Bonn’s annual Beethoven-Woche (Beethoven Week) is a chamber music festival which takes a different work of the composer each year to generate its theme. 2019’s germinal piece is Opus 120 – the 33 Variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli, performances of which on modern piano and fortepiano opened and closed the festival. The Festival directors, viola player Tabea Zimmermann and Malte Boecker of the Beethoven-Haus Bonn, could not have chosen a more protean source. The choice for these programmes of works using variation form must have been one of difficult selection from innumerable possibilities.

Vox Luminis
© Barbara Frommann

Yet it was an imaginative leap to ask Vox Luminis to contribute a programme of ‘Chaconnes and Passacaglias’ – choral precursors of classical variation form by JS Bach and some 17th-century predecessors, mainly Buxtehude and Pachelbel. The group has been winning praise and awards in recent years, and the eight singers and seven instrumentalists made a sublime sound in the glorious setting of the Church of S. Maria und Clemens. This recently restored double-storied early Romanesque building is a gem, its evocative wall paintings as eloquent in the service of devotion as the music itself once was. And what music! Vox Luminis began and ended with settings of Christ lag in Todes by Pachelbel and Bach, both based on the same Easter chorale by Martin Luther. Pachelbel’s setting was not outshone by Bach’s BWV4; but then one of the goals of good festival programming is to make room for less familiar works that deserve to be heard. Neither work could have been better performed, nor could the numerous other pieces – the long programme had no interval, but still the full audience, overcoats on in the crowded pews, clamoured for an encore. The instrumental items, including the Pachelbel Canon (and Gigue), made for delightful variety.

That trip to the suburb of Schwarzrheindorf was the only festival occasion that took us out of the concert hall of the Beethoven-Haus, which earlier that day hosted a recital of piano solos and viola and piano duos from Tabea Zimmermann and pianist Cédric Tiberghien. In Beethoven’s Eroica Variations Op.35, Tiberghien made the work sound a really strong independent piece rather than a footnote to the finale of the Third Symphony. He did still more with Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Schumann, its quiet and very Schumannesque peroration a deeply poetic envoi.

That music kept returning to me on a visit to Endenich (a 35-minute walk away), in the former asylum where Brahms sat in the garden with his sick friend, and the room where Schumann died which contains so many touching mementoes of them both. There were several of their colleague Joseph Joachim too, who first began chamber music festivals in Bonn – the first such festivals anywhere, in fact. But even Zimmermann could not quite make Joachim’s Variations on an Original Theme in E major for viola and piano, Op.10 sound like a lost masterpiece, though its theme is charming and no variation outstayed its welcome. The 15-year old Mendelssohn’s remarkable Viola Sonata in C minor was quite another matter, but even that was surpassed by the terrific performance of the Hindemith Viola Sonata, a tour de force of eloquent virtuosity. And what a golden sound Zimmermann draws from her instrument, almost vocal at times in its warmth and humanity.

© Fotostyle Boeschemeyer

Zimmermann also joined the Armida Quartet’s recital, adding her viola for Mozart’s Quintet K406 and Brahms’ First Sextet. She seems the ideal festival team player with her multiple roles of planning, directing, and performing – whether as high profile soloist or selflessly filling in when an ensemble needs an extra inner part. Thus she appeared again later in the week with Daniel Sepec in Mozart’s Duo K424, and the wonderful Divertimento K563. In that and the Beethoven Serenade Op.8, the cellist was Jean-Guihen Queyras, no less. That Quintet K406 is Mozart's transcription of his Serenade for Winds K388. The Armida Quartet made it sound ideal for the string medium, so that only occasionally did one miss the colour and the breathing of the wind band. And Beethoven’s splendid "Harp" Quartet Op.74 was an exemplary reading, from the drama of its first movement to the variations of its finale.

Viktor Ullmann died in Auschwitz in 1944, and it has taken the last few decades to rediscover his work. Certainly his Variations for string quartet on Schoenberg’s Op.19/4 was new to many. Its astringent beauty was more Bergian than Schoenbergian, and its biting double fugue conclusion was warmly received. Another festival novelty that should be heard again was the 1955 solo cello sonata of George Crumb, which in Queyras’ compelling performance left a deeper impression than one expects from a ten-minute work. Pieces are introduced here (in German) by the performers, for there are no notes on the music. Concerts thus often finish after 10pm, and a few locals needed to flee at the interval, but the festival atmosphere still feels welcoming.

Brahms’ String Sextet no. 1 in B flat major saw Julian Steckel join as second cello, and the opening Allegro had all the rich sonority that attracted the composer to the medium. The noble variations of the Andante blossomed in irresistible cumulative eloquence. Was ever such stirring emotion drawn from so austere a theme? Brahms transcribed the movement for piano, and dedicated it to Clara Schumann who, with her husband, is buried nearby in Bonn’s Old Cemetery.

© Beethoven-Haus Bonn

If the Festival though had an “ensemble of the week prize” it might go to the Sitkovetsky Piano Trio. Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio was immaculately played, a high point of the festival’s repertoire of course. How to follow that in this of all venues, except with something far removed in time and aesthetic? Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor, dedicated to his departed friend and mentor Nicholas Rubinstein, is powerfully elegiac. The Sitkovetsky played it with overwhelming commitment and earned the sole standing ovation in the five concerts I heard.

The Kammermusiksaal at the Beethoven-Haus stands next-door to the composer’s birthplace. Its amphitheatre design wraps around the platform and the steep rake gives a sense of proximity to the performers. Its high ceiling affords resonance, and the beautiful wooden surfaces add bloom to the sound. A work like the Brahms Sextet could have no better home, with richness in tuttis but detail in intricate passages. In any fugue, the eye aids the ear, and since you see every instrument wherever you sit, textures are clarified. It has only about 200 wide, comfortable seats, which in 2020 might become its only weakness, disappointing too many Beethoven lovers in his 250th anniversary year! But if you are among those for whom LvB is your least favourite composer, the venue hosts a season of chamber, song and piano recitals.

But for the anniversary year the Beethoven-Woche expands to three weeks to play all the chamber works, in four sets of mixed-genre programmes, using both old and new instruments. Doubtless London, New York, Vienna and many German cities will celebrate with symphonic cycles. But the most complete picture of Beethoven is found in his chamber music and there is no better place to hear it than in this wonderful hall, so close to the room where the composer came into the world.

Roy's press trip was funded by Beethoven-Haus Bonn. This article was sponsored by Beethoven-Haus Bonn.