Ludwig van Beethoven: “Lustig und Traurig”, WoO 54

Media Review / Comparison


2011-09-04 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2014-10-28 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-06-21 — Brushed up for better readability

The Composition

Presumably around 1798, Ludwig van Beethoven (1779 – 1827) composed a “little nothing”, the Bagatelle “Lustig und Traurig” (Happy and Sad), WoO 54. The number of recordings of this piece isn’t very big. Artists seem to avoid pieces as simple as this one. Maybe because it is too trivial? Or kids play it “to death” during their piano education? If this is true, then it shares that fate with many études and other small pieces by “minor composers” such as Carl Czerny (1791 – 1857) and others. It is quite possible, even likely that such compositions were indeed created in the context of music education. Pianists and recording companies may not consider recording such musicc (other than for “play along” educational recordings), as this is unlikely to contribute to the market success of a CD release.

How to Approach a “Little Nothing”

Now, this particular piece still is part of Beethoven’s works, and pianists exploring all (or exotic / rarely recorded parts) of a composer’s oeuvre might still want to (or feel compelled to) include such compositions. Some thoughts on this:

  1. If pianists just were to play a piece up to people’s common perception from its use in education, the result is likely boring.
  2. To avoid this, pianists may “overload” such pieces with meaning, sentiments and artistry that never has been in the scope of such a composition. You can’t play “Lustig und Traurig” the way one would approach Beethoven’s late piano sonatas!

Considerate Approaches

  1. An artist may abstract from the composer’s intent and notation by taking the piece as “raw material” for their own interpretation — or rather “creation”. The result in such a case would no longer be “pure / proper Beethoven”, but may still be interesting.  I would rate many of Glenn Gould’s recordings along these lines. I often like the result and find it interesting to listen to such interpretations. However, it is typically hard, if not impossible to compare this to “conventional” interpretations where in my opinion is an important, if not crucial judgement criterion, whether an interpretation reflects the composer’s intent & notation.
  2. Finally, there is an other option that is worthwhile considering: it pays to “return to the roots” by using period instruments and playing techniques that are adjusted to such instrumentation. At the same time, it is useful to abstract from “common perception” by returning to the composer’s manuscripts / original notation (trying to read it in the context of the time of its creation) — and amazingly, the result is often just as different from how the piece is heard on average as with the approach above, and just as interesting. With this, it remains music by the original composer, is presumably is closer to the composer’s intent, and yet, it may open “new” horizons for the listener!

Olli Mustonen’s Choice

In the case of the piece that I’m talking about here, I do not have interpretations illustrating the first two points (look on YouTube, and you will find some illustrative examples!), but I have one that fits option 3: Olli Mustonen recorded this as part of his CD featuring the Diabelli Variations (recorded 1996 at Henry Wood Hall, London, on a modern piano). Mustonen is an amazing pianist, with stupendous, brilliant technical skills. His interpretations may receive controversial comments — but they are almost always very refreshing and often offer interesting insights. He is typically very considerate about the composer’s notation, tempo and phrasing indications, etc. — and his approach often seems to be totally independent / detached from how others play a given piece.

Beethoven: Diabelli-Variations, Mustonen, CD coverBeethoven: Diabelli Variations

Olli Mustonen, piano

RCA 74321 61448 2; ℗ / © 1999
Beethoven: Diabelli-Variations, Mustonen, CD, UPC-A barcode
 Buy from amazon 


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“Lustig und Traurig” may be an easy target for this approach. Its two parts (each consists of two repeated segments) bear no annotation other than “Lustig” for part 1, and “Traurig / minore” for part 2. Part 1 is repeated after part 2. This gives the artist some freedom in interpretation — though possibly not as much as Mustonen takes in his approach! His “Lustig” (happy, joyful) is played with 1/8 = 84 – 88, in a very pensive / thoughtful, melancholic mood, all softly.

At the same time, his “minore” part isn’t really sad, but not happy either: it is rather fast (1/8 = 250), maybe moody, grim, obstinate, exhibiting Mustonen’s art of meticulous, precise, fast articulation. It’s perhaps not entirely Beethoven’s intent, but certainly interesting to listen to — and maybe justifiable for a small, probably educational composition such as this one?

Ronald Brautigam’s Approach

The other interpretation I have definitely falls into option 4 above — it is played by Ronald Brautigam, recorded 2010 at Österåker Church, Sweden, on a fortepiano by Paul McNulty (a replica of an instrument by Walter & Sohn, ca. 1805). This is part 10 (the first non-sonata CD) in his project covering all of Beethoven’s works for piano solo. On this CD, the early pieces (Bagatellen op.33, this one, along with a set of early Bagatellen) are played on the Walter fortepiano, the late Bagatellen op.119 and op.126 are played on a replica (also Paul McNulty) of a more recent fortepiano by Conrad Graf from 1819.

Beethoven: vol.10 - Für Elise, Bagatelles, Brautigam — CD, coverBeethoven, Complete Works for Solo Piano, vol. 10, “Für Elise, The Complete Bagatelles”

Ronald Brautigam, fortepiano

BIS-SACD-1882; ℗ / © 2011
Beethoven: vol.10 - Für Elise, Bagatelles, Brautigam — CD, EAN-13 barcode
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This interpretation is entirely different: in the “Lustig” part, Brautigam plays 1/8 = 260, i.e., about three times the speed of Mustonen in that section! Is it happy, joyful? Well, definitely much more than with Mustonen — though through its harmonies the piece retains some sentimental, maybe even melancholic traits. It is not sounding extremely rapid, as Brautigam plays 3/8 in entire bars, so really 3/8 = 86 — this certainly makes sense, as Beethoven did not write it in 3/4 (see also Sir Roger Norrington’s comment about the Larghetto in Beethoven’s Symphony Nr.2).

Conclusions

What makes Mustonen’s interpretation of the “Lustig” part sound so immensely pensive / thoughtful is that he, too, (correctly) plays entire bars, i.e., 3/8 = 29! Back to Brautigam: I love the singing sound of that Walter fortepiano — it is simply marvelous! As one would expect for “Traurig”, Brautigam plays the “minore” part a little slower, 1/8 = 180, i.e., 3/8 = 60. Is it sad? I don’t know — certainly, it is more serious, more determined than the first part!

Happy and Sad, Really?

Now, the fact that I can’t see either of these parts match the characterization “Lustig” and “Traurig” made me investigate a little more. Are these titles really Beethoven’s own? It would actually not be unusual if a publisher had added these labels. On the other hand, if we take those away, there is nothing left other than “minore”. This would seem a bit odd for Beethoven. But then, he did apparently not publish this himself, as this does not bear an opus number.

Interestingly, there is an early edition bearing the title “Lustig. Traurig / zwei kleine Klavierstücke” — two little pieces for piano: maybe these are two little sketches that an editor pulled together and published as one two-part piece? He may also have added an interesting-looking, though possibly inappropriate title? If this was the case, then this would leave the question about Beethoven’s intent with these pieces wide open. And this would make Mustonen’s interpretation as legitimate as Brautigam’s!

Appreciation

Overall, I think both interpretations are excellent. Though my preference leans towards Brautigam. If the titles in this piece are “real” (i.e., Beethoven’s own) he is definitely closer to the composer’s intent. More importantly,  the fortepiano makes him play in an entirely different league! Still, let me end with something on Mustonen’s playing; I will return to this CD once I have Brautigam’s forthcoming interpretation of the Diabelli Variations. I like how he is able to maintain the balance between the hands such that the left hand retains a purely accompanying function throughput this piece. He does not try showing off the virtuosity in his left hand. Overall, this, too, is an extraordinary recording!



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