Movement 1: Allegro moderato
Movement 2: Adagio molto espressivo
Movement 3: Scherzo: Allegro – Trio
Movement 4: Presto – Andante con moto e scherzoso – Tempo I
This opening Allegro moderato is the most spaciously conceived piece Beethoven had written to date, the enlargement of scale prompted, as in Mozart’s quintets, by the added richness and variety of texture created by the second viola. The movement’s tonal scheme, too, looks ahead to later Beethoven. The second theme, calm and lyrical, like the first, is set not in the expected dominant, G, but in the more remote submediant, A major, reached via A minor. Beethoven then turns poetically to F major—another modulation by thirds—before a reprise of the skittering triplet transition theme and the opening melody, now equivocating between A major and A minor. Consistent with the harmonic range of the exposition, the development, moving in unhurried sequences, is perhaps the most tonally far-reaching in early Beethoven, and contains a magnificently sonorous, quasi-orchestral statement of the main theme in a rich, exotic D flat major. The recapitulation is regular in outline but full of inventive new detail. In keeping with the scale of the whole movement, there is a grandly spacious coda which combines the main theme, the triplet figure and a new syncopated figure to produce a resplendent climax.
The sonata-form Adagio molto espressivo, in F major, has a similar lyric breadth. With its ornate Italianate lines and luxuriant richness of colour it is also one of the most sheerly sensuous movements that Beethoven ever wrote: listen, for instance, to the gorgeous rescoring of the main theme in the recapitulation. As in many Mozart slow movements, the development largely ignores the material of the exposition in favour of a new, impassioned cantilena, which is later recalled, with an added urgency, in the coda.
For all its bounding energy, the Scherzo has an air of genial relaxation, making humorous capital out of the insistent three-note arpeggio figure first heard in the very opening bar. The trio begins in F major (the key of the Adagio), but then sinks to D flat as Beethoven works the same three-note figure in a massively sonorous passage over a rustic drone in the second viola.
With its explosive pianissimo tremolos (a foretaste here of Schubert’s C minor Quartettsatz), and fragmentary, combustible main theme, enhanced by ‘lightning flashes’ on its restatement by the cello, the 6/8 finale has been nicknamed ‘The Storm’ in German-speaking countries. A childlike contrasting theme, almost a nursery tune, appears in A flat, a key as unorthodox as the A major of the first movement. In the development the ‘storm’ atmosphere returns with a vengeance, with snatches of the main theme contrapuntally combined with a pair of new ideas in 2/4 time. Then, with the tension barely dispelled, the tempo changes to Andante con moto e scherzoso, the key, significantly, to A major (the main secondary key of the first movement), for an exaggeratedly courtly minuet, its mincing gait comically punctuated by sudden forte chords. The storm then returns, leading quickly to a more-or-less orthodox recapitulation. But Beethoven has two more surprises up his sleeve: a repeat of the Andante, now in C major (and with the forte interruptions exaggerated to fortissimo), and a coda that plunges into A flat, the key of the innocent second subject, confirming yet again that the relationship of keys a third apart is a prime preoccupation of this marvellously inventive work.
from notes by Richard Wigmore © 2009