Hyperion Records

String Quintet in C minor, Op 104
1817; first performed on 10 December 1818; published in 1819; Beethoven's arrangement (after a rejected one by Kaufmann) for Quintet of his Piano Trio in C minor, Op 1 No 3, published in August 1795

'Beethoven: Piano Quartet & String Quintet' (CDA67745)
Beethoven: Piano Quartet & String Quintet
Movement 1: Allegro con brio
Movement 2: Andante cantabile, con variazioni
Movement 3: Menuetto: Quasi allegro
Movement 4: Prestissimo

String Quintet in C minor, Op 104
When the twenty-one-year-old Beethoven arrived in Vienna from his native Bonn in November 1792, the omens could hardly have been more favourable. Haydn, whom he had met in Bonn, had taken him on as a pupil, with all the cachet that implied; and through the recommendation of Count Waldstein, and Haydn’s own contacts, the headstrong sans-culotte gained immediate access to the palaces and salons of the musically cultivated Viennese aristocracy. As Beethoven’s own pupil Carl Czerny later put it, the youthful composer-virtuoso ‘received all kinds of support from our high aristocracy, and enjoyed as much care and respect as were ever enjoyed by a young artist’.

Within weeks of his arrival in the imperial capital Beethoven became a house guest of his principal patron Prince Karl Lichnowsky, a talented amateur pianist who kept his own string quartet. The Prince held regular private soirées at which Beethoven would astonish the company with his brilliant keyboard improvisations; and it was at one of these occasions that he chose to introduce his first important Viennese compositions, the set of three piano trios which he published by subscription in August 1795 with a dedication to Lichnowsky. His erstwhile teacher Haydn, recently returned from his second triumphant London visit, was present, and warmly praised the E flat and G major trios. But he suggested that the third trio, in C minor, would not be easily understood by the Viennese public—a well-intentioned remark that the ever-touchy Beethoven put down to envy.

Beethoven was determined to impress and challenge the Viennese musical elite with his first published opus. And with their weighty four-movement structures and urgency of musical dialectic, the Op 1 trios must have seemed like a full-frontal assault on the traditional notion of the piano trio: what had been an intimate domestic medium in Mozart’s and Haydn’s hands suddenly became a symphony for three instruments. In the first two trios Beethoven’s subversiveness was still cloaked in the language of the classical comedy of manners. But in the C minor, No 3, it erupted in a work of startling explosive vehemence and dark lyric beauty.

While it may have shocked some of its early listeners, Haydn included, the C minor Trio gradually became one of Beethoven’s most popular chamber works. More than two decades later, in 1817, an amateur composer named Herr Kaufmann submitted to him an arrangement he had made for string quintet, with two violas. Beethoven had it copied out, decided he could do better, and made wholesale improvements to the part-writing. At the top of the score he wrote a jokey, ironic preface, mocking Kaufmann’s efforts as a ‘three-voice quintet’ which he had raised ‘from the greatest wretchedness to some respectability’, sacrificing the original ‘as a solemn burnt offering to the gods of the underworld’.

Beethoven did not jettison Kaufmann’s ideas altogether; and the final arrangement, published in 1819 as Op 104, was thus something of a composite effort. The first violin line occasionally betrays its keyboard origins. Yet for the most part the quintet arrangement sounds thoroughly idiomatic, with the most obviously pianistic passages recast for strings and the textures enriched by many touches of imitation. Beethoven’s only, minor, structural change was in the finale, where the recapitulation was originally introduced by a flamboyant chromatic scale for the keyboard—a kind of mini-cadenza. For the quintet arrangement this lead-back becomes ‘thematic’ rather than decorative: the lower parts sound the first four notes of the main theme, while the chromatic scale, now in the first violin, is reduced from eight bars to four.

The mysterious, ‘pregnant’ unison opening (deprived of its initial ‘turn’ in the quintet version) is, coincidentally or not, reminiscent of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in the same key, K491, a work Beethoven is said to have greatly admired. But the music is profoundly Beethovenian in its abrupt, extreme contrasts, with violent rhetoric (the first page alone is peppered with sforzando accents) alternating with intense pathos and yearning lyricism. The famous heroic narratives of Beethoven’s ‘middle period’ are already in view. There is a thrilling moment at the start of the development where the original pianissimo echo of the main theme a step higher now moves a semitone lower, spiriting the music to a strange new tonal region (C flat major, enharmonically spelt as B major). It is typical of Beethoven, at any period, that the quiet opening phrase returns as a strenuous fortissimo at the start of the recapitulation. Then, in perhaps the most breathtaking stroke of all, the music slips first into C major, pianissimo, with the cello taking the lead (imitated in the quintet arrangement by the first violin), and then into the ‘Neapolitan’ key of D flat for a new cantabile development of the main theme.

After this high-pressure sonata drama, the slow movement, a set of variations in E flat on one of Beethoven’s characteristically plain, hymn-like themes, lowers the tension. But there are plenty of inventive, authentically Beethovenian moments: the boisterous third variation, with its brusque sforzando accents and twanging pizzicatos; the fourth, in E flat minor, initiated by a plangent cello solo; or the coda, beginning with a rich chromatic reworking of the theme.

The third movement, somewhere between a minuet and a scherzo, returns to the agitated, explosive C minor world of the first movement. In the C major trio section Beethoven has fun roughing up the cello’s lilting Ländler melody—enriched in the quintet version by a countermelody for second viola—with cussed offbeat accents. The Prestissimo finale (the tempo marking is typical of the young Beethoven’s determination to be ‘extreme’) juxtaposes violence, suppressed agitation and, in the E flat second theme, lyrical tenderness. In the recapitulation the second theme turns from C major to C minor, with deeply pathetic effect. The astonishing coda, held down to pianissimo for most of its eighty-seven bars, slips mysteriously to B minor and then moves, via C minor and F minor, to C major. But the ending is uneasy and equivocal, with minimal sense of resolution (the recent memory of F minor is too strong for that), let alone of major-keyed optimism.

from notes by Richard Wigmore © 2009

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