Beethoven transformed

Beethoven TransformedVolume 1
Chamber Music for Harmonie
Boxwood & Brass
Resonus Classics RES10249, 61’40

Beethoven arr. Czerny: Septet Op.20
Beethoven: Sextet Op.71

Beethoven Transformed is a two-year project by Boxwood & Brass exploring wind music in early 19th-century Vienna and, in particular, the rearrangement of Beethoven’s music by other composers for Harmonie (wind band). What are today considered as venerated ‘masterpieces’ were treated with considerable liberty in such arrangements. This recording also throws some welcome light on the world of Harmonie, the wind bands so popular in central Europe, notably in Vienna, but little known today outside that area. Just listening to the first few moments of Beethoven’s Op.20 Septet opens up a world of exotic instrumental colour and texture that relies on the use of period instruments.

Boxwood & Brass have been exploring this repertoire since their foundation and are proving to be outstanding advocates of the music of the Harmonie. Although much Harmonie music was intended as background music to courtly goings-on, this recording reveals the more series side of the genre, exploring Harmonie as more sedate chamber music.

Originally scored for a quartet of strings, clarinet, bassoon and horn, the 1799 Op.20 Septet was popular during Beethoven’s lifetime, with many different versions made of it. Czerny had piano lessons from Beethoven and helped with proofreading scores. It is not clear how he came to make this arrangement, aged just 15, in 1805, but it seems clear that it was with the blessing of Beethoven, not least because it is based on an early draft, omitting Beethoven’s later changes to the score when published. The arrangement appears to be unfinished and has been edited and arranged for performance by members of the group.

Shorn of the contrast between strings and woodwind, the combined sounds of pairs of clarinets, horns and bassoons bring an intense timbre, the distinctive ‘period’ sounds of Boxwood & Brass’s instruments – all either dating from c1820 (the horns) or based on instruments of c1810.

The Sextet in E-flat, Op.71 was probably composed before 1796 while Beethoven was in Bonn in the court of the Archbishop, the Emperor’s brother. Although it was well-received after its publication in 1810, Beethoven made light of it, claiming that he composed it in one night. It is certainly in a different style to his later works. But the opening Adagio chords have an air of grandeur that was to become a hallmark of his later and more serious compositions.

The six players of Boxwood & Brass are Emily Worthington & Fiona Mitchell, clarinet, Robert Percival & Takako Kunugi, bassoons, and Anneke Scott & Kate Goldsmith, natural horns. They play with a magnificent sense of period style and colour, all having solo roles as well as contributing to an outstanding consort sound. I have reviewed them several times before (see here) and have always been impressed. Further information can be found here. The second volume of Beethoven Transformed will feature arrangments for 9-part Harmonie of the Pathetique Sonata, Symphony 7 and the Egmont overture.