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Hyperion Records

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Drifting Clouds (1824/5) by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840)
Hamburger Kunsthalle, Germany
Track(s) taken from CDA66406
Recording details: November 1990
Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Arthur Johnson
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: July 1991
Total duration: 42 minutes 16 seconds

String Quartet in A minor, Op 132

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Apart from its profoundly luminous slow movement, the A minor is the darkest of the late Quartets and its general character makes the Adagio seem to express an inner freedom from outward suffering. Yet the cruel blandness of the 'Alla marcia' that shatters its raptness is one of the boldest strokes in all music; Beethoven does not fail to face necessities and is able to do so without despair, though not without a sense of strain in the finale of this work. Another stroke beyond almost any other composer is Beethoven's daring confrontation in the Adagio of plain diatonic D major with the Lydian mode (F to F on the white notes of the piano) in which the movement is set. Such a risk as this would have been disastrous to a lesser composer — but no lesser composer would have dreamed of it.

The whole Quartet emerges from the first four notes of the cello — a chromatic phrase that is behind much of Op 131 too, and also Op 130. It originates in the early C minor String Trio, Op 9 No 3, and is one of many indications of the absolute continuity in the vast development of Beethoven's life's work. The first movement, by passing through two recapitulations before entering a coda, gives the impression of dark circling. This sense is confirmed by the persistent figuration of the second movement, but there the tightness of its thematic economy (parsimony almost) is offset by a freely expanding, ethereally folk-like Trio. Beethoven at the end of his life was still able to offer simple nursery-rhyme melodies, invested with mysterious sublimity without compromising their naivety.

The great 'Molto adagio' is one of the supreme utterances in music. The old church modes had always interested him but became a positive force in his later work — we find them in the Mass in D and the Ninth Symphony. But here the phenomenon is not only musically more explicit — it is named, and consciously aimed at producing the effect of remote, still contemplation. All the more amazing, then, is the D major section ('feeling new strength') with its keen F sharp and C sharp after the naturals of the Lydian music and its 'normal' reliance on classical tonic and dominant. The Lydian part is based on a chorale, or perhaps chant, wonderfully and increasingly elaborated ('illuminated' in the old monastic sense) at each return after the D major. The Lydian mode from F to F, without sharps or flats, must to classical ears seem at times to gravitate in the direction of C major, and Beethoven takes full advantage of this ambiguity, impossible in the days when the modes had no connotations other than their own. At length a great climax of contemplative intensity is achieved from which the music floats away into space.

A deep shock is administered by the little A major march that follows without transition — down to earth with a vengeance. This is succeeded by recitatives that recall the Ninth Symphony, for which they were originally intended. Indeed, the final heartbreakingly beautiful Rondo of this Quartet was at first sketched as an instrumental finale for the Symphony, presumably at one stage envisaged by the composer as ending far from joyfully. Here pain is never far off, but the defeat of despair by the effortful brightness of the A major coda seems to recall some of Mozart's last-minute transformations of minor into major, now informed with a new kind of wild intensity, conveyed with high originality by switching the registers of viola and cello.

from notes by Robert Simpson © 1991

Other albums featuring this work
'Beethoven: String Quartets' (CDH55021/8)
Beethoven: String Quartets
MP3 £24.99FLAC £24.99ALAC £24.99 CDH55021/8  8CDs Helios (Hyperion's budget label) — Deleted  
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