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