BEETHOVEN String Quartet Op.59 No.2 Razumovsky
BEETHOVEN String Quartet Op.135
“Must it be? It must be!” Beethoven inscribed these words on the manuscript of his profoundly moving final String Quartet, Op.135. Written at the end of his life, it’s the creative full stop for one of music’s ultimate geniuses.
The concert will begin with another of Beethoven’s deeply passionate quartets, which he dedicated to the Russian Count Razumovsky.
Between Beethoven, there’s a work by the Pulitzer Prize-winning US composer Caroline Shaw, whose hypnotic string quartet is full of energy and beauty.
BEETHOVEN Ludwig Van, String Quartet in E minor Op.59 No.2 Razumovsky
Molto Adagio. Si tratta questo pezzo con molto di sentimento
Allegretto. Maggiore (Thème russe)
“Demanding but dignified” was how the Allgemeine Musik-Zeitung described Beethoven’s new quartets dedicated to Count Rasumovsky when they were first heard in 1807. Composed in 1806, and including Russian melodies from a collection of folk tunes edited by Ivan Prach (published in 1790), these quartets were a major development in the quartet form. But though they were longer and more challenging than any earlier quartets, they were an immediate success. Before the Rasumovsky Quartets were played, Beethoven offered them to publisher Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig – in a job lot with the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Fourth Symphony and Fidelio, but the deal fell through and the quartets were first published in Vienna by the Bureau des Arts et d’Industrie and in London by Clementi.
While the first of the Rasumovsky Quartets is unusually expansive, the second is more concentrated. From the opening two-chord gesture establishing E minor as the home key, the first movement is tense and full of rhythmic ambiguity. The hymn-like slow movement has a combination of richness and apparent simplicity that blossoms into a kind of ecstatic aria: Beethoven himself is reported to have likened it to “a meditative contemplation of the stars”. The uneasy rhythms of the Scherzo are contrasted by a major-key Trio section in which Beethoven quotes a Russian tune that famously reappeared in the Coronation Scene of Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov. The finale begins with a surprise: a strong emphasis on the note C that is tantalising and unexpected in a movement that moves firmly towards E minor.
© Nigel Simeone
SHAW Caroline, Entr’acte
Entr’acte was written in 2011 after hearing the Brentano Quartet play Haydn’s Op. 77 No. 2 — with their spare and soulful shift to the D-flat major trio in the minuet. It is structured like a minuet and trio, riffing on that classical form but taking it a little further.
BEETHOVEN Ludwig Van, String Quartet in F Op.135
Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo
Der schwer gefaßte Entschluß [The difficult decision]. Grave, ma non troppo tanto (Muss es sein? [Must it be?]) – Allegro (Es muss sein! [It must be!]) – Grave, ma non troppo tratto – Allegro
Beethoven’s final string quartet (only the replacement finale of Op.130 is later) was completed in October 1826. After an awful summer during which his nephew Karl had attempted suicide and been imprisoned, Beethoven was able to escape to the tranquillity of Gneixendorf, a village near Krems about fifty miles from Vienna. He arrived at the end of September and his last masterpiece was finished in the following month, much of it composed outdoors (the locals were amused to observe Beethoven singing and waving his arms as he worked). It is dedicated to his friend and supporter Johann Nepomuk Wolfmayer, who was originally to have been the dedicatee of the C sharp minor Quartet Op.131. The F major Quartet Op.135 is much the shortest of the late quartets, and there’s a conciseness and simplicity that perhaps point forward to the direction Beethoven might have pursued in his music had he lived longer. Its less serious mood can also be explained by the circumstances in which it was written: at the end of his tether after his nephew’s problems in the summer, the composer could at last be refreshed. Op.135 seems to be imbued with this new found sense of well-being, and within a relatively conventional movement structure (unlike several of the other late quartets), Beethoven expresses both humour and the deepest seriousness with astonishing brevity. The expressive heart of the work was probably the first part to be composed: the Lento assai, barely fifty bars long, was originally intended for the Op.131 Quartet. The finale has the famous superscription ‘The difficult decision’, based on a question-and-answer motif: ‘Must it be? It must be!’ The origins of this are a Canon jotted down at the end of July 1826, ‘half-humorous, half-philosophical’ as Barry Cooper puts it, providing the ideal theme for a movement that encapsulates the ‘difficult decisions’ taken throughout Beethoven’s career.
Nigel Simeone © 2011