BEETHOVEN: String Quartets Op. 59, No. 1, 'Rasumovsky' and Op. 95, 'Serioso' (Ibolya Toth/ Kodaly Quartet) (Naxos: 8.554181)
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Ludwig van Beethoven(1770-1827)
String Quartet in Fmajor, Op. 59, No. 1
String Quartet in Fminor, Op. 95, Quartetto serioso
In 1792 Beethoven left his native city of Bonn to seek his fortune inthe imperial capital, Vienna. Five years earlier his patron, the Archbishop ofCologne, a scion of the imperial family, had sent him to Vienna where he hadhoped to have lessons with Mozart. His plans were frustrated by the illness andsubsequent death of his mother, which made it necessary for him to return to Bonnand before long to take charge of the welfare of his younger brothers.
Beethoven's father, overshadowed by the eminence of his own father,Kapellmeister to a former Archbishop, had proved inadequate both as a musicianand in the family, of which his eldest son now took control.
As a boy Beethoven had been trained to continue family tradition as amusician and had followed his father and grandfather as a member of thearchiepiscopal musical establishment. In 1792 he arrived in Vienna withintroductions to various members of the nobility and with the offer of lessonswith Haydn, from whom he later claimed to have learned nothing. There werefurther lessons from the Court Composer, Antonio Salieri, and, perhaps moreimportant, from Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, an expert in counterpoint. Heembarked at once on an initial career as a keyboard virtuoso, skilled both asan executant and in the necessary art of improvisation. He was to establishhimself, in the course of time, as a figure of remarkable genius andoriginality and as a social eccentric, no respecter of persons, hiseccentricity all the greater because of his increasing deafness. This lastdisability made public performance, whether as a keyboard-player or in thedirection of his own music, more and more difficult, and must have served toencourage the development of one particular facet, the use of counterpoint,stigmatized by hostile contemporary critics as "learned". He died inVienna in 1827.
In his sixteen string quartets, the first set of six published in 180land the last completed in 1826 and published in the year of his death,Beethoven was as innovative as ever, developing and extending a form thatseemed already to have reached a height of perfection in the later work ofHaydn and Mozart. The earliest mention of a string quartet comes in a recordedrequest of Count Apponyi in 1795. This had no immediate result, but it hasseemed possible that Beethoven in these years might have been influenced byEmanuel Aloys Forster, a musician 22 years his senior, whose teaching ofcounterpoint he admired and recommended to others, while profiting, perhaps,from the example of Forster's own quartets. At the same time Beethoven musthave known the later quartets of Mozart and the work of Haydn.
Beethoven's first group of string quartets, the six that make up Opus18, were written between 1795 and 1800 and published in Vienna the followingyear. It has been suggested that the novelty of these quartets persuaded Haydnto abandon the quartet on which he was working and not to attempt any others.
Apart from an arrangement of a piano sonata for string quartet, the next groupof such works by Beethoven is the set of three written for the Russianambassador in Vienna, Count Razumovsky. The latter's family owed itsdistinction to the favour shown to two brothers, singers in the Imperial Chapelin St Petersburg, by the Empress Elisabeth Petrovna and by Catherine IIrespectively. Andreas Kyrilovich Razumovsky, fourth son of the younger brother,was born in 1752 and trained as a naval officer, later serving his country as adiplomat. In Vienna he married, in 1788, Elisabeth, Countess Thun, the sisterof the wife of Beethoven's patron and friend Prince Lichnowsky, and in 1792 wasfirst appointed Russian ambassador there, resuming his duties, after a briefinterruption, in 1801. He was rich and extravagant in expenditure, building forhimself a fine residence, destroyed in afire in 1815, and distinguishinghimself as a collector and as a patron of the arts. He played the second violinin quartets and seems to have known Beethoven from the early days of thelatter's arrival in the city.
The Razumovsky Quartets, Opus 59, were first performed under theviolinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, with whom Beethoven may have had lessons and withwhom he was certainly on friendly terms. Schuppanzigh later, from 1808, ledCount Razumovsky's own quartet. The new quartets were each to have had aRussian theme, but this provision was not completely carried out. The workswere received with amazement, even at times amusement, by those who first heardthem, finding here a further example of Beethoven's music-madness. The quartetsare certainly unexpected, in contemporary terms, and certainly very much longerand more demanding than any audience at the time might have expected, howeverfamiliar the idiom may now sound.>
The Quartet in F major, Opus 59, No. 1, starts with a cellomelody that is to have the greatest importance in much of what follows. Themovement is in broadly classical form, with exposition, development andrecapitulation, and in the first section there is, once the opening subject andthe material connected with it have been dealt with, a second theme, in Cmajor, and a closing passage that makes further use of the principal theme. Thislast continues to hold importance in the complex development, which itselfincludes a fugal exposition, a passage in which, starting with the secondviolin, instrument after instrument enters in imitation Fragments of the firstsubject have long suggested its return and it does finally appear in fullrecapitulation, again introduced by the cello. The second subject is nowentrusted to the viola, while it is again the opening figure of the principaltheme that forms the substance of the coda. The second movement, a veryindividual scherzo, tested the credulity of its first audience with whatseemed to be a first theme, played by the cello, all on one note. The key isnow B flat and the second violin answers the cello, the first violin the viola,in music that continues with sudden shifts of key and interruptions, all in aninnovative tripartite form, like the first movement. There is an extended firstsubject group, followed at length by an F minor second subject. The effect ofthe movement depends on the strange juxtapositions of remoter harmonies,something that even finds a place in the harmonic contradictions of the closingbars. The F minor slow movement starts with the first violin's theme of tenderintrospection, echoed by the cello. Again in the three sections of sonata form,the second theme is in C minor, so that the whole movement continues largely ina mood of meditative melancholy, occasionally lightened by a brief shaft ofsunlight, before the first violin leads the way to a concluding trill thatserves to introduce the finale. A place is at last found for a Russian theme inthe last movement. This is entrusted to the cello and in its initial suggestionof a modal D minor contradicts the F major key of the quartet. Here again twosubjects are introduced in an exposition, the second of some harmonicambiguity. The exposition is repeated, as it had not been in the firstmovement, and the development follows, with its harmonic changes, over anopening first violin trill. The material of the exposition returns, now with afugal section to introduce the final section, which leads the way to theRussian theme, now played perhaps slower than it would ever have been sung,much as earlier it been heard at a much faster speed. This brief Adagio manon troppo is capped by a short final Presto for the nine bars thatprovide a clear F major ending to the work.
Since his arr