BEETHOVEN: String Quartets: No. 5 in A Major, Op. 18, No. 5; No. 3 in D Major, Op. 18, No. 3; No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135 – Artemis Quartet – Virgin Classics 50999 0708342 6, 78:34 [Distr. by EMI] ****:
Recorded 9-11 February 2011, these Beethoven inscriptions happily complete the Artemis Quartet’s survey of the Beethoven cycle. The two Op. 18 quartets reveal Beethoven’s debts to Haydn and Mozart: Beethoven had made an intensive study of Mozart’s A Major, K. 464 work, especially in its consolidation o both galant and learned–that is, contrapuntal–styles. Beethoven’s “signature” method–delaying both the tonic and dominant statements of the theme and its secondary tune by using “circuitous routes” of harmonic development–reveals itself immediately in the Op. 18, No. 5. The Artemis first violin, Natalia Prischepenko, makes a striking impression throughout in her concertante, often bravura approach. The “false ending” two-thirds through the nervously 6/8 first movement leads to the secondary tune’s gambol in wayward keys until Beethoven relents and permits the recapitulation to begin.
The Menuetto and Trio presents us a laendler in a Viennese folk idiom whose musical line stretches and threatens something far deeper, an adumbration of Mahler. The trio offers a thumping hurdy-gurdy rhythm that segues easily into the da capo. Beethoven employs his favorite device of theme-and-variations for the songfull and expansive Andante cantabile. The lovely tone of the lower instruments, Friedemann Weigle’s viola and Eckart Runge’s cello, both move the figures through the variants and retain the essentially lyric impulse. Variant Two, which reduces the theme to its harmonic base over which some delicate filigree in the first violin evolves, captivates our ear. The fourth variation’s disturbed harmonies could well have inspired both Schubert and Dvorak. Beethoven has his four quartet member playing a contrapuntally frisky tune to open the final Allegro, while its counter-theme moves homophonically, one note per bar. These two contrasting affects combine in a sonata–form rondo that scurries about, while moving into harmonically audacious realms, vivacious and intellectually stimulating at once.
The Op. 18, No. 3 in D–the first to have been actually written of the set–has for its opening movement a leap of a seventh as a motto, much as Mozart uses a sixth in his “Hunt” Quartet, K. 458. Beethoven has the Artemis members imitating each other from the outset, the musical periods natural and graceful. Weigle’s viola becomes prominent in voice leading. Some dire intensity erupts, however, just before the recapitulation. Except for the fourth movement, the tenor of the music remains graciously lyrical. The last movement breaks out in a wild tarantella that has its own surprises, especially when ending quietly, pianissimo, with a built-in pause at the coda. The Andante presents four instruments of equal virtue, eagerly exchanging melodic kernels that merge into a mighty stream. An eldritch harmony or two infuses a sense of eerie mixture into Beethoven’s otherwise Classical alchemy. A concise Allegro e Minore supplies the third movement, a cross of menuet and scherzo with a haunted trio section whose treble figures scamper over a descending bass line. The Sicilian dance finale certainly gets our foot tapping while the instruments race in syncopated jerks, polyphonic episodes, and breakout runs. The Artemis’ enthusiasm becomes quite infectious, and this quartet well bears re-hearing.
Beethoven F Major Quartet (1826) rests as his final completed work, a distillation of the Classical quartet model in which several Romantic conventions already assert themselves. Whether the opening movement communicates devout simplicity or something like the complexities of a triple fugue becomes a matter of debate. But Beethoven returns to an earlier sensibility now rife with a world of accrued experience. The melodic texture moves so facilely through each and to each individual instrument that the notion of melos itself seems at risk. The monody that appears and the counterpoint that ensues seem two sides of an extremely erudite coin. What follows is a demonic Vivace, polyrhythmic and varied in its triple meter and skipping staccati, tied notes, and syncopes. But the trio adds an ostinato bass figure that repeats vulgarly numerous times, a dervish gone berserk. It dies down to an extended diminuendo that leaves us feeling we had encountered one of Lovecraft’s “old gods” in the middle of a country road.
The Artemis enters as one for the Assai lento movement, a noble melody of disarming simplicity that Toscanini once remarked was worth dying to. Despite its static quality, the melody undergoes some variation, harmonically rich and expressive, occasionally anguished, and finally conciliatory. Beethoven’s Finale motto: “Muss es sein?- Es muss sein! Es muss sein!” has becomes a long-standing Sphinx for musicologists, some of whom read into the score everything from an unpaid rent bill overdue to a metaphysical postulate. The sonata-form structure develops the music in counterpoint, culminating in a laendler-like theme whose genial disposition often leads to self-parody. The Artemis’ tip-of-the-bow articulation lends a soft irony to the rich tissue of the piece, an emotional paradox perhaps, but that is its beauty, that for all its logical inconsistency it remains undeniably true.
A rich reflections into Rachmaninoff’s oeuvre