Listening to Beethoven #156 – String Quartet in C minor Op.18/4

op184-Friedrich_-_Morning_mist_in_the_mountainsMorning Mist In The Mountains, by Caspar David Friedrich (1808)

String Quartet in C minor Op.18/4 (1798-1800, Beethoven aged 29)

Dedication Count Johann Georg von Browne
Duration 25′

1. Allegro ma non tanto
2. Andante scherzoso quasi allegretto
3. Menuetto: Allegro
4. Allegro – Prestissimo

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

The roots for the fourth published quartet in the Op.18 set are thought to go back as far as Beethoven’s time in Bonn, where sketches for this piece could well have been made. It was, however, the fifth completed work in this group of six, and sits after two relatively sunny works in G and D major respectively.

Robert Simpson, writing about the quartet, identifies ‘a direct shortness of address, a certain impatience with the finesse of transition, and a clear simplicity of texture, with instantly assimilable melodic invention. For all this, there is no lack of subtlety in the proportions, and the sense of movement is as perfect as a cat’s.’ He identifies the Minuet as the most serious movement of the four, ‘having the urgency of some of Beethoven’s later scherzo movements’. The finale is ‘one of Beethoven’s rare excursions into the Hungarian style of which Haydn was fond’.

Ludwig Finscher is more critical, going as far as to identify this piece as ‘undoubtedly the most problematical of the set’, suggesting influence from Mannheim and a semi-orchestral approach.

Thoughts

It almost wouldn’t be a set of early Beethoven works without a work in C minor, as the composer revisits one of his darker keys. Yet there is not quite so much edge of the seat drama as the early Piano Trio Op.1/3, nor the Pathétique sonata.

Yet there is a good deal to enjoy, serious though the approach is. Each of the four movements shares the tonality of C, though the slow movement gives us a little respite from the minor key tonality. There are shafts of light here, as there are in the ‘trio’ section of the third movement, after its resolute start.

Beethoven again uses the third movement as one of his more modern sounding sections, following as it does after a straight faced but relatively conventional first movement and a thoughtful second. It is the finale where the fireworks occur, especially if the quartet performing the work take the theme a bit faster each time it comes back. It can be witty and more than a bit outrageous, a great piece to see in concert – and a final tune that keeps you whistling as you head for the door!

Recordings used and Spotify links

Quatuor Mosaïques (Andrea Bischof, Erich Höbarth (violins), Anita Mitterer (viola), Christophe Coin (cello)
Melos Quartet (Wilhelm Melcher and Gerhard Voss (violins), Hermann Voss (viola), Peter Buck (cello) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Borodin String Quartet (Ruben Aharonian, Andrei Abramenkov (violins), Igor Naidin (viola), Valentin Berlinsky (cello) (Chandos)
Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre, Károly Schranz (violins), Roger Tapping (viola), Andras Fejér (Decca)
Jerusalem Quartet (Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler (violins), Ori Kam (viola), Kyril Zlotnikov (cello) (Harmonia Mundi)
Tokyo String Quartet (Peter Oundjian, Kikuei Ikeda (violins), Kazuhide Isomura (viola), Sadao Harada (cello) (BMG)
Végh Quartet (Sándor Végh, Sándor Zöldy (violins), Georges Janzer (viola) & Paul Szabo (cello) (Valois)

The Melos Quartet are excellent in this piece, with a quickfire fourth movement – while the Jerusalem Quartet also give a very fine account. The Quatuor Mosaïques once again have a lovely sound, their slightly reduced vibrato helping bring out the links to Haydn and Mozart, while keeping the music pointing firmly forward in its direction.

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 1800 Dussek Piano Sonata no.8 in E flat major Op.44

Next up String Quartet in A major Op.18/5

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