at a very leisurely tempo, taking Beethoven’s Adagio marking seriously. This piece requires the most fluid of trills, and Kirschnereit supplies them quite wonderfully, allowing them to breathe and expand and contract much like Claudio Arrau. Considering Kirschnereit studied for a time with Arrau, this influence is understandable. The fifth variation, a march in C minor, gets an interesting interpretation. While Richter and Brendel ground this variation firmly in the Classical style, and Pletnev instills it with dread, Kirschnereit goes fully Romantic with it; as I listen to his recording of it I could imagine it coming from the pen of Dvořák. The final variation and coda are particularly delightful in their airiness. Kirschnereit does observe all marked repeats in this set of variations.

A few other comments on some of the other pieces are in order. The Polonaise in C is given a very Chopin-like treatment after the opening fantasia. Kirschnereit is a bit more flexible with tempo than Beethoven indicates, but it works pretty well. The Lustig-traurig, WoO 54 (literally, happy-sad) is pretty humorless but at least it’s taken briskly. On the other hand the Rondo in C, WoO 48 (contemporaneous with the sonata) is frolicsome and it’s impossible not to smile at the good humor on display.

The Bagatelle in C minor, WoO 52, which anticipates the obsessive rhythm of the Fifth Symphony and Fourth Piano Concerto, is sadly a bit of a letdown; I missed the oomph of Martino Tirimo or the urgency of Rudolf Buchbinder here. The 7 Ländler in D, WoO 11 are taken at an absurdly fast pace. These were dances that were actually meant to be danced. At Kirschnereit’s tempo they are more of a sprint. The dubious sonatina in F, Anhang 5/2 is a light piece, but Kirschnereit wrings what substance there is to be found within its two scanty movements, and he leaves the listener convinced that, yes, this could be Beethoven.

The Berlin Classics label has over the years released quite a few discs under the banner “Unknown Beethoven.” For the most part, those were recordings that originated in East Germany in the 1970s. This disc should not be mistaken for one of those rereleases; this is all new content.

Recording quality is excellent throughout. The piano has good presence and as noted the dynamic contrasts are solid, though I wish there were more of them present. The selection of pieces is interesting and presents many facets of Beethoven’s skills over his lifetime. While I have some reservations (especially about the Sonata, WoO 47/2), Kirschnereit succeeds for the most part in giving a varied and intriguing survey of these compositions.

Mark S. Zimmer

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