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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

The middle quartets

Calidore String Quartet Detailed performer information
3CDs Download only Available Friday 13 September 2024This album is not yet available for download
Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: Various dates
Gore Recital Hall, University of Delaware, Newark, USA
Produced by Judith Sherman
Engineered by Judith Sherman
Release date: 13 September 2024
Total duration: 158 minutes 34 seconds
Ludwig van Beethoven’s first engagement with the most elevated of genres, the string quartet, was a torturous process. In the looming shadow of the Viennese masters, Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Beethoven was all too aware of the musical legacy that he was poised to inherit. It took him until the age of twenty-eight, six years after his arrival in Vienna, to begin work on his first set of six string quartets, Op 18. Even after completion he showed his anxiety, drastically revising several of the quartets and writing in a letter to violinist friend, Karl Amenda, ‘be sure not to hand on to anybody your quartet, in which I have made some drastic alterations, for only now have I learned how to write quartets’.

Beethoven had indeed learned how to write quartets. His next set of three string quartets, published as Op 59, were completed in just a few short months in 1806. Commissioned by Count Andreas Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to Vienna, and consequently nicknamed the ‘Razumovsky’ or the ‘Russian’ Quartets, they encompass an entirely different stylistic language to Op 18, both symphonic in proportion and bold in emotional range. Reflecting these newly-expanded proportions, the rest of Beethoven’s quartets were published thereafter as individual opus numbers—decisively breaking away from the tradition of publishing ‘sets’ of quartets, as exemplified by Mozart and Haydn. His next two string quartets, Op 74 and Op 95, were composed between 1808 and 1810. They are traditionally grouped with Op 59 as his ‘middle’ quartets, and their completion marks the beginning of a ten-year hiatus before Beethoven’s next engagement with the genre. From 1822 until the end of his life in 1827 Beethoven focused almost exclusively on string quartet writing, producing some of his most challenging and experimental compositions: the revered yet ever-elusive ‘late’ quartets.

In the shadow of the late quartets, it is easy to overlook quite how challenging Beethoven’s middle quartets were to early listeners and performers. Laughter, incomprehension and even the trampling of sheet music are certainly not the responses that performers might expect to elicit today. Wilhelm von Lenz, Beethoven’s first biographer, paints a vivid picture of two early encounters with Op 59:

When at the beginning of the year 1812 the [second] movement [of Op 59 No 1] was to be played for the first time in the musical circle of Field Marshal Count Soltikoff in Moscow, Bernhard Romberg trampled under foot as complete mystification the bass part which he was to play. The Quartet was laid aside. When, a few years later, it was played at the house of privy Councillor Lwoff, father of the famous violinist, in St Petersburg, the company broke out in laughter when the bass played his solo on one note. – The Quartet was again laid aside.

The setting of these encounters makes the mystified responses all the more surprising: surely a more favourable reception could be expected for Beethoven’s ‘Russian’ Quartets in Moscow and St Petersburg! Beethoven had paid explicit homage to his Russian patron through the inclusion of Russian folk tunes in all three of the Op 59 quartets. Moreover, he ensured that these musical allusions were not only audible to listeners, but also visible to players in the notation—after all, Razumovsky was himself an accomplished violinist. The title ‘Thème russe’ is indicated at the head of the final movement of Op 59 No 1, and Beethoven went to the trouble of notating ‘thème russe’ each time it appears in the individual parts of the third movement of Op 59 No 2. While there is no notated reference to Russia in the third quartet, Mark Ferrugato has recently shown that the lilting theme of the second movement is closely related to a popular Russian song that was published in the musical newspaper Allgemeine musikalisches Zeitung in July 1804. Despite the explicit Russian connections, the quartets still clearly posed difficulties to their early Russian listeners.

The darker aspects of Beethoven’s Op 74, nicknamed ‘The Harp’ for its use of pizzicato in the first movement, also tend to be overlooked today. In comparison to the fractured turbulence of Op 95, the ‘Harp’ may seem relatively straightforward to modern ears, full of songful lyricism and easy charm. Yet an early review from 1811 describes a more ambiguous listening experience, noting the quartet to be ‘more serious than mirthful, more deep and artful than cheerful and appealing.’ How can we account for this disparity? Beethoven’s correspondence with his publisher, George Härtel, is potentially telling, revealing a more disturbing backdrop to everyday Viennese life during the French invasion of 1809. Beethoven writes: ‘what a destructive, disorderly life I see around me, nothing but drums, canons and human misery in every form.’ Are canons and drums what the same critic heard when he described ‘savage national war dances’ in the third movement? The opening gesture and C-minor key of the Scherzo is surely related to the iconic triple-note motif of the Fifth Symphony, with all of its associations with Jacobin songs of revolution. Even the harp conceit in the first movement is not as straightforward as it first seems. Before the invention of the double harp around 1810, the harp had a limited capacity to modulate beyond its home key. Whether or not the first listeners would have picked up on this subtlety, the breakdown of civilised harmonic order in the first violin semiquavers in the coda is clearly audible. The frenzied arpeggios across the strings and awkward hand shapes demanded by the diminished chords affords a visual spectacle that could not be further away from the gestural elegance expected of domesticated young ladies at the harp—the ultimate symbol of peace and heavenly harmony.

