Hyperion Records

String Quintet in E flat major, Op 4
1795; radical reworking of the 1792/3 Octet in E flat major, Op 103

'Beethoven: String Quintets Op 4 & 29' (CDA67693)
Beethoven: String Quintets Op 4 & 29
Movement 1: Allegro con brio
Movement 2: Andante
Movement 3: Menuetto più Allegretto – Trio
Movement 4: Presto

String Quintet in E flat major, Op 4
Like Haydn, Mozart and countless lesser composers before him, the young Beethoven satisfied the eighteenth-century taste for Harmoniemusik (i.e. music for wind band) with several cheerful, divertimento-like works for assorted instrumental combinations. The most substantial of these was the Octet for pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns begun in Bonn in 1792 and completed some time early in 1793, shortly after his arrival in Vienna, where there was an insatiable demand for alfresco wind-band music. Two years later, Beethoven returned to the still unpublished Octet (it would appear in print, as Op 103, only after his death) and recast it as a string quintet with two violas, as Mozart had done with his own Octet, the Serenade in C minor K388. But there is a crucial difference: whereas Mozart’s quintet is a more or less strict transcription, Beethoven’s String Quintet in E flat major Op 4 is a radical rethinking and expansion of the Octet original. He had matured rapidly as a composer between 1792 and 1795, not least because of his intensive contact with Haydn’s latest symphonies and string quartets (and we should take with several pinches of salt Beethoven’s much-quoted remark that he had learnt nothing from his lessons with Haydn during 1793). In every respect the String Quintet is a more mature piece of work than the Octet: suaver, more sophisticated, and far more intricately crafted.

It was typical of Beethoven by 1795 that ‘thematic work’ should pervade the whole musical fabric, with routine accompanying figuration kept to a minimum. Throughout the Quintet, and especially in the first movement, the textures are at once lighter and more flexible than those of the Octet, full of the free, informal contrapuntal interplay that is among the glories of the Viennese classical style as perfected by Haydn and Mozart. No one could guess that this music—or large tracts of it—was not originally conceived for strings. The development, vastly expanded from the Octet original, is particularly characteristic, both in its exhilarating range of modulation and in the way the main theme’s wriggling semiquaver motif dominates virtually every stage of the musical argument. After heralding the recapitulation at length with the cello’s ‘pedal’ B flat, Beethoven delays its arrival for a few bars by slipping to the remote, ‘Neapolitan’ key of E major—an exquisite moment of harmonic deception.

The Andante second movement, in B flat major, is a relaxed serenade written against the background of a siciliano, though here too there are harmonic surprises, of a kind that Beethoven surely learnt from Haydn. In the brief central development the music immediately dips from F major to a dusky D flat major, and then proceeds to modulate, astonishingly, as far afield as A minor. Although marked, rather curiously, Menuetto più Allegretto, the third movement is an early example of a Beethoven scherzo, with a touch of cussed humour in his treatment of a ubiquitous rising staccato scale figure that distantly pre-echoes the scherzo of the Ninth Symphony. Here Beethoven enlarged the Octet original not only by expanding the phrase structure but also by adding a second trio section: marked sempre dolce e piano, this reduces the quintet to a quartet (with the second viola silent throughout) and, perhaps in homage to the minuet and trio of Mozart’s C minor Octet/Quintet, features stretches of sinuous canonic imitation. The poetic deflection to E major in the trio’s second half echoes the similar harmonic move at the end of the first movement’s development. The sonata-rondo finale also represents a drastic rethinking and enlargement of the Octet, with the frolicking main theme now expanded from twelve to twenty-eight bars, and a new first episode that exploits the theme’s comic potential and then keeps us guessing, à la Haydn, as to exact moment of its return.

from notes by Richard Wigmore © 2009

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