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Hyperion Records

CDA67693 - Beethoven: String Quintets Op 4 & 29
Ruins of Oybin Monastery 'The Dreamer' (1835/40) by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840)
Hermitage, St Petersburg, Russia / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67693

Recording details: September 2007
St Paul's Church, Deptford, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: January 2009
Total duration: 62 minutes 38 seconds

'Flawless, superbly disciplined performances of Beethoven's two string quintets … this new disc from Hyperion has to be warmly welcomed for its first-rate sound and immaculate performances' (Gramophone)

'I can't envisage a more satisfying account of these works' (BBC Music Magazine)

'A work of conspicuous originality [Op 29], power and wit, as The Nash Ensemble demonstrate in their eloquent, sprightly performance … The Nash also give a lively account of an even greater rarity, the early E flat Quintet … something genuinely worthwhile' (The Sunday Times)

'The rich-toned violas of Lawrence Power and Philip Dukes lend an almost orchestral sonority to the superb playing of The Nash Ensemble, beautifully caught by producer Andrew Keener' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Two less-often-heard works by a great composer make a tuneful programme, well played by the Nash Ensemble' (Daily Mail)

'Throughout the Nash musicians are superb, and in particular the central viola parts come through well. The performers bring a commendable sense of purpose and togetherness that gives these works a youthful vigour, and in the case of Opus 29, shows how Beethoven was really starting to flex his compositional muscles. The recorded sound is excellent, too' (ClassicalSource.com)

String Quintets Op 4 & 29
Allegro con brio  [10'15]
Andante  [7'28]
Presto  [5'45]
Allegro moderato  [10'09]

Britain’s most versatile chamber ensemble turns its attention to two works from seminal moments in Beethoven’s career.

Beethoven’s String Quintet in E flat major Op 4 is a radical rethinking and expansion of an Octet for pairs of wind instruments which was written in Vienna in 1793 where there was an insatiable demand for jolly alfresco wind band music. In 1795 Beethoven transformed the work by setting it for strings, making it suaver and more sophisticated. Throughout the Quintet, and especially in the first movement, the textures are at once lighter and more flexible than those of the Octet, full of the free, informal contrapuntal interplay that is among the glories of the Viennese classical style.

With Beethoven’s String Quintet in C major Op 29, his sole work conceived for the medium, we move to 1801 and the final phase of his so-called ‘first period’. This strangely neglected masterpiece is Janus-headed, at once retrospective and prophetic. He never wrote a more voluptuously Mozartian slow movement than the Adagio molto espressivo. On the other hand, the tranquil expansiveness and harmonic breadth of the quintet’s first movement prefigure masterpieces like the first ‘Razumovsky’ String Quartet, Op 59 No 1, and the ‘Archduke’ Piano Trio.


Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Like Haydn, Mozart and countless lesser composers before him, the young Beethoven satisfied the eighteenth-century taste for Harmoniemusik (i.e. music for wind band) with several cheerful, divertimento-like works for assorted instrumental combinations. The most substantial of these was the Octet for pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns begun in Bonn in 1792 and completed some time early in 1793, shortly after his arrival in Vienna, where there was an insatiable demand for alfresco wind-band music. Two years later, Beethoven returned to the still unpublished Octet (it would appear in print, as Op 103, only after his death) and recast it as a string quintet with two violas, as Mozart had done with his own Octet, the Serenade in C minor K388. But there is a crucial difference: whereas Mozart’s quintet is a more or less strict transcription, Beethoven’s String Quintet in E flat major Op 4 is a radical rethinking and expansion of the Octet original. He had matured rapidly as a composer between 1792 and 1795, not least because of his intensive contact with Haydn’s latest symphonies and string quartets (and we should take with several pinches of salt Beethoven’s much-quoted remark that he had learnt nothing from his lessons with Haydn during 1793). In every respect the String Quintet is a more mature piece of work than the Octet: suaver, more sophisticated, and far more intricately crafted.

It was typical of Beethoven by 1795 that ‘thematic work’ should pervade the whole musical fabric, with routine accompanying figuration kept to a minimum. Throughout the Quintet, and especially in the first movement, the textures are at once lighter and more flexible than those of the Octet, full of the free, informal contrapuntal interplay that is among the glories of the Viennese classical style as perfected by Haydn and Mozart. No one could guess that this music—or large tracts of it—was not originally conceived for strings. The development, vastly expanded from the Octet original, is particularly characteristic, both in its exhilarating range of modulation and in the way the main theme’s wriggling semiquaver motif dominates virtually every stage of the musical argument. After heralding the recapitulation at length with the cello’s ‘pedal’ B flat, Beethoven delays its arrival for a few bars by slipping to the remote, ‘Neapolitan’ key of E major—an exquisite moment of harmonic deception.

