BEETHOVEN Ludwig Van, String Quartet in E minor Op.59 No.2 Razumovsky

Allegro 
Molto Adagio. Si tratta questo pezzo con molto di sentimento  
Allegretto. Maggiore (Thème russe)  
Finale. Presto 

“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 

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