The Armida Quartet play string quartets by the teenage Mozart and Beethoven – his first quartet for Count Razumovsky of Prussia
Photo: Felix Broede
Wigmore Hall, London, 25 January 2016
written by Ben Hogwood
Audio (open in a new window) – available until 24 February
What’s the music?
Mozart – String Quartet in G major, K80 (1770) (10 minutes)
Beethoven – String Quartet in F major, Op.59/1 (Razumovsky) (1806) (39 minutes)
If you cannot hear the broadcast then this attached playlist has all the repertoire in the concert. The Armida Quartet have recorded a disc of Mozart but not this particular piece – so the Hagen Quartet version is included here, along with the Tokyo String Quartet in the first Razumovsky:
About the music
What were you doing when you were 14? I daresay you hadn’t completed a String Quartet lasting 20 minutes by then! The teenage Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had managed that – he had also completed ten symphonies and numerous other works – and was about to witness the premiere of his first opera, Mitridate, in Italy with his father Leopold.
This string quartet was written on the road, between Milan and Parma – an early ‘tour album’, you could say! – and initially sat in three movements to conform with Italian taste. Later the composer added a fourth to suit German audiences. All were completed under the watchful eye of his father.
Beethoven dedicated three of his ‘middle period’ string quartets to Count Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador in Vienna at the time and a musical patron. At his request Beethoven included a Russian theme in each work, and in the first quartet it can be heard at the beginning of the last movement.
With these three quartets Beethoven noticeably expanded the form, no longer the intimate salon experience of Mozart but now a medium for the communication of extremely personal thoughts and big structures. The three works are big, each around 35-40 minutes in length, and they push the boundaries of string quartet writing so that on occasion the four instruments sound at least double the size. This one, Op.59/1 in F major, is the longest of the three and is notable for its profound slow movement (one of only two pieces marked mesto (sad) by the composer) and for the fun and games in its second movement Scherzo.
The Armida Quartet are BBC Radio 3 New Generation artists, and on the strength of their Beethoven performance in particular they clearly have a very bright future.
This was excellent quartet playing, incredibly well balanced and full of vitality. Their sense of enjoyment in the second movement of the Beethoven was infectious, and throughout their quiet playing in particular was something to treasure, enabling them to reach the very sombre depths of the slow movement but also the dynamic contrasts used by Beethoven elsewhere. The outer movements contrasted nicely with this, being vibrant and humourous on occasion, and always revelling in the composer’s tuneful invention.
The Mozart was very stylish, possibly a little too rich in the first movement as the quartet recaptured the Italian style. The main emotion here was one of surprise at the composer’s sheer prowess – this is a remarkable work for someone the age of 14 to have turned out – but on occasion.
The quartet decided not to employ the repeats marked in each movement, effectively halving the length of the piece with the Beethoven in mind. A shame, perhaps, but not a decision that stopped us from sitting in awe of the adolescent’s genius!
Interestingly the quartet changed their seating arrangements during the concert. For the Mozart the violinists faced each other, with viola and cello in between, while for the Beethoven the cello and second violin swapped for a more conventional arrangement.
What should I listen out for?
1:32 – the first of Mozart’s quartets is quite top heavy in structure, and it is the first movement that has a lot of the emotional and musical content, lasting nearly twice as long as any of the others. It starts with such elegance you would never know it was the work of a fledgling composer. There is assured writing for the four instruments, often divided into pairs in the part writing.
5:17 – a lively second movement, the four instruments playing in unison initially then moving apart.
7:33 – Mozart writes a graceful minuet for the third movement, one with a light spring in its step.
9:27 – the finale brings with it more open textured, bright writing for the quartet
13:40 – the piece starts quietly, the cello theme immediately evident before being passed to the violin. At 15:03 we hear the other main theme of the quartet, different in character – the music feeling more ‘established’ by this point. At 16:06 we hear the cello’s theme again, but now Beethoven moves this through a development section, chopping and changing it – before bringing it back for a recap at 19:40. By now the music feels increasingly restless, and continues to pass through a number of different forms and keys, until the quartet state the theme in fall, and the music falls away a little to the end, seemingly content.
23:44 – the ‘Scherzo’, traditionally the movement where composers show their witty side. Beethoven certainly does that here, picking a tune that can be cheeky or quite aggressive by turns. It starts sheepishly, but Beethoven varies the volume a lot in this movement, passing from very quiet to loud, often in a way that might make you jump!
The music then moves into the minor key for a contrasting ‘trio’ section, beginning at 30:00, but by 31:14 is back in the major key and playing with different volume levels again! Snippets of the main tune and other phrases are passed around until the soft finish at 32:16…though even this has a sting in the tail!
32:48 – the slow movement begins – and with it one of Beethoven’s saddest themes, heard on the first violin. While fragile at the start the music gains intensity and sounds rather tortured at times. At 37:48 we hear the sad music again, though it is higher and weightless in its new guise. Then Beethoven takes us through a section developing the tune, with a pensive and very intimate dialogue between the four instruments. This profound passage of play comes out of the doldrums and into…
46:05 – the last movement, based on a Russian folk tune – and immediately positive with the cello’s rendition of it. Beethoven structures this as a Rondo – a form that means the tune comes back repeatedly, with differing sections in between. Then at 51:31 we hear the tune very slowly, setting up a quick drive to the finish from 52:03.
54:09 – as an encore the quartet play Contrapunctus IV from J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue. The violin begins, then the second violin joins, then the viola and then the cello – all in a perfectly calculated example of how a fugue works with four parts. (3 minutes)