The name on the sleeves of two current albums is unquestionably that of Ludwig van Beethoven, and he even has a picture on one of the covers - a stylish young Beethoven, whose charm and piano technique made him a social lion in Vienna before he went deaf and retreated into deep brooding and enigmatic string quartets.
Play through these two records, however, and you hear some melodies that may be familiar but are not familiar Beethoven: "God Save the King," and "Auld Lang Syne," a Latin hymn ("O sanctissima") and a stirring Irish battle song ("The Minstrel Boy," entitled "The Soldier" in this setting). Listen carefully and you will conclude that these tunes have been reworked by a genius who could be Beethoven. Recall the way he brought in "God Save the King" at the end of "Wellington's Victory" and the similarities become very convincing.
The fact is that Beethoven reharmonized more than 150 folk and popular songs and composed accompaniments for violin, piano and cello to go with them. The two new records, "Ludwig van Beethoven: Folksong Settings" (Nonesuch H-71340) and "Beethoven: Settings of Irish, Scottish, and Welsh Folksongs" (Vanguard SRV 356 SD) merely scratch the surface.
They recall a time - before television and long-playing records - when music was primarily something people performed at home for themselves, when symphony orchestras were a rarity and traveling virtuosos came to town no more often than the circus. It is music for a family setting, designed to be pleasant and to make no overwhelming demands on the performers - though Beethoven's English publisher once complained to him that "There is no one who could . . . play four notes with one hand and three with the other at the same time."
That kind of chamber music is practically dead today, and its passing is only partially compensated by the remarkable number of virtuoso performers who flourish in our time. They can do things that would have amazed Beethoven - tricks considerably more difficult than finding seven notes simultaneously on a keyboard - but they have given most people the feeling that music is not something you do but something you receive passively in a large auditorium or out of a little box with wires.
The history of music in the home is long and honorable. In its classical form, it dates back at least to the charming little notebook Bach put together for his second wife, Anna Magdalena, and its final great monument is the "Liebeslieder Waltzes" of Brahms. Beethoven's contribution to it is a significant one, and it is good to have it available to be heard in our homes, even without live performers who are also friends and family.
Both records are performed by the same British group, the Accademia Monteverdiana, directed by Denis Stevens. As the name indicates, this group is usually identified with music somewhat older and more exotic than 19-th century hausmusik, but Stevens and his ensemble wear their learning and professionalism lightly. Both records are delights, though they differ in emphasis. The Vanguard concentrates on music of the British Isles, which accounts for nearly all of Beethoven's work in this genre; the None-such adds a bit of variety with a Latin hymn and even a Venetian gondola song. If I had to pick one, I would pick the Nonesuch, but it would be a hard choice - since both records are bargain-priced at $3.50, it hardly seems necessary.
Curiously, I find myself unable to recommend with equal warmth a similar record that came out last year. "Haydn & Beethoven: Scottish Folk Songs," performed by mezzo-soprano Janet Baker, violinist Yehudi Menuhin and harpsichordist George Malcolm (Angel S-37172). All three performers are, of course, superb musicians, but there is a monochromatic quality in this record (call it monotony, if you will) that I don't find in the othe two. It is useful as comparison of the techniques of Beethoven and Haydn; the trouble is that Beethoven is much better at it, preserving marginally more of the music's distinctive Scottish flavor, but 17 of the 22 settings are by Haydn and they lack that genial composer's usual sparkle.