Listening to Beethoven #171 – String Quintet in C major Op.29

Carl_Schütz_Wien_Michaelerplatz

Der Michaelerplatz, die Kirche, die KK Reitschule und das KK National Theater, Wien, by Carl Schütz (late 18th century)

String Quintet in C major Op.29 (1801, Beethoven aged 30)

Dedication Count Moritz Fries
Duration 33′

1. Allegro moderato
2. Adagio molto espressivo
3. Scherzo: Allegro – Trio
4. Presto – Andante con moto e scherzoso – Tempo I

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s only original String Quintet was commissioned by Count Moritz Fries, and was completed towards the end of 1801. It gained immediate respect, with brother Carl describing it as ‘one of Beethoven’s most excellent’, placing it above the other works he was promoting, the Second Symphony and Third Piano Concerto.

Richard Wigmore is similarly convinced, declaring the quintet to be ‘the final phase of his so-called ‘first period’. This strangely neglected masterpiece is Janus-headed, at once retrospective and prophetic’. Special praise is reserved for the second movement, where Beethoven ‘never wrote a more voluptuously Mozartian slow movement than the Adagio molto espressivo. On the other hand, the tranquil expansiveness and harmonic breadth of the quintet’s first movement prefigure later masterpieces like the first Razumovsky string quartet and the Archduke trio.’

Jan Swafford also holds the quintet in high regard, describing it as ‘a warmly songful work that for all its lightness of spirit has a singular voice and some startling experiments – it amounts to a covertly radical outing’.

The finale has been nicknamed ‘The Storm’ in German speaking countries, due to its ‘tremolo shiver plus falling swoops in the violins’. ‘Twice in the course of the finale’, says Swafford, ‘a new piece of music turns up like an unknown guest at a wedding: a jaunty minuettish tune marked ‘Andante con moto e scherzoso’, the last word indicating ‘jokingly’.’

Thoughts

The String Quintet is indeed a very impressive and mature piece, and as commentators have noted it bears very little resemblance to the works of Mozart for the same instrumental combination. There is a lot going on in the course of its 33 minutes, and the listener is continually engaged and often impressed by the speed of Beethoven’s thoughts.

The first movement unfolds very naturally, with a flowing melody that expands into a substantial structure. The second theme is shared around all the parts and works its way into a lot of the musical arguments.

The beautiful slow movement has a passionate heart, glimpsed especially towards the end with a fiery episode in the minor key. Indeed during his development of the main material Beethoven moves to some very distant tonal areas, the piece losing sight of its centre ground for a while as though having taken a wrong turn. The return to the main theme features pizzicato – increasingly a part of Beethoven’s writing – and some rich, quasi-orchestral textures.

After two lengthy, quite dense movements a quick Scherzo is just the ticket, and this one knows where it wants to go – but has time to show off some witty musical dialogue. The last movement does indeed have a stormy façade, showing how Beethoven is increasingly bringing drama into his chamber music. The tremolos assigned to the strings as part of the ‘storm sequence’ create a few chills, while Beethoven’s part writing is impeccably worked out – and the big surprise, where the minuet-like music appears, is brilliantly stage-managed.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Nash Ensemble [Marianne Thorsen, Malin Broman (violins), Lawrence Power, Philip Dukes (violas), Paul Watkins (cello)] (Hyperion)
Endellion String Quartet, David Adams (viola) (Warner Classics)
Fine Arts Quartet, Gil Sharon (viola) (Naxos)
Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble [Kenneth Sillito, Malcolm Latchem (violins), Robert Smissen, Stephen Tees (violas), Stephen Orton (cello)] (Chandos, 1998)
Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Ensemble [Kenneth Sillito, Malcolm Latchem (violins), Robert Smissen, Stephen Tees (violas), Stephen Orton (cello)] (Philips, 1991)
WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne Chamber Players (Alpha)
Amadeus String Quartet, Cecil Aronowitz (Deutsche Grammophon)

There is a very impressive set of recordings of Beethoven’s String Quintet – and the listener cannot really go wrong with any of the above, from a classic and slightly luxurious Amadeus Quartet recording on Deutsche Grammophon to the most recent version, from the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne Chamber Players on Alpha, released in 2020.

Arguably the pick of the recordings comes from the Nash Ensemble, coupled with the Op.4 quintet.

The Nash Ensemble version on Hyperion can be heard here

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 1801 Wranitzky 3 String Quintets Op.8

Next up tbc

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