Movement 1: Poco adagio – Allegro
Movement 2: Adagio, ma non troppo
Movement 3: Presto – Più presto quasi prestissimo
Movement 4: Allegretto con variazioni – Un poco più vivace – Allegro
The Quartet (which has been labelled 'The Harp' on account of some arpeggiando pizzicato passages in the first movement) opens with a contemplative introduction in which the key of E flat is made to have introspective tendencies, with a pull towards the sober subdominant, A flat, in which key the slow movement will fall. The Allegro, dignified and confident, immediately displays a similar tendency towards the subdominant and the celebrated pizzicati soon follow. The development contains a wonderfully exultant C major treatment of the main theme, and the coda creates one of the most original and powerful passages in quartet writing — the first violin breaks out into brilliant bravura, as if he were suddenly the soloist in a concerto, and while he lets fly the texture thrillingly deepens and solidifies beneath until the four instruments sound as if the whole world is singing.
The gentle A flat slow movement is a rondo, the beautiful main melody recurring at intervals, with episodes that tend to melancholy, This music is essentially innocent and direct, and attempts to overstress it always defeat themselves. Then comes a very strong C minor Scherzo, its rhythm reminding us of the Fifth Symphony, the suggestion reinforced by a rushing C major Trio. The parallel with the Symphony becomes even more striking when the Scherzo recedes into a breathless pianissimo that shows signs of behaving like the famous link into the Symphony's finale.
The allusion is genuine, but ironic. Beethoven is clearly making affectionate fun of the earlier drama, and instead of a blazing finale (as much as to say 'There's no brass in a string quartet! ') we have some delightfully resourceful variations on a deceptively accented theme. These variations, in their unobtrusive way, contain shrewd prophecies, as anyone who knows his Brahms will confirm. The last movement of Brahms's B flat Quartet, Op 67, might almost be described as a variation on Beethoven's variations, theme and all. If you remember the Brahms, listen especially to Beethoven's variation with viola solo, and to the one with persistent triplets on the cello. Brahms obviously could not resist anything so Brahmsian.
from notes by Robert Simpson © 1991