Listening to Beethoven #158 – String Quartet in B flat major Op.18/6

op186-ship on the elbe early morningShip on the River Elbe in the Early Morning Mist, by Caspar David Friedrich (c1821)

String Quartet in B flat major Op.18/6 (1798-1800, Beethoven aged 29)

Dedication Count Johann Georg von Browne
Duration 28′

1. Allegro con brio
2. Adagio ma non troppo
3. Scherzo: Allegro
4. La Malinconia: Adagio – Allegretto quasi Allegro

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

The sixth and final quartet of Op.18/6 set was also the last to be finished. Many Beethoven writers see this as the most emotive work of the six, and also the one with most pointers towards future developments in the composer’s music.

Ludwig Finscher again, in his booklet notes for the Melos Quartet recordings on Deutsche Grammophon: ‘This quartet is without doubt the most mature and the most profound of the six in every conceivable respect: in its formal assurance, in the balance and contrast of the movements, and in the individual characterization of them.’

He describes the first movement as ‘relaxed yet disciplines, and the second as achieving a ‘sweet melancholy’, in contrast to the ‘black melancholy’ of the last. After a ‘tour de force’ scherzo comes the finale, ‘spirituality and intellectually the most demanding movement in the whole of Op.18’.

This movement has the heading La Malincolia, with the specific direction Questo pezzo si deve trattare colla più gran delicatezza (This piece is to be played with the greatest delicacy’)

Thoughts

Once again Beethoven starts a quartet with the music in a good mood. There is a slightly cheeky aspect to the first movement of this quartet as the first violin and cello enjoy sharing the catchy tune. The music chugs along with a smile on its face but there is a lot going on behind the scenes, each idea tautly argued and shared.

The slow movement is profound, Beethoven filling out the texture of the four movements, the string quartet sounding more ‘romantic’ as the thoughtful ideas take hold. The scherzo shows Beethoven’s desire to move away from the basic Minuet to employ rhythmic invention, with cross rhythms and syncopations at every turn, as well as the clever use of silence.

However it is with the last movement that Beethoven employs his most dramatic turn, and it is in music of quiet solitude rather than through any fireworks. The cold opening strains are unexpected, the mood of desolation and at complete odds with the conversational first movement. Now the quartet are in unison, as though the instruments dare not stray from the quartet line.

Then, suddenly, that mood is swept under the carpet as a resolute Allegretto asserts itself. Yet it proves difficult to forget the impact of what has gone before, and sure enough the Malincolia music returns. Eventually the two strains are directly at odds, and although the quartet ends vigorously, the impression it leaves is rather different.

Finscher has a theory for this. ‘Nor should the possibility be excluded that this depiction of melancholia, which brings Op.18 to its conclusion and can hardly be a mere whim, has something to do with the fact that at the very time of its composition Beethoven was being made aware of the first symptoms of deafness.’

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)

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 Salieri Cesare in Farmacusa

Next up tbc

Listening to Beethoven #157 – String Quartet in A major Op.18/5

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 29′

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

As part of his preparation for entering into the world of the string quartet, Beethoven copied put two of Mozart’s quartets by hand. Both were part of the six works dedicated to Haydn in 1785 – in G major, K387, and in A major, K464.

This piece became the stimulus for Beethoven’s own A major quartet, published fifth in the Op.18 set. Each commentary explores the relationship between the two pieces, examining the influences and similarities.

Yet, as Ludwig Finscher writes, this is no dutiful homage. Beethoven creates his own inspiration, while also respecting tradition. ‘The thematic material and processes, the 6/8 time signature, and the relaxed, playful tone of the first movement are all typical of the ‘lighter’ works traditionally placed at the end of a quartet opus.’

He describes the A major quartet as being ‘in a different class’ to the previously published work in C minor. It places the Minuet second and the Andante third, for Finscher ‘a demanding slow movement, whose quality is especially evident in the glorious coda’. He also identifies a shift in emphasis towards the last movement in Beethoven’s writing, with ‘a thoroughly densely and imaginatively crafted sonata-form finale.’

Thoughts

This is a ‘sunny side up’ piece of music right from the start, the first violin irrepressible as it breaks into song. The mood prevails throughout the piece but especially in the first movement, where a bright outlook is achieved in spite of some dense part writing.

The Minuet is attractive too, with more of an emphasis on the dance, and an attractive contrasting trio section where the composer uses a drone. The sunny approach continued into the third movement, Beethoven resorting to a theme and variations format for the only time in the Op.18 set. His practice efforts for the piano really bear fruit here, in the winsome written-out trills of the third variation and the slow, hymn like fourth especially.

The finale is indeed dense and eventful, but again the mood is wholly positive. The quartet are busy throughout, Beethoven treating the four protagonists on an equal footing as they exchange ideas and thoughts. The end is softly voiced, the conversation coming to a natural rest.

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)

There are some highly enjoyable versions here. The two I returned to most were from the Jerusalem and Tokyo quartets, each one bringing out the sunny nature of the work with its many and varied inventions.

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 Gyrowetz Divertissement Op.50

Next up String Quartet in B flat major Op.18/6

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

Listening to Beethoven #155 – String Quartet in D major Op.18/3

op183-woman-before-rising-sunWoman before the Rising Sun, by Caspar David Friedrich (c1818)

String Quartet in D major Op.18/3 (1798-1800, Beethoven aged 29)

Dedication Count Johann Georg von Browne
Duration 25′

1. Allegro
2. Andante con moto
3. Allegro
4. Presto

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

This, the third piece in Beethoven’s Op.18 set of six string quartets, was the first in order of composition – yet it fits snugly into the middle of the sequence. For Robert Winter and Robert Martin in their edition of The Beethoven Quartet Companion, this is ‘the gentlest, most consistently lyrical work in the set. Daniel Heartz notes this early on, as the quartet ‘announces its lyric nature from the start by having the violin sing a long-breathed melody’.

