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Home CDE84660 Beethoven Quartets
Ludwig Van Beethoven
String Quartet F major, Op.18, No.1 String Quartet G major, Op.18, No.2
At the time Beethoven began work on his first series of string quartets, Op.18, the great tradition of quartet writing as practised by Haydn and Mozart was almost, but not quite, over. Beethoven’s new quartets were commissioned in 1798 by Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian Lobkowitz, one of the most generous among the composer’s early patrons in Vienna. It was for the Prince’s private orchestra that the ‘Eroica’ Symphony was composed some five years later. Beethoven’s Triple Concerto and the ‘Harp’ String Quartet Op.74 were also inscribed to Lobkowitz, while the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies were dedicated jointly to him and to Count Razumovsky - the dedicatee of Beethoven’s three string quartets Op.59.
At more or less the same time that Prince Lobkowitz commissioned Beethoven’s Op.18 quartets he invited Haydn to write a similar series of pieces – almost as though he wanted to establish a rivalry between Vienna’s two leading composers. As things turned out, the increasingly frail Haydn was able to complete only two of his projected works (they were issued as his Op.77), to which, some three years later, he managed to add the two middle movements of what would have been a further quartet, in D minor. Beethoven’s awareness of the hallowed history of the string quartet can be seen from the fact that it took him some three years to produce a series of works that met his own exacting standards. These were not his first chamber compositions for strings alone – in 1795 he revised and transcribed an earlier wind octet to form his String Quintet Op.4, and in the later 1790s he composed no fewer than five string trios – but mastering the string quartet presented a formidable challenge, and the trios were, at least in part, a means of dipping a toe into quartet waters without invoking direct comparison with his two great predecessors. Significantly, in the cases of the quartets Op.18 Nos.1 and 2 Beethoven carried out extensive revisions before allowing them to see the light of day, even requesting last-minute alterations when the engraver’s plates had already been prepared.
In June 1799 Beethoven sent a copy of the F major Quartet Op.18 No.1 to his theologian friend Karl Amenda, who was a talented amateur violinist; but two years later he asked Amenda not to pass the music on to anyone. “I have greatly changed it,” Beethoven told him, “for only now have I learned how to write quartets properly.” Amenda’s descendants preserved Beethoven’s earlier version of the quartet, and so we can see how drastically the composer altered and improved it. His revisions were particularly far-reaching in the case of the quartet’s opening movement. One telling change affected the manner in which the recapitulation, at roughly the movement’s mid-point, was approached. Beethoven had originally written a series of rushing fortissimo scales here; but his final version creates a more subtle atmosphere of subdued excitement, and reserves the crescendo for the last possible moment before the reprise of the main theme. Also new was a dramatic passage near the end of the piece, with all four instruments striding upwards in long notes. On top of those specific changes, Beethoven generally rendered the music’s texture more transparent, and reduced the number of appearances of the opening turn-like motif during the course of the piece. All the same, that motif – the very first thing we hear – makes itself felt throughout the movement even in its definitive form.
If Beethoven chose to place this work at the head of the set (it was probably the second to be composed, following on from the D major No.3), it may well have been in view of its deeply affecting slow movement. This Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato is one of Beethoven’s four great tragic pieces in the dark key of D minor. Its companions, each carrying a similarly evocative tempo indication, are the Largo e mesto of the Piano Sonata Op.10 No.3, the Largo assai e[d] espressivo of the ‘Ghost’ Piano Trio Op.70 No.1 and the Adagio con molto sentimento d’affetto of the Cello Sonata Op.102 No.2. The inclusion of the word “appassionato” in the heading of the Adagio from Op.18 No.1 is particularly notable. The adjective is one that Beethoven seldom used (it is notably absent from the so-called ‘Appassionata’ Piano Sonata), and so we can see from it that he wanted the movement played with special expressive intensity. The piece was inspired by the scene in the burial vault from Act V of Romeo and Juliet, and Beethoven’s sketches for it include the comments, il prend le tombeau; désespoir; il se tue; les derniers soupirs. (“He descends into the tomb; despair; he kills himself; the last sighs”.) The music begins with the throbbing sound of an accompaniment played by the three lower instruments, before the first violin enters with the quiet main theme. That theme later assumes a more dramatic guise, with the aid of a new rushing figure superimposed above it; and during the final stages of the movement the rushing figure itself reaches a peak of anguish, before the music sinks to an exhausted close.
