Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Nationality: German
Baptized: December 17, 1770, Bonn Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna (age 56)

Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 16

(for violin, viola, cello and piano)
10:48 I. Grave - Allegro ma non troppo
6:57 II. Andante cantabile
5:44 III. Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo
Duration: 27 minutes (approximately)
Composed: 1801 (age 30-31)
Note: Transcription of the original for piano and winds, Op. 16
3 recordings, 5 videos
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Kocsis, Keller Quartet
I. Grave - Allegro ma non troppo
Kocsis, Keller Quartet
II. Andante cantabile
Kocsis, Keller Quartet
III. Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo
San Francisco Conservatory Faculty
Pascal String Quartet, Balsam
From Kai Christiansen

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op.16(1796, 1801)

In 1797, a 27-year-old Beethoven had yet to try his hand at the "serious" big-ticket genres: string quartet, symphony or opera. Indeed, at the time, he was noteworthy not so much as a composer, but a brilliant pianist, particularly for his stunning improvisations. So far, Beethoven had composed piano sonatas, trios, serenades and various other "miscellaneous" genres and typically with a live performance in mind: to showcase the master at the keyboard. Having written for winds, Beethoven took special inspiration from Mozart's Quintet for Piano and Winds (K. 452) written thirteen years earlier and decided to write his own. Beethoven's quintet shares much in common with Mozart's: the same instrumentation (piano, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn), the same key (E-flat major), the same three-movement layout and even the same approximate forms for each movement (including the dramatic slow introduction). This is in fact Beethoven at his most Mozartian.

But when he published the work in 1810, Beethoven also included a version for piano quartet (piano, violin, viola and cello). It is not a mere transcription, but a careful re-casting of the music with alterations to take advantage of strings vs. winds. This was not Beethoven's first piano quartet; he had written three several years before possibly even preceding Mozart's foray into the same genre. What remains constant between the quintet with winds and the quartet with strings is the piano. In some ways, Op. 16 is actually like a miniature chamber piano concerto so crucial is the virtuosic keyboard part. Lovers of Beethoven's piano sonatas and concertos will find something of both in this sparkling work.

Beethoven launches Op. 16 with a grand introduction marked grave and featuring a dotted rhythm a bit like a Baroque French Overture. Nearly three minutes of substantial drama pass before the curtain rises on the main theme, a much lighter and livelier vehicle naturally introduced by the piano. The sonata form movement is fully appointed with contrasting themes, a development, a "fake" recapitulation leading to more development, a significantly modified recapitulation and a coda. Beethoven is bold, ambitious and generous with his musical ideas. Throughout the three movements, each new cadence, phrase and paragraph is thoughtfully crafted to articulate the narrative with new invention, fresh instrumentation and constant variation.

The middle movement might have come from a Mozart piano concerto with its graceful, lyrical beauty and its "singing" piano, but the "orchestra" is a string trio and Beethoven distributes and balances the parts in a true chamber style achieving a remarkably gorgeous texture. Beethoven's brilliant pianism subjects the keyboard part to a wide variety of rhythms and figurations so that even when "accompanying" the foreground string parts, there is virtuosity of color and decorative line. The invention extends to the recurrence of the main theme that is always changing making the slow movement a hybrid of rondo and variation form.

The finale is also a rondo form (a main theme recurs with contrasting episodes intervening) but its terse "hunting" theme, brisk pace, charged drama and occasional riotousness make it a perfectly sparkling and witty conclusion, perhaps more Haydn than Mozart. A certain degree of "development" of the main theme in the latter half of the movement inclines some scholars to call this a sonata-rondo hybrid. Beethoven even provides for a concerto-like cadenza for the piano where, to the delight of his audience and the dismay of his fellow musicians, Beethoven took great liberties during the premiere.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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