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Hyperion Records

CDA67745 - Beethoven: Piano Quartet & String Quintet
A large enclosure near Dresden by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840)
Galerie Neue Meister, Dresden, Germany / © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDA67745

Recording details: June 2008
St Paul's Church, Deptford, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: June 2009
Total duration: 69 minutes 56 seconds

'The Nash musicians play everything so delightfully, with such perfect control and subtle shadings … the String Quintet offers the best music: as for playing, the crown's won by Lawrence Power and Paul Watkins in the Duo' (The Times)

'As one would expect, the performances by The Nash Ensemble are exemplary—in the Quartet, the superb Ian Brown is as ever the epitome of how a pianist should approach the performance of chamber music (listening to colleagues and integrating with them), but his string-playing colleagues are every bit attuned to the music and each other, Lawrence Power and Paul Watkins enjoying the domesticity of the 'royal duo'' (ClassicalSource.com)

Piano Quartet & String Quintet
Allegro con brio  [9'51]
Prestissimo  [8'20]
Allegro  [9'09]
Minuetto  [4'38]

The Nash Ensemble continues its critically acclaimed survey of Beethoven’s rarer chamber music in an intriguing new disc.

The String Quintet Op 104 is an arrangement of Beethoven’s revolutionary Piano Trio No 3, a work which shocked contemporary listeners. Beethoven’s brilliance as an arranger is not perhaps his most well-known musical characteristic, but it is vividly apparent here; the transformation from piano to string writing ushering in an explosion of colour. The music is profoundly Beethovenian in its abrupt, extreme contrasts, violent rhetoric alternating with intense pathos and yearning lyricism. The famous heroic narratives of Beethoven’s ‘middle period’ are already in view. The Piano Quartet in E flat major Op 16 is an arrangement of his Quintet for piano and winds (also Op 16), and owes a debt to Mozart in general and his piano and wind quintet in particular. However Beethoven’s voice and methods remain his own. Mozart had subtly interwoven the piano and the wind quartet. Beethoven, working on a more expansive scale, sets them in opposition, so that the outer movements at times resemble a chamber concerto for piano.

The disc is completed by a delightful miniature, which reveals the young firebrand composer at his most graceful and amenable. Impeccable recorded sound and matchless performances make this an unmissable disc for chamber music enthusiasts.


Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
When the twenty-one-year-old Beethoven arrived in Vienna from his native Bonn in November 1792, the omens could hardly have been more favourable. Haydn, whom he had met in Bonn, had taken him on as a pupil, with all the cachet that implied; and through the recommendation of Count Waldstein, and Haydn’s own contacts, the headstrong sans-culotte gained immediate access to the palaces and salons of the musically cultivated Viennese aristocracy. As Beethoven’s own pupil Carl Czerny later put it, the youthful composer-virtuoso ‘received all kinds of support from our high aristocracy, and enjoyed as much care and respect as were ever enjoyed by a young artist’.

Within weeks of his arrival in the imperial capital Beethoven became a house guest of his principal patron Prince Karl Lichnowsky, a talented amateur pianist who kept his own string quartet. The Prince held regular private soirées at which Beethoven would astonish the company with his brilliant keyboard improvisations; and it was at one of these occasions that he chose to introduce his first important Viennese compositions, the set of three piano trios which he published by subscription in August 1795 with a dedication to Lichnowsky. His erstwhile teacher Haydn, recently returned from his second triumphant London visit, was present, and warmly praised the E flat and G major trios. But he suggested that the third trio, in C minor, would not be easily understood by the Viennese public—a well-intentioned remark that the ever-touchy Beethoven put down to envy.

Beethoven was determined to impress and challenge the Viennese musical elite with his first published opus. And with their weighty four-movement structures and urgency of musical dialectic, the Op 1 trios must have seemed like a full-frontal assault on the traditional notion of the piano trio: what had been an intimate domestic medium in Mozart’s and Haydn’s hands suddenly became a symphony for three instruments. In the first two trios Beethoven’s subversiveness was still cloaked in the language of the classical comedy of manners. But in the C minor, No 3, it erupted in a work of startling explosive vehemence and dark lyric beauty.