The Andante second movement, in B flat major, is a relaxed serenade written against the background of a siciliano, though here too there are harmonic surprises, of a kind that Beethoven surely learnt from Haydn. In the brief central development the music immediately dips from F major to a dusky D flat major, and then proceeds to modulate, astonishingly, as far afield as A minor. Although marked, rather curiously, Menuetto più Allegretto, the third movement is an early example of a Beethoven scherzo, with a touch of cussed humour in his treatment of a ubiquitous rising staccato scale figure that distantly pre-echoes the scherzo of the Ninth Symphony. Here Beethoven enlarged the Octet original not only by expanding the phrase structure but also by adding a second trio section: marked sempre dolce e piano, this reduces the quintet to a quartet (with the second viola silent throughout) and, perhaps in homage to the minuet and trio of Mozart’s C minor Octet/Quintet, features stretches of sinuous canonic imitation. The poetic deflection to E major in the trio’s second half echoes the similar harmonic move at the end of the first movement’s development. The sonata-rondo finale also represents a drastic rethinking and enlargement of the Octet, with the frolicking main theme now expanded from twelve to twenty-eight bars, and a new first episode that exploits the theme’s comic potential and then keeps us guessing, à la Haydn, as to exact moment of its return.

With Beethoven’s String Quintet in C major Op 29, his sole work originally conceived for the medium, we move to 1801 and the final phase of his so-called ‘first period’. This strangely neglected masterpiece is Janus-headed, at once retrospective and prophetic. Although Beethoven did not model the work directly on any of Mozart’s string quintets, he never wrote a more voluptuously Mozartian slow movement than the Adagio molto espressivo. On the other hand, the tranquil expansiveness and harmonic breadth of the quintet’s first movement prefigure later masterpieces like the first ‘Razumovsky’ String Quartet, Op 59 No 1, and the ‘Archduke’ Piano Trio.

This opening Allegro moderato is the most spaciously conceived piece Beethoven had written to date, the enlargement of scale prompted, as in Mozart’s quintets, by the added richness and variety of texture created by the second viola. The movement’s tonal scheme, too, looks ahead to later Beethoven. The second theme, calm and lyrical, like the first, is set not in the expected dominant, G, but in the more remote submediant, A major, reached via A minor. Beethoven then turns poetically to F major—another modulation by thirds—before a reprise of the skittering triplet transition theme and the opening melody, now equivocating between A major and A minor. Consistent with the harmonic range of the exposition, the development, moving in unhurried sequences, is perhaps the most tonally far-reaching in early Beethoven, and contains a magnificently sonorous, quasi-orchestral statement of the main theme in a rich, exotic D flat major. The recapitulation is regular in outline but full of inventive new detail. In keeping with the scale of the whole movement, there is a grandly spacious coda which combines the main theme, the triplet figure and a new syncopated figure to produce a resplendent climax.

The sonata-form Adagio molto espressivo, in F major, has a similar lyric breadth. With its ornate Italianate lines and luxuriant richness of colour it is also one of the most sheerly sensuous movements that Beethoven ever wrote: listen, for instance, to the gorgeous rescoring of the main theme in the recapitulation. As in many Mozart slow movements, the development largely ignores the material of the exposition in favour of a new, impassioned cantilena, which is later recalled, with an added urgency, in the coda.

For all its bounding energy, the Scherzo has an air of genial relaxation, making humorous capital out of the insistent three-note arpeggio figure first heard in the very opening bar. The trio begins in F major (the key of the Adagio), but then sinks to D flat as Beethoven works the same three-note figure in a massively sonorous passage over a rustic drone in the second viola.

With its explosive pianissimo tremolos (a foretaste here of Schubert’s C minor Quartettsatz), and fragmentary, combustible main theme, enhanced by ‘lightning flashes’ on its restatement by the cello, the 6/8 finale has been nicknamed ‘The Storm’ in German-speaking countries. A childlike contrasting theme, almost a nursery tune, appears in A flat, a key as unorthodox as the A major of the first movement. In the development the ‘storm’ atmosphere returns with a vengeance, with snatches of the main theme contrapuntally combined with a pair of new ideas in 2/4 time. Then, with the tension barely dispelled, the tempo changes to Andante con moto e scherzoso, the key, significantly, to A major (the main secondary key of the first movement), for an exaggeratedly courtly minuet, its mincing gait comically punctuated by sudden forte chords. The storm then returns, leading quickly to a more-or-less orthodox recapitulation. But Beethoven has two more surprises up his sleeve: a repeat of the Andante, now in C major (and with the forte interruptions exaggerated to fortissimo), and a coda that plunges into A flat, the key of the innocent second subject, confirming yet again that the relationship of keys a third apart is a prime preoccupation of this marvellously inventive work.

Richard Wigmore © 2009

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