Movement 1: Allegro con brio
Movement 2: Allegretto ma non troppo
Movement 3: Allegro assai vivace ma serioso – Più allegro
Movement 4: Larghetto espressivo – Allegretto agitato – Allegro
Beethoven called Op 95 'Quartetto serioso' — a curious step to take when so many of his works could scarcely be said to lack seriousness, and the fact that he showed at first some reluctance to let the work be published suggests it held for him some special significance at which we can only guess. It is one of the most compact of all his works and his shortest quartet; yet it has an astonishing variety and scope both of character and material, achieved through a power of suggestion that contrives to create space where there seems not enough to contain all these things. The amazingly terse opening has a rhythmic subtlety that causes its answer on the flat supertonic (a semitone higher) suddenly to withdraw — the mysterious harmonies that follow already create a sense of space and when Beethoven comes to the second theme he is able to allow it to expand, almost with leisure, without the slightest suggestion of diffuseness. This is composition of the very greatest order. The first movement is unusually short but gives the impression of incalculable dimensions and limitless power.
The remarkable Allegretto is in the remote key of D major and contains two main elements — a cantabile main theme and a second subject treated as a highly individual and expressive fugato. Deeply disturbed polyphony dominates the heart of the movement, and during this time there is a passage of astounding non-contrapuntal modulations followed by another fugato where the theme gets shorter and shorter, losing notes from the tail backwards — a phenomenon probably unique in classical music. This passage, seeming to lose its subject, prepares the way for the return of the first theme. But the fugato theme is not altogether lost — it reappears later in the lower parts, rising briefly to the surface as part of the melodic flow of the 'main' theme before vanishing again. The end is inconclusive and the Scherzo breaks in abruptly.
Beethoven does not call it a scherzo. He used this term only literally, when humour or wit was intended. There is no humour in this fierce piece, nor in the wonderful Trio, unlike anything else in quartet literature and also unique in occurring twice in different forms, the second time with even more marvellous modulations than before. The final statement of the blunt Scherzo is sharply truncated and speeded up.
The finale opens with a short but deeply elegiac introduction, leading to a movement of extraordinary tortuous grace — a dance of despair, some might think, anticipating in some ways the last movement of the late A minor Quartet. But despair is not an element in Beethoven's art. Profoundly disturbing as he can be, he cannot express mere depression, for the human energy of his work is irrepressible, breaking through the most terrible agonies of his life and prodigious creative efforts. This is one of the works where he achieves the apparent impossibility of totally convincing dissociation — in this case in the gloriously fleet and elated F major coda. What does it mean? We have already thought of a possible extra-musical explanation, but it doesn't have to 'mean' anything except the miracle it performs. The other great works in which dissociation is a positive and paradoxically unifying force — on a much greater scale — are the last piano sonata in C minor, Op 111, and the late B flat Quartet, Op 130. The F minor Quartet and the Egmont Overture are the first notable examples of this phenomenon, of which Beethoven was the first and perhaps the only master.
from notes by Robert Simpson © 1991