While it may have shocked some of its early listeners, Haydn included, the C minor Trio gradually became one of Beethoven’s most popular chamber works. More than two decades later, in 1817, an amateur composer named Herr Kaufmann submitted to him an arrangement he had made for string quintet, with two violas. Beethoven had it copied out, decided he could do better, and made wholesale improvements to the part-writing. At the top of the score he wrote a jokey, ironic preface, mocking Kaufmann’s efforts as a ‘three-voice quintet’ which he had raised ‘from the greatest wretchedness to some respectability’, sacrificing the original ‘as a solemn burnt offering to the gods of the underworld’.

Beethoven did not jettison Kaufmann’s ideas altogether; and the final arrangement, published in 1819 as Op 104, was thus something of a composite effort. The first violin line occasionally betrays its keyboard origins. Yet for the most part the quintet arrangement sounds thoroughly idiomatic, with the most obviously pianistic passages recast for strings and the textures enriched by many touches of imitation. Beethoven’s only, minor, structural change was in the finale, where the recapitulation was originally introduced by a flamboyant chromatic scale for the keyboard—a kind of mini-cadenza. For the quintet arrangement this lead-back becomes ‘thematic’ rather than decorative: the lower parts sound the first four notes of the main theme, while the chromatic scale, now in the first violin, is reduced from eight bars to four.

The mysterious, ‘pregnant’ unison opening (deprived of its initial ‘turn’ in the quintet version) is, coincidentally or not, reminiscent of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in the same key, K491, a work Beethoven is said to have greatly admired. But the music is profoundly Beethovenian in its abrupt, extreme contrasts, with violent rhetoric (the first page alone is peppered with sforzando accents) alternating with intense pathos and yearning lyricism. The famous heroic narratives of Beethoven’s ‘middle period’ are already in view. There is a thrilling moment at the start of the development where the original pianissimo echo of the main theme a step higher now moves a semitone lower, spiriting the music to a strange new tonal region (C flat major, enharmonically spelt as B major). It is typical of Beethoven, at any period, that the quiet opening phrase returns as a strenuous fortissimo at the start of the recapitulation. Then, in perhaps the most breathtaking stroke of all, the music slips first into C major, pianissimo, with the cello taking the lead (imitated in the quintet arrangement by the first violin), and then into the ‘Neapolitan’ key of D flat for a new cantabile development of the main theme.

After this high-pressure sonata drama, the slow movement, a set of variations in E flat on one of Beethoven’s characteristically plain, hymn-like themes, lowers the tension. But there are plenty of inventive, authentically Beethovenian moments: the boisterous third variation, with its brusque sforzando accents and twanging pizzicatos; the fourth, in E flat minor, initiated by a plangent cello solo; or the coda, beginning with a rich chromatic reworking of the theme.

The third movement, somewhere between a minuet and a scherzo, returns to the agitated, explosive C minor world of the first movement. In the C major trio section Beethoven has fun roughing up the cello’s lilting Ländler melody—enriched in the quintet version by a countermelody for second viola—with cussed offbeat accents. The Prestissimo finale (the tempo marking is typical of the young Beethoven’s determination to be ‘extreme’) juxtaposes violence, suppressed agitation and, in the E flat second theme, lyrical tenderness. In the recapitulation the second theme turns from C major to C minor, with deeply pathetic effect. The astonishing coda, held down to pianissimo for most of its eighty-seven bars, slips mysteriously to B minor and then moves, via C minor and F minor, to C major. But the ending is uneasy and equivocal, with minimal sense of resolution (the recent memory of F minor is too strong for that), let alone of major-keyed optimism.