Ludwig Finscher is not quite so sure. ‘The D major quartet, the earliest of the six, is a curiously reticent, pensive piece, especially when compared to the G major. It has a simplicity, the final effect of which, in the light of its emphatic dismissal in the finale, is thoroughly stylized, but the stylization works in exactly the opposite direction to the G major quartet. The finale makes up generously at last for what has hitherto been missing’, he says, going on to detail its ‘instrumental brilliance in a rapid perpetuum-mobile manner, dynamic, thematic and harmonic surprises, witty motivic and contrapuntal working.’

Thoughts

It takes a while for this quartet to find its bearings, partly because the opening melody is deliberately ambiguous. As several commentators have noted, it is as though Beethoven starts writing in the middle of a sentence – but after a while we get to see his opening thought in a bigger context. The initially timid mood becomes more settled, the ideas attractive and the quartet texture kept light.

The slow movement is also relaxed and nicely poised, but there are hints of cheekier moments around the edges, Beethoven channeling his inner Haydn. The harmonic writing, too, has an impatient edge as the key often strays away from the home of B flat major.

The scherzo movements of these quartets are where the music feels most modern, and once again with Beethoven’s seemingly throwaway writing a lot happens in a short space of time. This irregular dance, with sparse textures and short lines for each instrument, is balanced by a trio section that slips into the minor key with some edgy, trill-like figures.

The finale, as Finscher notes, really trips along, barely stopping for breath as each of the instruments have their say at high speed. Beethoven enjoys moving the music off the beat, and the switches between quiet and loud keep the listener on their toes, before a surge to the finishing line. For a supposedly gentle piece, it is quite a tempestuous finish – until the very end, where Beethoven is content for the music to come to a quiet standstill.

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)

There is a range of approaches here. The Tokyo Quartet could be seen to be quite aggressive in their first movement, which while lyrical does not often show the gentle side of Beethoven’s writing. The Jerusalem Quartet are softer, perhaps even a little suave, but the Quatuor Mosaïques get the balance just right. Again the Végh Quartet are sublime in this music.

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 Krommer String Quartet in E flat major Op.18/3

Next up String Quartet in C minor Op.18/4

Listening to Beethoven #154 – String Quartet in G major Op.18/2

Op182-Friedrich,_Morgen_im_RiesengebirgeMorning on the Riesengebringe, by Caspar David Friedrich (1810)

String Quartet in G major Op.18/2 (1798-1800, Beethoven aged 29)

Dedication Count Johann Georg von Browne
Duration 25′

1. Allegro
2. Adagio cantabile – Allegro – Tempo I
3. Scherzo: Allegro
4. Allegro molto, quasi presto

Listen

written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

‘The jester of the set’, says Daniel Heartz of the second of Beethoven’s first published string quartets. Op.18/2 was actually written third, but is carefully placed by the composer to keep a satisfactory flow between the works. In Germany it acquired the occasional nickname ‘Komplientierquartett’, for what Ludwig Finscher calls the ‘graceful principal theme’. The nickname reflects on the quartet too, ‘not merely to compliment but to greet with formal respect and ceremony’.

Commentators identify more links with the past in this work than the forward looking first – yet the links do not mean the work itself is unadventurous. Finscher writes of how the first movement ‘reaches back beyond Haydn to the preclassical realm, but technically, in its almost parodic succession of two-bar groups and tiny, conventional motives, it is a dazzling tour de force, building on the achievements of the Haydn quartet style and simultaneously providing an ironic comment on them’.

Heartz draws close links with Haydn’s String Quartet Op.33/2, also in G major – and gives several examples on how the first and second movements draw on Haydnesque qualities. Finscher extends his observations, concluding that ‘in artistic skill of that order the work is also a celebration of the level of musical culture in Vienna around 1800’.

Thoughts

It is true that the second of Op.18 is very different from the first – but in a complementary way. The mood is amiable and often comedic, the first violin taking the lead in a cheery second theme, where it ascends to the heights like a bird. Some of the harmonic movements are adventurous in the development, showing that if Beethoven is influenced by Haydn he is channelling the composer’s inventive powers too. The viola and cello take the lead in a striking build to a recap of the main theme.

There are more powers of invention in the slow movement, where tender moments give way to an unexpected, capricious section in the middle. The scherzo third movement is another advance on the traditional minuet, light in mood before cutting to an elusive trio section.

At this point it suddenly feels like the work is finishing, but then Beethoven surges forward with an assertive finale, led off by the cello and featuring busy interactions between the four instruments.

Beethoven has fun with this piece, and given the right performance the listener will do too. The Haydn influences are welcome and well-managed, because the quartet never sounds derivative, and its frequent but subtle inventions keep the listener on their toes. A joy from start to finish.

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 Végh Quartet give a delightful account of this piece, light on their feet and pretty quick, but still with plenty of room for their phrasing. The Tákacs Quartet are often brisk, but similarly enjoyable, while the Quatuor Mosaïques are slower and emphasise the graceful interplay between the quartet. Finally the Tokyo String Quartet are nicely poised and enjoy Beethoven’s flights.

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 Krommer String Quartet in A major Op.18/2

Next up String Quartet in D major Op.18/3