In contrast, the references to warfare in Beethoven’s String Quartet in F minor, Op 95, are violently overt, with dramatic unisons, leaping octaves and disconnected melodic material generating a jarring musical experience from the very first note. Beethoven himself entitled the work ‘Quartett[o] Serioso’ in the autograph score. The very form of the quartet makes an assault on structural conventions, with its shocking concision and attacca movements. Perhaps the most startling moment of all is the final coda, a whirlwind forty-bar Allegro that wrenches us unceremoniously into the clichéd world of opera buffa. Does this sudden turn to the theatrical and the comic undermine the authenticity of the tragic tone that has previously dominated? Beethoven was certainly preoccupied with the theatre in 1810, a year during which he was known to have been collecting and studying scores of Mozart’s operas alongside composing his incidental music to Goethe’s Egmont, also in F minor. Whether we see resonances between the triumphant ‘Victory Symphony’ of Egmont and the coda of Op 95, or a deliberately unsettling incongruity, the ending to this most serious of quartets certainly raises more questions than it can answer.

At the sight of the eccentric opening of the second movement of Op 59 No 1, a ‘solo on one note’ featuring four bars of repeated B flats, Romberg felt so strongly that he promptly trampled his sheet music. Even the Schuppanzigh Quartet, a quartet that Beethoven affectionately nicknamed his ‘Leibquartett’ and who rehearsed and premièred all of his string quartets throughout his career, thought that Beethoven was playing a joke on them when they first received their parts. The first violinist, Ignaz Schuppanzigh, famously had more than one note to complain about, with Beethoven apparently retorting: ‘what care I about your wretched fiddle when the spirit moves me?!’ Another altercation with Italian violinist Felix Radicati, to whom Beethoven had submitted his manuscript of Op 59 for fingering, resulted in similarly immortal words: ‘Oh, they are not for you, but for a later age!’ Both phrases have since passed into Beethovenian legend, supporting the familiar nineteenth-century narrative of a composer destined to transcend his own personal and cultural context to attain musical immortality. Yet it is this very historical context that can help us to keep the radical nature of these quartets alive today.

Torturous though his first engagement with the string quartet genre was, Beethoven’s middle period quartets are testimony to the ways in which he liberated himself from the Classical language of his masters to engage in the Zeitgeist of Romanticism. Rather than writing ‘for a later age’, this music was very much of its age; an age in which the spirit of intellectual challenge became an aesthetic principle. Contemporary philosopher August Wilhelm Schlegel argued that Romantic poetry is forever ‘im Werden’ (in process). In this way, a work of art is never complete: it is always unfolding, inviting the reader to continue the work. Where Haydn and Mozart used the art of rhetoric to persuade their listeners, Beethoven’s middle period quartets instead confront, compel and perplex: the music grips us and demands our attention. Their subject is nothing less than the very act of engagement.

In a letter to George Smart dated 7 October 1816, Beethoven wrote of Op 95:

NB. The Quartet is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public.

These ‘connoisseurs’ are exactly the sorts of readers that Schlegel imagined. In this way, Beethoven is not in fact excluding listeners, or indeed his performers: he is issuing a deeply personal invitation, asking us to become part of the ever-unfolding meaning of the music. The Calidore Quartet’s recording offers another fresh perspective on works that invite, and even demand, constant re-visiting and re-interpretation: an imperative of the Romantic spirit in which they were composed.

Rachel Stroud © 2024

Our quartet is continually drawn to Beethoven’s music for the enduring relevance of his humanistic perspective. He was an artist who aimed to compose not for one portion of society, but rather to unite through our fundamental elements. These quartets from his middle period, herald his emancipation from the traditions of his time. In scope, content and emotional range, these quartets of epic proportion and intensity challenged the performers and audiences of the time.

To this day, they remain some of the most demanding works to perform in the entire string quartet canon. The virtuoso passages of the Op 59 'Razumovsky' quartets, the tender lyricism of the Op 74, to the extreme and unexpected shifts of character and atmosphere compressed into the Op 95 (foreshadowing much of what is to come in his late works) expand our range, depth and versatility as musicians.

Our public performance of Beethoven’s cycle of quartets affirmed to us that this music’s immediacy is not contingent upon the century we live in, the country we come from, the generation we belong to, the beliefs we align with or other factors that may divide us. Beethoven’s quartets appeal to the emotional experiences we share in common as human beings, which are far more substantial than what may divide us. These great works are also the result of Beethoven’s struggles to overcome the challenges of his own life.

In this spirit, our project came together in a very 'Beethovenian' way. The forced separation during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic made us dream of ways to immerse ourselves once more in our craft and to share our music with audiences around the globe. This period made space for and propelled us towards the idea of recording this cycle of immortal works. We are grateful to the University of Delaware—where we serve as professors and Distinguished String Quartet in Residence—for stepping in to provide us with the use of the magnificent Gore Recital Hall for the six recording sessions. And we were fortunate to be introduced to the legendary producer Judith Sherman, an artist whose passion for these works and uncompromising standards have made her the perfect partner in chronicling our interpretations of Beethoven.

Now, finding ourselves at the end of this endeavor, the contents of this recording serve as a snapshot of our fourteen years of working, growing, listening and collaborating with one another. Our interpretation speaks to the influences of our teachers and the great traditions associated with this repertoire, but also to that of our own generation, contemporary research, style and experience. Though this music speaks in a language that is hundreds of years old, its message remains immediate, relevant and comforting to listeners of today and of generations to come, especially in the most challenging of times.

Calidore String Quartet © 2024

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