During his early years of unalloyed success in Vienna, Beethoven was understandably cautious about tackling the elevated genres of the string quartet and the symphony, in which Haydn, then still at the height of his powers, particularly excelled. But he was confident enough to risk head-on comparison with the recently dead Mozart in works such as the first two piano concertos, the E flat String Trio Op 3 (modelled on Mozart’s Trio K563) and a clutch of chamber works involving wind instruments.

The example of Mozart’s masterly Quintet for piano and wind, K452, clearly lies behind Beethoven’s own Quintet for the same combination (piano, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn), probably completed during his triumphant visit to Berlin in the summer of 1796 (though it may have been begun as early as 1794) and premiered at a concert at Ignaz Jahn’s restaurant in Vienna on 6 April 1797. To maximize sales, Beethoven quickly arranged it, with minimal reworking, as a piano quartet (the keyboard part is unaltered, though the strings sometimes play where the wind were silent). Both versions were published together as Op 16 in 1801.

While this genial, urbane music owes a debt to Mozart in general and his piano and wind quintet in particular, Beethoven’s voice and methods remain his own. Mozart had subtly interwoven the piano and the wind quartet. Beethoven, working on a more expansive scale, sets them in opposition, so that the outer movements at times resemble a chamber concerto for piano. Beethoven follows Mozart’s plan of opening with a majestic slow introduction, though, typically, his rhetoric is more emphatic. One difference between the quintet version and the piano quartet arrangement is that whereas the leisurely cantabile themes of the Allegro ma non troppo were originally presented as keyboard solos, now the strings join in discreetly midway through. The development immediately transforms the exposition’s final cadence in a mock-stormy C minor, with explosive scales from the piano and cussed offbeat accents, before a series of tense string dialogues against rippling keyboard figuration. Where Mozart rounds off his first movement with a tiny tailpiece, Beethoven, characteristically, balances his substantial development with a seventy-bar coda.

The Andante cantabile is a simple rondo design in which increasingly florid appearances of the main theme enfold two contrasting episodes in G minor and B flat minor. As in the first movement, a melody that had originally been a piano solo now acquires string accompaniment halfway through. The first episode opens as a plangent duet for violin and cello, their lines more elaborately ornamented than in the wind original, while in similar fashion the B flat minor episode recasts what was originally a noble horn solo as a more florid melody for viola.

For his finale Beethoven follows the examples of Mozart (in the horn concertos and several piano concertos) and his own B flat Piano Concerto (No 2) and writes a bouncy ‘hunting’ rondo in 6/8 time, doubtless prompted by the presence of the horn in the original ensemble. There are hints of Beethovenian truculence in the central episode, where the rondo theme suddenly erupts in E flat minor. But otherwise the mood is one of unbridled exuberance, right down to the teasing coda, where a tiny snatch of the main theme in the keyboard repeatedly provokes overlapping echoes in the violin—a charming detail that Beethoven added for the piano quartet version.

The other, far slighter, work on this disc was born in a spirit of friendship. Baron Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanowecz, a talented amateur cellist (and the frequent butt of Beethoven’s notorious ‘unbuttoned’ humour), was one of several aristocratic friends who regularly advised the composer in practical matters such as where to obtain the best quills. Beethoven would later reward him with the dedication of the F minor String Quartet, Op 95. Much earlier, during the autumn of 1796, he had written for Zmeskall the jokily titled ‘Duet with two obbligato eyeglasses’ in E flat for viola, played by the composer himself, and cello—a reference to the fact that both men needed to wear glasses while playing. Like the contemporaneous Piano Quartet, the two completed movements of the ‘Eyeglass’ Duo, an Allegro and minuet (a brief sketch for a slow movement survives), reveal the young firebrand at his most gracious and amenable. From the outset, with the main theme sounded first by viola, then by cello, the two instruments are treated as absolute equals. In the minuet, with its pawky canonic trio, Beethoven suddenly pulls the rug from under the listener’s feet by veering from E flat to a remote C flat—just the kind of comic-mysterious effect he had learnt from Haydn.

Richard Wigmore © 2009

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