BEETHOVEN: String Quartets Opp. 135 and 131 (Ibolya Toth/ Kodaly Quartet) (Naxos: 8.554594)
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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
String Quartet in F major, Op.135 String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op.131
In 1792 Beethoven left his native city of Bonn to seek his fortune in the imperial capital, Vienna. Five years before he had been sent to Vienna by his patron, the Archbishop of Cologne, for lessons with Mozart, but the illness of his mother had forced his immediate return home. Before long, after his mothers death, he had been obliged to take charge of the welfare of his two younger brothers, a task that his father was not competent to discharge.
As a boy Beethoven had had an erratic musical training through his father, a singer in the archiepiscopal musical establishment, later continued on sounder lines. In 1792 he was to take lessons from Haydn, from whom he later claimed to have learned nothing, followed by subsequent study of counterpoint with Albrechtsberger and Italian word-setting with Salieri. Armed with introductions to members of the nobility in Vienna, he soon established himself as a keyboard virtuoso, skilled both as a performer and as an adept in the necessary art of improvisation. In the course of time he was to be widely recognised as a figure of remarkable genius and originality. At the same time he became known as a social eccentric, no respecter of persons, his eccentricity all the greater because of increasing deafness, a failing that became evident by the turn of the century. With the patient encouragement of patrons, he directed his attentions largely to composition, developing the inherited classical tradition of Haydn and Mozart and extending its bounds in a way that presented both an example and a challenge to the composers who came after him.
In his sixteen string quartets, the first set of six published in 1801 and the last published in the year of his death, 1827, Beethoven was as innovative as ever, developing and extending a form that seemed already to have reached a height of perfection. After a gap of thirteen years he returned to the form in 1823 in a remarkable final series of works, starting with a set of three quartets commissioned by Prince Nicolas Galitzin and eventually completed in 1826. That year, the year of the Quartet in F major, Opus 135, was a difficult one for Beethoven. In 1815 his brother Caspar Anton Carl had died, leaving the composer as joint guardian with his widow of his son Karl. Beethoven had taken his responsibilities all too seriously, engaging in legal conflict with the boys mother, to whom he had taken strong exception. The family quarrel and consequent litigation had had a disturbing effect on Beethoven and his nephew. At the end of July, 1826, Karl had attempted to kill himself, a criminal act which inevitably involved the authorities in Vienna and which Karl attributed to his uncles constant harassment. It was decided that on his release from hospital he should enter the army with a cadetship and while preparations for this were under way Beethoven accepted an invitation from his surviving brother, Johann, who had prospered as an apothecary and bought a farm estate at Gneixendorf, near Krems. Johann, an eccentric enough figure in his often ridiculed display of new wealth, had enjoyed an uneasy relationship with his elder brother. This had been exacerbated by Beethovens earlier attempted interference in his domestic affairs which had seemingly precipitated Johanns marriage to a woman to whom Beethoven took great and seemingly justified exception on the grounds of morality and propriety. Now, in late September, he agreed to go with his nephew to Gneixendorf, spending two occasionally uneasy months there, avoiding his sister-in-law, now relegated to the duties of a mere housekeeper. In Vienna he had been unwell and his return there at the beginning of a cold December can have done nothing to improve his condition.
It was in October at Gneixendorf that Beethoven completed the Quartet in F major, Opus 135, a work that he had mentioned earlier in the year and that he promised to the publisher Schlesinger for a prompt payment of 80 ducats. It was published in 1827, after the composers death, with a dedication to Beethovens friend, the cloth merchant Johann Wolfmayer. The relatively short first movement seems to return to an earlier and happier world, its first subject relying on motifs that return throughout the movement. A triplet passage leads soon to the central development, introduced by the slower notes of the cello, using an earlier motif. There is a varied recapitulation in a movement over which the spirit of Haydn seems to preside. The scherzo, with its curious rhythmical asymmetry and sudden interruptions, brings no relaxation of pace in the modulating trio. To this the sustained beauty and serenity of the D flat major slow movement offers an immediate contrast, its prevailing mood darkened by the second of the four variations in C sharp minor, followed by a third in the original major key in which the theme appears in canon between the first violin and cello, and a fourth of rhythmic transformation. Beethoven seems to have experienced some difficulty with the last movement, above which he wrote the words Der schwer gefasste Entschluss (The difficult resolution) and the notated question Muss es sein? (Must it be?), and the reply Es muss sein! (It must be!), derived from a jocular exchange over money owed to him, on which he had composed a canon. In the slow opening bars cello and viola ask the solemn question, the mood dispelled at once by the cheerful F major Allegro that follows, with its motivic and thematic references to what has gone before. The ominous question is posed once more, to be dismissed again. A pizzicato passage leads to a final happy ending.
The Quartet in C sharp minor, Opus 131, is a very different kind of work, with its seven closely linked movements. It was written between November 1825 and July 1826, during a period of intermittent illness and continuing anxiety, and published after the composers death with a dedication to Baron Joseph von Stutterheim, Lieutenant Field-Marshal, who had accepted Karl into his regiment. This replaced an earlier intended dedication to Johann Wolfmayer. Beethoven set great store by the quartet, in spite of his joking description of it on the score he sent to his publisher as zusammengestohlen von verschiedenen diesem und jenem (put together from stolen this and that). It opens with a slowly unwinding fugue, in which the instruments enter in descending order, a demonstration of his complete mastery of contrapuntal resources. There is an abrupt shift to the key of D major for the following Allegro molto vivace, in the mood of a scherzo. The third movement, eleven bars in length, marked Allegro moderato, but moving to an Adagio of seeming recitative, soon proceeds to the A major fourth movement Andante, a theme and variations. The first of these introduces a double dotted accompanying rhythm, to be followed, in the second Più mosso variation, by dialogue between the instruments. The third variation, marked Andante moderato e lusinghiero, continues the dialogue, but now in apparent contrapuntal form, while the fourth, Adagio, introduces an element of pizzicato in contrast. The Allegretto fifth variation is spare in texture, followed by a sixth, aptly marked Adagio ma non troppo e semplice and in 9/4, its serenity interrupted by interjections from the cello. A C major Allegretto leads to an A major ornamented version of the material, in a very full texture, followed by a return of the Allegretto in F major. This leads to the closing bars of the movement, finally marked semplice. The rapid fifth movement, in E major, has its theme anticipated by the cello in a scherzo that is full of surprises, not least its closing change into a pianissimo played sul ponticello, on the