The ‘Eyeglass‘ Duo was born in a spirit of friendship. Baron Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanowecz, a talented amateur cellist (and the frequent butt of Beethoven’s notorious ‘unbuttoned’ humour), was one of several aristocratic friends who regularly advised the composer in practical matters such as where to obtain the best quills. Beethoven would later reward him with the dedication of the F minor String Quartet, Op 95. Much earlier, during the autumn of 1796, he had written for Zmeskall the jokily titled ‘Duet with two obbligato eyeglasses’ in E flat for viola, played by the composer himself, and cello—a reference to the fact that both men needed to wear glasses while playing. Like the contemporaneous Piano Quartet, the two completed movements of the ‘Eyeglass’ Duo, an Allegro and minuet (a brief sketch for a slow movement survives), reveal the young firebrand at his most gracious and amenable. From the outset, with the main theme sounded first by viola, then by cello, the two instruments are treated as absolute equals. In the minuet, with its pawky canonic trio, Beethoven suddenly pulls the rug from under the listener’s feet by veering from E flat to a remote C flat—just the kind of comic-mysterious effect he had learnt from Haydn.
from notes by Richard Wigmore © 2009