Movement 1: Allegro con brio
Movement 2: Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato
Movement 3: Scherzo: Allegro molto
Movement 4: Allegro
The first movement is one of the most succinct and muscular statements in early Beethoven, and the first figure generates a remarkable range of growth. The directness and simplicity of its beginning did not come all at once; the sketches show that it had to be hammered out, and the way its terseness serves to make room for later expansion foreshadows the extraordinary achievement of Op 95. Notice how the little turning figure in the first theme is soon overlaid by a new counterpoint and then, as the music moves to the dominant, the second group floats and expands (with gentle syncopations) in a way we might not have supposed possible in a piece with so crisp a start. In the revision the development was drastically altered in its range of modulation and the perfection of its part-writing — of all the Opus 18 Quartets, this shows most democracy between the instruments.
Beethoven told Amenda that when composing the slow movement he had Romeo and Juliet in mind. He more than once responded to the promptings of Shakespeare but, as with the 'Pastoral' Symphony, would have insisted that the result was 'more an expression of feeling than painting'. This passionate D minor movement has something in common with the 'Largo e mesto' of the piano sonata in D, op 10 no 3. Both spaciously express a sense of tragedy beyond the ken of any of Beethoven's predecessors except Gluck, and the Quartet movement has a new refinement of sound, partly due to the way in which the composer removed many of the more vehement markings of the first version. The fining down of the dynamics makes all the more striking the intense outburst towards the end.
After this the Scherzo, far from being the usual release of energy after the restraints of a slow movement, is almost soothing. This is another sign of maturity — a quality we must never underestimate in Beethoven's early masterpieces. Too often his Opus 18 Quartets are patronisingly treated as the promising products of a student of genius, and we must not forget that already Beethoven is active in a territory unpredictable even by Haydn and Mozart. When these works were first heard the impression was of disconcerting but dazzling mastery of novel ideas. By the time this F major Quartet appeared, audiences were prepared for a fiercely aggressive Beethoven scherzo, so the quiet nature of this one provided a new kind of surprise, not contradicted by the abrupt humour of the humorously modulating Trio with its skipping octaves. In this Scherzo there is, as Basil Lam says, an element of 'unrest that links it with the first half of the Quartet' — but it is also an easement towards the rondo Finale.
When he revised it, Beethoven changed the marking for the Finale from 'Allegretto' to 'Allegro'. This means that he first thought of a not excessive speed, but may have felt that 'Allegretto' suggested too slow a pace. The 'Allegro' marking does not really mean 'very fast' (we have to remember that the literal meaning of the word is cheerful' or 'lively' — not quick) and there is great risk to the detail if the piece is rushed; its rhythmic vitality is the stronger for not being hurried. The quicksilver first subject is contrasted with singing elements that give the piece great spaciousness, and in this respect it balances the first movement. The development shows Beethoven's already great mastery of polyphony, a skill for which he has not always been given the credit. To the academics smoothness used to be the only acceptable attribute of good counterpoint.
from notes by Robert Simpson © 1990