Movement 1: Allegro
Movement 2: Adagio cantabile – Allegro
Movement 3: Scherzo: Allegro
Movement 4: Allegro molto quasi presto
Beethoven's first movement starts with a delightful exchange of phrases that deceptively adopts eighteenth-century manners. But we must take care about this — the second phrase turns up again in the Scherzo of the late C sharp minor Quartet. As we shall see, Beethoven was able throughout his life to use the simplest material to the profoundest ends. In this case any profundity lies in the subtlety with which he is able to manipulate light-textured matter — perhaps we are apt to forget that a mosquito has unfathomable such profundities! Be that as it may, Beethoven does not altogether eschew emotionally deeper suggestions, as in the pianissimo change to E flat in the development, with a mysterious fugato; but it is abruptly dismissed, and the movement resumes its witty course, Coming soon to an astonishingly concentrated yet broad approach to the recapitulation.
The C major Adagio is plain sailing, if one can so describe the concertante decorations of the first violin, joined by the cello in the reprise. Harmonically it avoids 'expression' like the plague. The plainness recalls the Haydn slow finale already mentioned, not least because Haydn also interrupts his slow music with a presto that sounds like another movement, the interruption suggesting the slow movement to have been a protracted introduction to a quick finale which, however, quickly evaporates, leaving the Adagio in full possession to the end. In the second movement of a four-movement Quartet, Beethoven makes his quick section pose as the premature arrival of a scherzo, and in returning to the slow music he does not aspire to the immense gravity of Haydn. Perhaps Beethoven's light-hearted, even sardonic allusion slightly misfires if we draw too close a parallel, and so long as we are not expecting a deep slow movement (of which we know Beethoven to be capable even in his early period) we can accept this piece as an easy going relaxation during a comedy.
The real Scherzo is brilliantly unpredictable, thematically and harmonically, with a C major trio employing sparkling triplets, from which a link leads back to the return. Beethoven's early scherzos show amazing variety and resource, the answer to Haydn's wistful 'I wish someone would show us a new way to write minuets'. Some of them would not surprise us in much later works.
Beethoven's Finale shows what he has learnt from Haydn, who would greatly have admired what it makes of manifold witty inversions and diminutions of its first three notes. This vividly humorous movement also shows what can be done by constant flexibility in contrasting textures and phrase-lengths in music that nothing can hinder as it hurtles by. In the Finale of the G major String Trio, op 9 no 1, we find Beethoven using groups of three notes with astonishing resource, and although at least one of its themes could easily have occurred in the Quartet, he does not repeat a single device from the earlier work.
from notes by Robert Simpson © 1990