Listening to Beethoven #81 – String Quintet in E flat major Op.4

View of the Kohlmarkt from Michael-platz by Karl Schütz (18th century)

String Quintet in E flat major Op.4 (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

1. Allegro con brio
2. Andante 3. Menuetto più Allegretto – Trio 4. Presto

Dedication unknown
Duration 29’30”

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

In which Beethoven returns to his Octet for wind in E flat major, eventually published as Op.103. At this point however the work was only privately known, so Beethoven followed the example of Mozart in reworking a work for wind ensemble for string quintet, part of a response to a double commission from Count Apponyi. Mozart’s revised work was the conversion of the Serenade in C minor K388, also for octet, into the String Quintet published as K406.

In spite of their acknowledged quality, Beethoven’s two string quintets are relatively neglected, in spite of their acknowledged quality. In them Beethoven skirts around the string quartet, writing for it directly but disguising his efforts either with the addition of two horns or an extra viola. In a sense he was playing it safe until fully ready to enter a pressurised arena.

Lewis Lockwood notes how Beethoven’s String Quintet makes considerable advances on the music of the Octet. “Especially revealing of Beethoven’s musical growth from the final apprentice years to his first true maturity in Vienna is his revision of the Wind Octet as a String Quintet”, he writes. “The whole revision – which is no mere arrangement but a true recomposition – exemplifies Beethoven’s command even more than does his use of Bonn material in the piano sonatas of Op.2.”

Richard Wigmore writes perceptive notes for the recording made by the Nash Ensemble for Hyperion. He notes Beethoven’s new-found maturity to be ‘not least because of his intensive contact with Haydn’s latest symphonies and string quartets’, and shows how those encounters are manifested in the Quintet. “No-one could guess”, he says, “that this music – or large tracts of it – was not originally conceived for strings.”

Thoughts

The neglect in which the Op.4 string quintet is held is surprising, given its obvious quality. Pleasant though the material for the wind octet is, this feels like a real step up in terms of structural command and instrumental invention. The mood is much more purposeful, the dialogue between the strings containing music of deep substance and featuring impressive development of Beethoven’s themes.

The first movement is tautly argued, its ten minutes passing quickly with concentrated musical thought. The second movement finds a much more tender spot, a lovely Andante where time slows and the subject becomes more lyrical.

The scherzo is closely linked to the Octet, and its theme flits across the five instruments, an insistent rhythm working away like a persistent insect. The big difference is in the two trio sections. The first is what seems like a throwaway phrase that Beethoven works between the parts beautifully, while the second – for quartet alone – is quite chromatic, the melody sliding by step but very fluid in its execution.

The finale is quick and wraps up the quintet with a nice balance of wit and purpose.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Nash Ensemble [Marianne Thorsen, Malin Broman (violins), Lawrence Power, Philip Dukes (violas), Paul Watkins (cello)] (Hyperion)

Endellion String Quartet [Andrew Watkinson, Ralph de Souza (violins), Garfield Jackson (viola), David Waterman (cello)], David Adams (viola) (Warner Classics)

Two excellent recordings.

You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!

Also written in 1795 Haydn Symphony no.103 in E flat major ‘Drum Roll’

Next up Seufzer eines Ungeliebten und Gegenliebe

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