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String Quartet in E minor, Op 59 No 2
1806; dedicated to Count Razumovsky

'Beethoven: String Quartets Op 59 Nos 2 & 3' (CDA66404)
Beethoven: String Quartets Op 59 Nos 2 & 3
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Beethoven: String Quartets
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Movement 1: Allegro
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Movement 2: Molto adagio
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Movement 3: Allegretto
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Movement 4: Finale: Presto
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String Quartet in E minor, Op 59 No 2
The second Razumovskv Quartet gives vent, perhaps, to some of the nervous tension that begins to show itself in the Scherzo of the first. Like another even more tense later Quartet, Op 132 in A minor, it has a deeply contemplative slow movement, but in this case not entirely immune to stress. The first movement starts tersely with two sharp chords, tonic and dominant, showing once more how Beethoven can individualize the commonest material. This movement lives on high contrasts, often brought about by semitonal juxtapositions. The first of these (F major quietly challenging E minor) characterises the opening theme. This semitonal tension pervades the whole quartet, and another manifestation of it is the use of C against the dominant B. C major dominates the climax of the development, and becomes important later in the work. In this first movement Beethoven (as in the last two Opus 18 Quartets) directs the whole development and recapitulation to be repeated as well as the exposition, with startling effect each second time. This creates a vast circling effect, against which the calm expanses of the Adagio are all the more impressive and to which its moments of intensity refer.

The semitone E-D sharp is crucial towards the end of the first movement, and it begins the very different Adagio. The semitone is also the basis of the very intense climactic harmonization of the slow movement's main theme, highly chromatic but entirely without self-indulgence.

In the third movement Beethoven avoids his 'normal' scherzo (in fact none of the Razumovsky Quartets has a typical Beethoven scherzo), instead producing an Allegretto in which the semitonal phenomenon is again pervasive. There is a twice-heard Trio in E major, where the requested 'Thème Russe' occurs. As in the F major Quartet, Beethoven perpetrates a joke on the dedicatee — the Russian tune is stately and dignified (think of the Coronation Scene in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov where it is magnificently used) but Beethoven treats it skittishly, even subjecting it to rough counterpoint that doesn't 'work', before atoning with an exquisite softening of the blow.

The C major that invaded the first movement's development now begins the wildly Slavic finale and almost succeeds in rendering the main key of E minor unstable. Every time the first theme recurs, C major, not E minor, is prepared, and at length Beethoven, with wry humour, makes the movement seem to run away from the effect: 'No - not that again! ' All this is a splendidly imaginative way of preventing the wrong kind of monotony when all four movements are in the same key, minor or major. Curiously enough, the four important works of Beethoven in the key of E minor or major (the others are all piano sonatas — Op 14 No 1, Op 90, and Op 109) all have this monotonal design.

from notes by Robert Simpson © 1991

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