Archive for April, 2012

Beethoven, String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat Major, Op. 74, “Harp”

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827

String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat Major, Op. 74, “Harp”, 1809

Ludwig van BeethovenIts feels that Beethoven’s “Harp” quartet is somehow overlooked. A definite “middle period” work, it is followed quickly by the more innovative “Serioso” and then the late quartets, and it is preceded by the more landmark “Razumovsky” quartets of just a few years earlier. Even the earliest Op. 18 quartets appear more frequently on concert stages. Yet Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat Major is a glorious work: full, rich and befitting the middle period character known as “Eroica.” Bountiful, beneficent, lavish and even sensuous, the “Harp” even features a dash of impressionistic pointillism with the first movement’s elegant pizzicato sections giving rise to the quartet’s historical nickname. Each of the four movements is a uniquely shaped touchstone of the multi-movement sonata form types and there is an overarching vector of momentum that joins these movements into a miraculous unity of purpose, design and expression. With its prevailing vitality, heart, invention and accessibility, one is almost tempted to call this Beethoven’s most “perfect” quartet. And yet, it is devilish to play. (more…)

Mozart, String Quartet in C Major, K. 465, “Dissonance”

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1756-1791

String Quartet in C Major, K. 465, “Dissonance”, 1785

Mozart - DissonanceThe opening chapters of an essential history of the mighty string quartet could do no better than presenting the initial call and response of two eternal masterworks: Haydn’s Op. 33 and Mozart’s six quartets dedicated to Haydn. Just before Haydn’s groundbreaking set of six quartets were published in 1781, Mozart fatefully attended (perhaps even played for) a gathering where he heard Haydn’s Op. 33 quartets first hand in what was surely their informal premiere. Mozart was now living in Vienna, learning about Bach, and here, stunned by Haydn’s latest chamber music. Over the next four years, Mozart would write string duos, trios and quartets enfolding the lessons from Bach and Haydn, culminating in a laborious two-year project yielding six new string quartets loving dedicated to Haydn himself. (more…)

Brahms, String Quartet No. 2 in a minor, Op. 51, No. 2

Saturday, April 14th, 2012

Johannes Brahms, 1833-1897

String Quartet No. 2 in a minor, Op. 51, No. 2, 1873

Johannes BrahmsLike Schubert, Brahms apparently had many string quartets under his belt before making a published debut. Unlike Schubert, Brahms left no traces by mercilessly destroying what he deemed unworthy. Despite being “firsts”, the two quartets published as Op. 51 in 1873 when Brahms was forty must be considered mature works. And evidence suggests he worked on these quartets over an extended period of time. Brahms would write only one more string quartet a few years later. Unlike this final quartet exuberantly in B-flat major, both of the Op. 51 quartets are in a minor key, largely ponderous and dramatic, rich, thick and profound. But as always there is great variety within especially with Brahms’s signature gift for thematic variation that can completely transform the character of a theme even within the same movement. (more…)

Schubert, String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, “Rosamunde”

Saturday, April 14th, 2012

Franz Schubert, 1797-1828

String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, D. 804, “Rosamunde”, 1824

Franz SchubertSchubert grew up playing chamber music with his family and composed several youthful (and quite skillful) string quartets for these domestic affairs. His mature “professional” quartets composed for public performance date from the 1820’s and include the single movement “Quartettsatz”, the “Rosamunde”, the “Death and the Maiden”, and the final epic in G major completing a lifelong set of 15 numbered quartets. Written in 1824 when Schubert was still only 27 (with only four years left), the “Rosamunde” quartet would be the only string quartet performed and published during his lifetime. Overshadowed by the more dramatic quartets that surround it chronologically, the 13th quartet is notable for its suave but dark-tinged reserve, a delicacy of atmosphere, texture and Schubert’s irrepressible signature: delicious lyricism. (more…)

Dvořák, String Quartet No. 14 in A-flat, Op. 105

Saturday, April 14th, 2012

Antonín Dvořák, 1841-1904

String Quartet No. 14 in A-flat, Op. 105, 1895

Antonín DvořákAntonín Dvořák was an absolutely superb and prolific chamber music composer, writing fourteen string quartets as well as numerous trios, quintets, sonatas and a variety of miniatures and character pieces. The “American” quartet (No. 12 in F Major) is by far his most well-known and beloved chamber work, but it may well do disservice to Dvořák by overshadowing his other mature quartets, all fantastic, and each of a unique character. Equally noteworthy is the “Slavonic” quartet (No. 10 in E-flat major) so named for its distinctive Czech and Bohemian folk references, and the final two quartets written almost as a simultaneous pair in 1895 upon Dvořák’s return from America to his homeland. Dvořák started work on the quartet in A-flat while still in America. Barely begun, he returned home and complained to friends about a creative block, a short “dry spell” without inspiration. When his muse returned, Dvořák began a fresh composition, the string quartet in G major, which he completed before returning to the A-flat quartet, which he swiftly finished. (more…)

Haydn, String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 33, No. 2, “Joke”

Saturday, April 14th, 2012

Joseph Haydn, 1732-1809

String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 33, No. 2, “Joke”

, 1781

Joseph HaydnIn 1781, after a lapse of ten years, a 49-year-old Joseph Haydn turned to the string quartet again, composing a set of six that were published the following year as Op. 33. The publication bore a dedication to the “Grand Duke of Russia” and so these quartets are most commonly known as the “Russian” quartets. The alternate nickname, Gli Scherzi (The Jokes), refers to the fact that Haydn replaced the traditional title “Minuet” with the Italian word “Scherzo,” meaning joke or playfulness. Whether these dance movements were any different than their predecessors is difficult to determine, but the birth of a new movement genre is undeniable, as history would prove. The nickname is apt here because with Op. 33, Haydn did recast the essential character of the string quartet by making it somewhat more lighthearted. Yet he also made it more sophisticated in terms of musical construction resulting in cleverness and, in several places, literal musical jokes based on confounding the expectations of common music forms and devices. In this respect the quartets are a great historical watershed. (more…)