It is a well-known fact that Beethoven’s Septet in E flat major, Op.20 (first performed in 1799/1800) was one of his most popular compositions during his lifetime. It underwent many arrangements so that people could enjoy the work at home or in their salons: Beethoven himself reworked it as a trio for clarinet, cello and piano in 1803. It is a lesser-known fact that Carl Czerny (1791-1857), Beethoven’s erstwhile pupil, made a version for wind sextet in 1805, which has remained unpublished until the present day. What is extraordinary is that Czerny was only fourteen when he made this arrangement.

Boxwood & Brass © Tom Bowles
Boxwood & Brass
© Tom Bowles

It is not clear why and for whom Czerny made this arrangement (he made many for Beethoven), and it may seem a mere footnote in Beethoven’s biography, but the enquiring minds behind the enterprising period-instrument wind ensemble Boxwood & Brass (which specialise in the Harmoniemusik of the Classical and early-Romantic periods) decided to shed light on this historical curiosity and bring it to life. Special kudos goes to their bassoon player and music editor Robert Percival, who laboriously made a critical edition of the piece. He has ascertained that Czerny made this version from Beethoven’s autograph, most certainly with the composer’s permission.

Czerny reduces the seven parts of the original to six parts: two clarinets, two bassoons and two horns – it’s interesting to note that Beethoven himself had composed a Sextet (op.71) for this formation. Whereas in the original Septet Beethoven highlights the mixed sonority of the string/wind instruments, here the sonority is more homogenous, and the warm, mellow blend of period clarinets, bassoons and horns filled the large space of St. John’s Smith Square and surrounded the listeners with blissful harmony.

The work is one of Beethoven’s most cheerful and sunny, and Czerny has maintained this mood in his version too, keeping to the original key of E flat major. Although the six-movement work is largely in the mould of an 18th-century serenade, Beethoven adds gravitas in the slow introductions to the two outer movements (which Schubert would later imitate in his Octet). After the slow build up, the first movement is lively and virtuosic: the first clarinet, played sparklingly by Emily Worthington, takes most of the florid first violin part. Often the clarinet soars quite high in the clarino register, which on a period instrument really sounds clarino (meaning natural trumpet). There were many moments when we could enjoy such distinctive timbres of period instruments, including the stopped notes on the natural horn.

The warm and sonorous cantabile movement was followed by the familiar and catchy Minuet. In the trio section, the arpeggio dialogue between horn and clarinet was retained as in the original. The theme and variations in the fourth movement highlighted each of the players, especially the bassoons: the first variation was a duet of the two bassoons (originally viola and cello) and the second variation featured a virtuosic bassoon solo superbly played by Percival. This arrangement, whomever it was intended for, was certainly not for amateur players.

It was the turn of the horns to shine in the Scherzo with its hunting rhythms. The cello melody in the trio section, here allocated to the horn, was played by Anneke Scott with dexterity and charm. The introduction to the final movement is a rare dark moment in the whole work, but this mood is soon dispelled in the Presto. The first clarinet is given a particularly soloist role here (although admittedly not all of it is idiomatic for the instrument) including the cadenza just before the recapitulation. The six players of Boxwood & Brass gave a brilliant and vibrant performance, convincing us that Czerny had done full justice to his master’s much-loved composition. The good news is that a recording will be available in the near future.