BEETHOVEN: String Quartet No. 12 in E-flat Major, Op. 127; String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131 – Ehnes String Quartet -Onyx 4215 (9/24/21) 73:54 [Distr. by PIAS] ****
Some fifteen years separate the first group of Beethoven’s late quartets, 1825-1826, from his prior work in the genre, the F Minor, Op. 95 “Serioso,” of 1810. Beethoven employs a novel harmonic syntax in his E-flat Quartet, Op. 127, one of a set commissioned by Prince Galitzin of St Petersburg: the modulation away from dominant into mediant harmony, a device more common in Schubert. The Ehnes Quartet brings a luxuriant sheen to the opening chords, Maestoso, of the first movement, moving in 2/4 syncopes before a transition into the ¾ Allegro that will interrupt its own upheavals to allow the Maestoso chords to reappear in contrasting keys of G Major and C Major. The movement has a searching, groping character rife with a virile energy and occasional lyric impulse that, after its six-minute duration, leaves us with what the poet called “confused alarms.”
Beethoven proceeds to an expansive Adagio ma non troppo e molto cantabile, a true song in A-flat Major and five variations. The cello, Edward Arron, sets the first tone that builds upward to his fellows to sing the lulling melody. The second variant assumes a fast, jovial character, Andante con moto. The sonorous cello part concedes to Prince Galitzin, himself an amateur cellist. The third variation proves the most forward-looking, its presenting a hymn in E Major that adumbrates the great adagios of Beethoven’s late works. James Ehnes and cello Arron engage in a colloquy for variation 4, ranging rather far harmonically – an obvious model for Bartok, who read these works as late-night fare – until they reach D-flat Major, as a preparation for the last variant that features Ehnes in dolce pirouetttes over pedal points that the rest of the ensemble imitates. A brief moment of silence – two beats – lets second violin Amy Schwartz-Moretti and viola Richard Yongjae O’Neill take us to an incomplete “variation” that defines the coda.
The brilliantly elastic Scherzo opens pizzicato, but its kinetic motion moves quickly into spasms of 2/4 interruptions that would delight Mahler with their dramatic thrusts. The rapidity of the beats has taken a lesson from the Scherzo of the 7th Symphony. Each of our instrumentalists bears down in acerbic, biting attacks and jarring hesitations. The Trio section moves faster, prestoand in the tonic minor to effect a kind of hallucination in sound. The da capo lets itself be interrupted once more for a truncated coda. The last movement, Allegro – Allegro comodo 2/2, may begin in a casual manner, but the ensuing dance has potent, rustic energies that evolve in sonata-form. Beethoven will move into A-flat Major to brighten the texture, then he allows the true recapitulation to proceed in the key of E-flat Major. The coda transforms the main theme into a wily 6/8 variation whose assistant harmonies again bear a hard look by Beethoven’s musical heirs.
Beethoven’s Quartet No. 14 (1826) has generated a cult regarding its intimate, subjective profundity, and it can claim almost sole motivation for T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” and much of Bartok. In seven movements, quasi attacca, the C-sharp Minor achieves part of its depth from Beethoven’s opening gambit, a slow and expressive Adagio set as a modal, antique fugue based on a corresponding fugue in the same key by J.S. Bach. Beethoven has his fugue end on a unison C-sharp in octaves, serving as a transition to a lyrical Allegro molto which gradually assumes a potent dynamic. The intertwined dialogues of the two violins and viola and cello bear both restrained passion and otherworld transparency, here captured by the efforts of Producer Simon Kiln at the Neva Langley Fickling Hall, Mercer University in Macon, Georgia.
The first movement serves as an introduction to the “scherzo” of movement two, a dance in abridged sonata style, without a development. Restless, the music will move to another unison octave passage that caps in a brief climax Beethoven dissolves without a sense of dramatic closure. Movement 3, for its brevity, Allegro moderato – Adagio, provides a recitative that leads to Ehnes’s violin semi-cadenza, initiating the central theme-and-six-variations movement four, Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile. Like his Op. 34, these variants possess an individual character in a new tempo, except for the first and last. Violin and cello share variation two, which soon soars into an expressive aria, then alters as the cello and violin enter a fugato. The diversity of textures and effects clearly adumbrates Bartok, with pregnant pauses and studied, spatial chords. The cello seems to comment on the progression in thoughtful terms, though the passing dissonances suggest a doubt as to whither all these permutations lead. Tiny cadenzas and sustained trills take us to the coda, richly scored in martial figures and interwoven lines against the first violin’s virtuoso expressivity.
The cello now plays a fragment that sets off a nervous scherzo, Presto – Molto poco adagio, with close imitation and mercurial humor. The pizzicato effects add a slightly uncanny dimension to the occasion. The application of sul ponticello, the notes played on the instruments’ bridge, add to the grotesquerie. Ehnes’s slashing lines drive us inexorably forward, the pauses notwithstanding, and we end with a pungent fortissimo. Three stark notes announce a tragic turn into the Adagio quasi un poco andante, an elegy that forecasts the spiritual gloom that marks much of this epic journey. One potent chord, and we embark no the turbulent Allegrofinale, made of unison punctuations that gallop, even when fugato. We hear in the fugue subject the very opening of the work itself, now colored in driven accents. A second subject permits some relief, but only so that Beethoven may applied more “learned” procedure by way of a double fugato that exploits long notes. The subdued murmurs that occur themselves erupt with a force we know from his Op. 124 Overture to the Consecration of the House and its Handelian polyphony. The music of this over-wrought coda slows down, only for a moment, transformed into a C-sharp Major that grants us little solace in the face of existential tragedy, a model of experience only a symphonic gesture away from Mahler.