Movement 1: Allegro con brio
Movement 2: Andante cantabile, con variazioni
Movement 3: Menuetto: Quasi allegro
Movement 4: Prestissimo
Whatever Haydn’s misgivings, Beethoven’s earliest masterpiece in his most characteristic key gradually became one of his most popular chamber works. The mysterious, ‘pregnant’ unison opening is, coincidentally or not, reminiscent of Mozart’s piano concerto in the same key, K491 (still unpublished in 1795). 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.
The exposition ranges restlessly across an exceptionally wide tonal spectrum – E flat minor in the stormy transition, then A flat minor and E flat minor, again, in the second of the two ‘second subject’ themes. 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). Typically of Beethoven, the quiet opening phrase is reinterpreted as a strenuous fortissimo at the start of the recapitulation. Then, in perhaps the most breathtaking stroke of all, the music slips into C major (with the cello taking the lead, itself unusual in 1795) and then to the ‘Neapolitan’ key of D flat for a new cantabile development of the main theme.
In a classical minor-keyed work, a slow movement in the major usually, though not invariably (think of Mozart’s G minor symphony and string quintet), offers a measure of respite. Beethoven’s slow movement, a set of variations in E flat on a characteristically plain, hymn-like theme, certainly lowers the tension. But there are plenty of inventive, authentically Beethovenian moments: the boisterous third variation, with its brusque sforzando accents and twanging string pizzicatos; the fourth, in E flat minor, with its plangent cello solo; or the coda, initiated by a rich chromatic reharmonization of the theme. Beethoven lifted the coda’s final bars for the little C major Bagatelle, Op 119 No 2, probably composed much earlier than its opus number suggests.
The third movement, somewhere between a minuet and a scherzo, returns to the C minor world of the first movement, with its restless pathos, irregular phrase lengths and explosive dynamic contrasts. In the C major trio Beethoven has fun roughing up the cello’s lilting Ländler tune 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 eloquent E flat major second theme, lyrical tenderness. In the recapitulation the second theme, enriched with a new cello counterpoint, turns from C major to C minor, with deeply pathetic effect. The astonishing coda, held down to pianissimo for virtually all 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 © 2004