Movement 1: Allegro moderato
Movement 2: Scherzo: Allegro
Movement 3: Andante cantabile ma per˛ con moto
Movement 4: Allegretto moderato
Beethoven began to sketch the ‘Archduke’ Trio in the spa of Baden bei Wien during the summer of 1810 when, true to form, he was also engaged on a composition of radically different character: the violently compressed String Quartet in F minor, Op 95. He returned to the Trio in earnest the following March, completing it on 26th; he may, though, have revised it, as was his way, before the first performance, given by Beethoven himself (one of the last times he played in public) with the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh and the cellist Josef Linke at the Viennese hotel ‘Zum römischen Kaiser’ on 11 April 1814.
The serene, Apollonian tone of the Allegro moderato is set by the glorious opening theme, with its broad harmonic motion and mingled grandeur and tenderness. In keeping with the spacious scale of the whole movement, the theme is heard twice, first in a rich piano texture, then, varied and extended, in full trio scoring: already here Beethoven creates a depth of sonority, with the cello ranging across its entire compass, that is one of the work’s hallmarks. It is typical of this most tranquil of Beethoven’s great sonata structures that rather than modulating to the ‘tensing’ dominant, F, the music glides to the more remote G major for the equally lyrical second theme – the kind of key relationship Beethoven was to cultivate increasingly in his later works. In the development Beethoven takes each phrase of the main theme as a cue for calm dialogues between violin and cello, or strings and piano. At its centre is a hushed, mysterious duet for the two strings, pizzicato, against flickering piano trills, leading to a crescendo and the promise of a triumphant return of the opening theme. But Beethoven shies away from clinching the climax; and after a ruminative cadenza-like passage and a prolonged piano trill, the recapitulation steals in almost unobtrusively, dolce and pianissimo. Any sense of triumph is held back until the coda, where the main theme sounds fortissimo in the most majestic sonority of the whole movement.
Beethoven was fond of juxtaposing a broad, lyrical opening movement with a witty, laconic, faintly cussed Scherzo – cases in point are the F major ‘Razumovsky’ Quartet, the A major Cello Sonata, Op 69, and the late String Quartet in E flat, Op 127. Like the Scherzo of Op 127, the second movement of the ‘Archduke’ makes humorous play with an elementary rising scale. The initial vision of dry bones (note the bare string textures, in extreme contrast to the sonorous close of the first movement) is later transformed into a relaxed, convivial Ländler. Beethoven is at his most eccentric in the Trio, which against all expectation far exceeds the Scherzo in scale and range. It opens with a groping chromatic fugato in B flat minor (could Beethoven have been intending an ironic commentary on the fugato in the second movement of the contemporary Op 95 Quartet?) and then proceeds incongruously to a splashy salon waltz such as Weber might have written, veering wildly from D flat to E major and finally to B flat. As in many of Beethoven’s middle-period Scherzos, the Trio comes round twice, after a full repeat of the main section; and the eerie chromatic music makes a final appearance in the coda before dissolving into the rising scale with which the movement began.
For the Andante cantabile Beethoven moves to D major, a luminous key in relation to the preceding B flat (shades here of the turn to G major in the first movement). This is one of the rare slow variation movements in Beethoven’s middle-period works, a series of meditations on a hymnlike theme of sublime simplicity that foreshadows the transcendent finales of the piano sonatas Opp 109 and 111. Each of the four variations preserves the structure and broad harmonic outline of the melody against increasingly elaborate figuration. After the intricate, luxuriant keyboard textures of the fourth variation, Beethoven brings back the opening of the theme in its original guise before feinting at distant keys; then, in a long, rapt coda, violin and cello muse tenderly on a cadential phrase like soloists in some transfigured operatic love duet.
In his middle-period works Beethoven often linked the slow movement directly with the finale, delighting in jolting the listener from timeless contemplation to the world of robust action. The dance-like theme of the rondo finale, with its whiff of Viennese café music, is, in fact, subtly adumbrated in the closing bars of the Andante. Beethoven makes witty capital from the theme’s harmonic ambivalence (it starts as if in the ‘wrong’ key of E flat) on each of its returns, while the central ‘developing’ episode irreverently punctuates an expressive new cantabile melody with fragments of the rondo theme. The Presto coda encapsulates the volatile, wayward spirit of the whole movement, changing the metre to 6/8 and transforming the main theme in an outlandish A major before bluntly restoring the home key.
from notes by Richard Wigmore ę 2003