Beethoven: String Quartets, Op. 18 No 5 & Op. 59 No 1
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Movement 1: Allegro
Movement 2: Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando
Movement 3: Adagio molto e mesto
Movement 4: Thème Russe: Allegro
The three Quartets dedicated to Count Rasumovsky belong to 1806; the first of them, the F major, is the most expansive. Its first movement, indeed, ranks with that of the 'Eroica' as one of the broadest and deepest structures of his middle period — it blends the majesty and energy of the 'Eroica' with the serenity of the Violin Concerto. The Quartet also resembles the 'Eroica' in its slow movement, a kind of funeral march, in which, however, the grief is private rather than public. The largeness of the 'Eroica's first movement is dictated by a surprising C sharp in the bass near the beginning, something that can be explained away only after a long process. In the quartet, Beethoven faces us with a large expansion at the very start; the cello theme proliferates magnificently, and the first surprise comes only after we are already convinced that this is going to be a big movement.
The scale, in fact, is so great that (unlike the 'Eroica') this movement is compelled to feint at a repeat of the exposition; it returns to the tonic and the opening theme, only to veer off into foreign keys and the development.
There are a thousand things to notice in this wonderful movement, but one great stroke of genius should not go unremarked here. At length the wide-ranging development reaches the home dominant, the violin tracing serene triplets as it soars over the rising harmonies of the middle parts and the C pedal of the cello (bars 236-240). We reach the tonic, but with the 'wrong' theme. The mystification that follows is both poetic and structurally necessary, and creates the need for the superb gesture with which the recapitulation actually begins (bars 250-254).
The essentially calm first movement is followed by the most unusually constructed scherzo Beethoven ever wrote. There is no 'trio' and the whole is a kind of sonata movement of extraordinary irregularity, dominated by the cello's opening rhythmic figure, some of whose recurrences have an almost rondo-like effect. There are many themes, and many strange modulations in unexpected places. In this fascinatingly original piece lies the source of such widely differing things as the scherzos of Mendelssohn and Mahler. There is both pathos and humour in it, and its rather subdued quality is enhanced by its subdominant key, B flat, from which Beethoven drops naturally into the tonic minor (F minor) for the profound and dark Adagio. This scarely ever leaves minor tonalities (it has none of the bright contrasts of the Funeral March of the 'Eroica', and its second group is in C minor). A faint gleam of light occurs near the end, with running passages, and brightens into the brilliant F major Finale, based on a Russian folk song. Unlike some finales, this is a straightforward sonata movement, not a sonata-rondo, and unlike the first movement it finds room for a repeat of the exposition, with which it achieves the rondo-sense characteristic of many last movements. It has sometimes been asserted that in treating the main (Russian) tune as a lighthearted one, Beethoven mistook its real tempo, which is slow and sad. But Beethoven, near the end of the movement, tenderly and humorously reminds us that it is we who have been deceived.
from notes by Robert Simpson © 1990