BEETHOVEN: Complete String Quartets, Vol. IV = String Quartet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1; String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131 – Quartetto di Cremona – Audite multichannel SACD 92.683, 67:45 (5/12/15) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Some twenty-six years separate the composition of the two Beethoven string quartets inscribed here (12-15 March 2014) by the Quartetto di Cremona; but even as early as the set of six quartets of Op. 18, Beethoven demonstrates a power of concentrated expression that well anticipates the economy of means he demonstrates later. Beethoven opens – though not published in their actual chronology of conception – his Op. 18 set with the Quartet in F major, written in 1798/99 at the behest of his patron and friend, Prince Lobkowicz. Despite the mellifluous pastoral key, the music draws a long line from the brilliantly-crafted first and last movements to the dark hues of the Adagio, apparently inspired by the tomb scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Even within the framework of the traditional form, Beethoven’s quartet début achieves a maximum of moods and stylistic variety.
The crisp articulation of the Cremona group’s playing highlights how thoroughly well-distributed lie Beethoven’s voice parts. The quick gesture of the first motif picks up a series of syncopations and ripe modulations, especially in the viola (Simone Gramaglia) and cello (Giovanni Scaglione). As the music develops, first violin Cristiano Gualco enjoys a decidedly concertante role, quite virtuosic.
The D Minor Adagio affettuoso ed appassionata plays as a piece of program music, a powerful testimony to Beethoven’s protracted admiration for the Shakespearean dramatic world. If Romeo has indeed entered Juliet’s tomb, he does so among some disturbing, passing harmonies Bartok would relish, especially in the latter viola part. The relative quietude of the Scherzo presents another surprise in the Beethoven canon. True, Beethoven tosses in a sforzato, jagged accent, or skipping octave passage along the way, but the Cremona ensemble imbues these elements with a fervent freshness. The Trio bustles with rustic energy, rife with passing drone effects. The Quartetto di Cremona avoids the trap of playing the final movement Allegro too quickly. The suave combination of lyric beauty and deft polyphony has been preserved with astonishing clarity and spacious forward motion.
Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 131 of 1826, generally perceived as a peak within his chamber music, proffers an experimental aesthetic, even though its contemporary works, the Ninth Symphony and the Missa solemnis, remain essentially Classical. We pass through seven sections of diverse tone and character without breaks in between; a brooding fugue stands alongside a sensitive adagio, and a folk tune presto lies next to a restless finale. Beethoven meant the work for the Viennese violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, whose quartet set the professional playing standard for several generations to follow. Schubert, prior to his untimely death, requested a hearing. Bartok considered this labyrinthine work bedtime reading.
The daunting character of this monolithic work consists, partly, in its fluid amalgamation of disparate affects, techniques, and textures, its rare combination of studied progression and brilliant moments of improvisation. The virtually cosmic character of the opening fugue has the Quartetto di Cremona concentrating on every line, independent and collaborative. The molto espessivo marking infiltrates the lower voices as well as the two high violin parts. Like his Appassionata Sonata, this music has its Neapolitan chordal structures, often utilized as a lever to move us to a brighter tonality, D Major. The succeeding Allegro molto vivace attends to a more joyful lyricism, with pointed playing from violin Gualco and viola Gramaglia. The eleven-measure Allegro moderato, in b minor, modulates to E Major, which we feel in terms of a diaphanous texture. Beethoven’s penchant for the theme-and-variations occupies his Andante fourth movement, proffering six variants and an incomplete seventh, music curiously marked by repose of spirit despite its mercurial shifts of tonic and dominant in each variant. The variation in muted chords proves most unearthly.
The shape of the duple-time E Major Presto movement may well have influenced Schumann, with his own taste for a scherzo whose Trio section appears twice, as though scherzo and rondo had been fused. The fleeting, color variety of this movement quite catches our collective breath. The sixth movement, a brief (28 measures) Adagio quasi un poco andante, opens in g-sharp minor, harmonically a kind of platform for the return to the c-sharp minor final Allegro. The fact that much of the harmonic continuity of the Op. 131 proves so “conventional” only increases its aural departure from anything like “the ordinary.” The ultimate transition to D Major as the conclusion of this epic journey testifies to Beethoven’s inherent optimism for the human spirit, and doubtess, established Mahler’s notion of “progressive tonality.”
[The hi-res surround is a perfect format for the string quartet, even though they are on the frontal soundstage rather than a performer to a speaker, as with Tacet’s SACDs and Blu-rays…Ed]