Beethoven’s revisions to the quartet also increased the urgency of its last two movements: the third movement, originally a straightforward Allegro, became Allegro molto in order to ensure that it would be played in genuine scherzo style; and the finale was transformed from a gentle Allegretto into a brilliant Allegro. The finale is, indeed, a dazzling piece, with a fugue as its centrepiece, and a closing page which brings the curtain down with unabashed symphonic grandeur.
In the case of the G major Quartet Op.18 No.2 Beethoven’s original version has not survived, but we do know that one of the most far-reaching changes he made to it was to tighten the structure of its second movement, from a five-part form with two contrasting episodes, to a simple ternary design. Significantly, the nature of the middle section was also altered, to form a miniature scherzo within the slow, ornate surrounding material. The resulting fusion of serene slow movement and lively scherzo was an idea Beethoven had already tried in his string trio Serenade Op.8, and the form is one that appealed among later composers to Brahms, in particular. The scherzo episode takes its point of departure from the unassuming phrase with which the Adagio opening section comes to a close.
The inclusion of a scherzo-like episode within the slow movement did not prevent Beethoven from following it with an actual scherzo, rather than a more relaxed minuet. The scherzo is remarkable for the transition which joins the end of its trio seamlessly to the start of the da capo. Such links are rare in Haydn and Mozart, though examples are to be found in Mozart’s ‘Kegelstatt’ Trio K.498 for clarinet, viola
and piano, and in Haydn’s last completed quartet, Op.77 No.2. In the Mozart, the passage in question is based on the trio’s material; but Beethoven, like Haydn, startlingly offers a pre-echo of the scherzo’s material, beginning in the trio’s key.
G major was a key Beethoven chose for some of his wittiest works, and this quartet belongs firmly among them. Its first movement even has an opening gambit of a kind we sometimes find in Haydn: the graceful initial bars sound as much like an ending as a beginning - so much so, that Beethoven is able to use the same subject to round the piece off, in a conclusion of deliberate understatement. The movement is notable, too, for the manner in which the contrapuntal development section at its centre leads to a climax over an insistent pedal-note on the fifth degree of the scale which continues through the start of the recapitulation, lending the reprise of the main subject an unstable effect. Beethoven was to press a similar idea into service, to greater dramatic effect, in the first movement of his ‘Appassionata’ sonata. Beethoven continues to develop his material during the course of the recapitulation, which also incorporates a pianissimo recall of the main subject in a distant key between its two stages.
The finale is again replete with witticisms. It begins in quirkily original fashion by alternating the phrases of its main theme between the solo cello and the full quartet; while at the end of the exposition the expected repeat is subverted by a startling switch of key. The sudden change in harmonic direction casts its shadow over the entire first half of the central development section, and when the first subject returns, it does so in a bright C major and in a more conventional quartet layout, before Beethoven – as though anxious to announce that he is in the wrong key after all - makes exaggeratedly emphatic preparations for the actual recapitulation. At the crucial moment, however, the music takes a humorous side-step into another distant key, before the genuine recapitulation is at last allowed to set in.
© Misha Donat 2021
Julian Leaper - Violin I, Ciaran McCabe - Violin II
Martin Outram - Viola, Michal Kaznowski - Cello
Formed in 1988, the Maggini Quartet is one of the finest British string quartets. Its acclaimed recordings have won international awards including Gramophone Chamber Music Award of the Year, Diapason d’Or of the Year and a Cannes Classical Award, and have twice been nominated for Grammy Awards. The Quartet have recorded the complete Mendelssohn quartet cycle for Meridian Records, and have now embarked on recording the complete Beethoven Quartets. Their most recent project for the label in 2021 is a recording of three String Quartets by Arwel Hughes. The Maggini Quartet’s commitment to new music has led to important commissions including works by James MacMillan, Robert Simpson, Eleanor Alberga and Roxanna Panufnik. Their unique collaboration with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, performing and recording his ten ‘Naxos Quartets’, was hailed as “a 21st century landmark”.The Maggini Quartet appears frequently in prestigious concert series at home and abroad and makes regular media broadcasts. Recent international visits have included Dubai, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, France and Denmark. They also have an annual summer tour in Norway. The Magginis are renowned for their interpretations of British Repertoire and The Glory of the English String Quartet continues to be an important ongoing initiative, drawing upon the wonderful repertoire which the Quartet is committed to bringing to a worldwide audience. In addition to their concert activity, the members of the Quartet have an international reputation as chamber music coaches. They hold several UK residencies and have worked at the UK’s senior music institutions.