About this Recording
8.550562 - BEETHOVEN: String Quartets Op. 59, No. 2, 'Rasumovsky' and Op. 74, 'Harp'
English 

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

String Quartet in E minor, Op.59, No.2 (Razumovsky)

String Quartet in E flat major, Op.74 (Lobkowitz)

 

In 1792 Beethoven left his native city of Bonn to seek his fortune in the imperial capital. Vienna. Five years earlier his patron, the Archbishop of Cologne had sent him to Vienna for lessons with Mozart. His plans were frustrated by the illness and subsequent death of his mother, which made it necessary for him to return to Bonn and before long to take charge of the welfare of his younger brothers, a task beyond the competence of his father.

 

As a boy Beethoven had had an erratic but eventually sound training as a musician. In 1792 he arrived in Vienna with introductions to members of the nobility and with the offer of lessons with Haydn, from whom he later claimed to have learned nothing. There were further lessons with the Court Kapellmeister, Antonio Salieri, and with Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, an expert in counterpoint. He embarked at once on an initial career as a keyboard virtuoso, skilled both as a performer and in the necessary art of improvisation. He was to establish himself in time as a figure of remarkable genius and originality and as a social eccentric, no respecter of persons, his eccentricity all the greater because of his increasing deafness. This disability made public performance more and more difficult but encouraged the development of one particular element, the use of counterpoint, stigmatized by hostile contemporary critics as 'learned'. He died in Vienna in 1827.

 

In his sixteen string quartets, the first set of six published in 1801 and the last published in the year of his death, Beethoven was as innovative as ever, developing and extending a form that seemed already to have reached a height of perfection in the later work of Haydn and Mozart. His first group of string quartets, the six that make up Opus 18, were written between 1795 and 1800 and published in Vienna the following year, perhaps discouraging Haydn from further composition in this form. Apart from an arrangement of a piano sonata for string quartet, the next group of such works by Beethoven is the set of three written for the Russian ambassador in Vienna, Count Razumovsky. The latter's family owed its distinction to the favour shown to two brothers, singers in the Imperial Chapel in St Petersburg, by the Empress Elisabeth Petrovna and by Catherine II respectively. Andreas Kyrilovich Razumovsky, fourth son of the younger brother, was born in 1752 and trained as a naval officer, later serving his country as a diplomat. In Vienna he married, in 1788, Elisabeth, Countess Thun, the sister of the wife of Beethoven's patron and friend Prince Lichnowsky, and in 1792 was first appointed Russian ambassador there, resuming his duties, after a brief interruption, in 1801. He was rich and extravagant in expenditure, building for himself a fine residence, destroyed in a fire in 1815, and distinguishing himself as a collector and as a patron of the arts. He played the second violin in quartets and seems to have known Beethoven from the early days of the latter's arrival in the city.

 

The Razumavsky Quartets, Opus 59, were first performed under the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, with whom Beethoven may have had lessons and with whom he was certainly on friendly terms. Schuppanzigh later, from 1808, led Count Razumovsky's own quartet. The new quartets were each to have had a Russian theme, but this provision was not completely carried out. The works were received with amazement, even at times amusement, by those who first heard them, finding here a further example of Beethoven's music-madness. The quartets are certainly unexpected, in contemporary terms, and certainly very much longer and more demanding than any audience at the time might have expected, however familiar the idiom may now sound.

 

The Quartet in E minor, Opus 59, No.2, starts with a call to attention, followed by a dramatic pause. The opening motif is heard, followed by a further silence, to be repeated in F major. This is expanded, leading to a more lyrical element. Answering phrases between first violin and cello lead to a secondary theme and concluding chordal syncopation, before the exposition is repeated. The opening material is heard again, though modified, before the development and recapitulation are also repeated. The final coda makes use of the same ingredients. The E major slow movement, marked Molto adagio, also carries the direction Si tratta questo pezzo con molto di sentimento (This piece is to be treated with strong feeling). Here there is some contrast between the slow sustained notes of the opening and the dotted rhythm that rises from it, as the movement unfolds in all its intensity. The syncopations of the E minor scherzo bring an immediate change of mood, with, at last, a Russian theme, proposed by the viola in the E major trio, followed by the cello and the first violin, with a light-hearted triplet accompaniment. The melody itself, Slava, is well enough known from Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, and, more particularly, from Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov, where it appears in its true colours. Here it goes on to be heard in canon. The last movement is in sonata-rondo form, its principal theme returrting to frame a series of episodes, stiffened by a good admixture of counterpoint.

 

Prince Lobkowitz, to whom the Quartet in E flat major, Opus 74, is dedicated, was a near contemporary of Beethoven. In 1809 he joined with Archduke Rudolph and Prince Kinsky in promising Beethoven an income for life, provided he remained in Vienna or at least in Habsburg territories. There were later problems with this matter, as the affairs of Prince Lobkowitz became embarrassed and an equitable settlement was only reached in 1815, after protracted negotiations and expressions of considerable resentment from Beethoven himself. The quartet was written in 1809, the year of the publication and dedication of the fifth and sixth symphonies to Prince Lobkowitz and to Count Razumovsky and of the composition of the Emperor Concerto for Archduke Rudolph. It was published the following year. The first movement has a slow introduction of 24 bars and offers startling dynamic contrasts before the Allegro starts, with its clear-cut principal theme at first suggesting the subdominant key. The pizzicato figuration that soon makes its appearance has earned the quartet the nickname of the Harp Quartet. Chords echoing the opening of the Allegro start the exciting central development and a series of arpeggios heralds the return of the thematic material in recapitulation. When it seems that all is over, a final section begins, accompanied by the rapid semiquavers of the first violin. The A flat major slow movement has a finely spun principal theme of great beauty. This returns in varied form between contrasting episodes. The sound dies away, making the opening of the C minor scherzo the more forceful. The even rapider contrapuntal trio is heard twice and the final appearance of the scherzo leads, without a break, to the last movement, a set of variations. The staccato first variation leads to a second with accompanying viola triplet figuration and a third with semiquavers from second violin and cello. The first violin offers a simplified version of the melody, followed by a more forceful version of the material. There is an increase in pace and cross-rhythms in the variation that follows, at first over a pedal E flat, which shifts, with a hint of the subdominant key, to D flat. The quartet ends with rapid semiquavers, rising to a climax and followed by two subdued chords in conclusion.

 

Keith Anderson

 

 

 


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