About this Recording
8.550563 - BEETHOVEN, L. van: String Quartets, Vol. 6 (Kodály Quartet) - Nos. 9, "Rasumovsky", 12

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)

String Quartet in C major, Op. 59, No. 3 (Razumovsky)

String Quartet in E flat major, Op.127


Just how when and where the first string quartet came about is something of a mystery, although music for four voices can certainly be traced back to medieval times and something like an original version of a quartet for strings can be traced back to Gregorio Allegri at the beginning of the seventeenth century.


What is certain is that by the mid-eighteenth century, quartets were in existence for a combination of two violins, viola and cello by composers such as Franz Xaver Richter and Luigi Boccherini, not to mention the start of a large collection of quartets by Joseph Haydn. Haydn was responsible for the major developments in the quartet during his lifetime. His first string quartet dates from the 1750s and his last unfinished Opus 103 from towards the end of his life in 1803.


Haydn developed the quartet along the lines of the eighteenth century symphony and in that he was followed and imitated by Mozart and his contemporaries. The quartet was a symphony in miniature; suitable for playing with friends at home and by amateur music enthusiasts. In the days before recorded music, this was home entertainment at its best. Haydn and Mozart together probably account for almost half of the string quartet repertory even today.


But among the newcomers who were to add to the repertoire and broadening of both style and form of the quartet, none was to be more influential than Beethoven. There is no more individual voice in quartet writing throughout history than his. Beethoven stretched the symphony and the quartet to limits incomprehensible to his own audience and truly remarkable even to listeners today.


Beethoven's life crossed the frontiers from a sedate eighteenth century into the turmoil of Romanticism, the onset of Napoleon's dream of conquering Europe and the beginnings of the nationalist revolutions that tore the continent apart. Born in Bonn in Germany in 1770, he soon moved to Vienna. Unlike his predecessors, he was less interested in working for patrons than composing what he wanted to. His lack of any sort of morality also puts him in a totally different class from Haydn and his followers, Beethoven was said to have had countless illicit affairs with women, married or not, and to have fathered several children. He never settled down and lived a life of disarray in often the filthiest of lodgings.


Fighting against convention and always ready to develop new musical ideas, he was seen as a virtually god-like figure by many of his admirers. Revered still by those who hardly know his music, his name is universal. His deeply unhappy and somewhat unpleasant character was due to his disappointments in life, culminating in deafness and illness, but never stopping him from pushing the limits of music. His piano playing was such that from frustration with the limitations of old instruments he was often seen to hit the keys so hard that he broke the strings. Although the quartets never asked their players to take on similar destructive playing, the journey from the Opus 18 to Opus 135 quartets remains a remarkable voyage of discovery.


The two quartets on this disc come from different periods of Beethoven's life but are linked by dedications to Russian nobles in Vienna. The String Quartet in C major, Opus 59 No.3 is the third of the Razumovsky quartets dedicated to the amateur violinist and Russian ambassador to Vienna. The first of the late quartets was commissioned by the amateur cellist and Russian Prince Nikolay Galitzin. Razumovsky was responsible for three of Beethoven's most popular quartets and Galitzin drew Beethoven back to composing his finest and most revolutionary quartets.


The third quartet of Opus 59 is in conventional four-movement form with a minuet in third place. Despite this nod in the direction of conservative form, the opening of the first movement seems distinctly discordant and takes a while to reach the main Allegro subject matter in C major. The slow movement has a lovely melody in the related key of A minor and the final movement is a fast moving Allegro molto fugue.


The return to writing with string quartets Opus 127 begins the late quartet series, the summation of Beethoven as a composer. The Ninth Symphony had its first performance in 1824, a year before Opus 127 and the sublime Missa solemnis was completed in 1823. It is hardly surprising these late quartets live in a totally new sound world and that the form is now stretched almost beyond its limits Beethoven creates music of unbelievable intensity at a time when considered both mad and incapacitated through deafness.


Although some of the late quartets dispense with conventional four-movement plans, the E flat quartet retains the structure and sticks to the conventions of the Razumovsky with a second movement Adagio and a third movement Scherzo. The second movement is a particularly beautiful set of variations whereas the outer movements have many changes of time. The whole quartet shows Beethoven's new style of giving the individual instruments their own separate lines which are still able to blend perfectly together.


David Doughty



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