Quartet in D op. 20 no. 4 Haydn (1732 – 1809)
Un poco adagio affettuoso
Menuetto: Allegretto alla zingarese
It is generally accepted that the six op. 20 quartets, written in 1772, constitute a turning point in the history of the medium. Rosemary Hughes writes: “Here the string quartet texture is finally achieved, however capable it may still be of further refinement or expansion.” Immediately apparent is the equality of the part-writing, and each quartet shows Haydn’s inventiveness and experimentation. In addition, the D major quartet shows a wide emotional range. It begins in a rather sombre introspective mood, contrasted with more flamboyant triplets. The development teases with a couple of false starts to the recapitulation. The serious-minded slow movement is a lovely theme with variations, in D minor. In the first, the second violin and viola have their chance to shine, while in the second the cello takes the spotlight, before the first violin takes over again in the third. The fourth goes far beyond the standard variation pattern, the repetition of the theme becoming extended almost into a development section. The jolly minuet draws on the cross-rhythms of the gypsy music with which Haydn would have been familiar from his childhood close to the Hungarian border. In contrast, the trio is a straightforward but delightful cello solo. The exuberant last movement is full of jokes, from the opening effervescence of the first violin, to the nose-thumbing little fanfares, chirpy comments from the second violin and cheeky dialogue between the parts.
Last ACMC Performance: the Finzi Quartet – December2009
Quartet no. 11 in F minor, op. 122 Shostakovich (1906 – 1975)
Introduction: Andantino – Scherzo: Allegretto -
Recitative: Adagio – Étude: Allegro – Humoresque: Allegro -
Elegy: Adagio – Finale: Moderato
The eleventh quartet was written in 1966, and dedicated to Vasily Sherinsky, the second violin of the Beethoven Quartet, who had edited Shostakovich’s first 10 quartets and had recently died. The sombre mood is apparent from the wandering opening melody, played by the first violin alone, but with the cello entry comes the motif that ties together the seven brief movements, played continuously, and said to reflect the different facets of Sherinsky’s playing. The scherzo seems wooden, its mechanical fugal entries, with their upward slides, dissolving into a single viola line. This leads into the angry recitative, where a harsh motif is set against the cello motif. The rushing semi-quavers of the étude contrast with the sustained notes of the lower instruments. Then, in the humoresque, the second violin’s insistent quavers are set against a mournful chorale. The elegy which follows is the heart of the piece, a funeral march leading to a long-held bass note, with the first violin mourning above. The finale broods reminiscently over the scherzo motifs, before the first violin holds a long high note, while the lower instruments bemoan their fate.
First ACMC Performance
Langsamer Satz Webern (1883 – 1945)
Webern is well known as one of the founders, with Schönberg, of the 12-tone so-called Second Viennese School. However, the Langsamer Satz (Slow Movement) is a youthful piece, written in 1905, well before the invention of the 12-tone technique, and rooted rather in post-Brahmsian romanticism. It was inspired by a walking holiday in the Austrian woods, with his fiancée Wilhelmine Mörtl, and reflects Webern’s own words: “To walk like this with my beloved beside me … as free as a lark in the sky. Oh, what splendour … Our love filled the air.”
Last ACMC Perfomance: the Benyounes Quartet – February 2013
Quartet in F minor op. 95 Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
Allegro con brio
Allegretto ma non troppo
Allegro assai vivace ma serioso
Larghetto espressivo – Allegretto agitato
Beethoven’s eleventh quartet, op. 95, was composed in 1810, a year after op. 74 (the Harp) and four years after the three op. 59 quartets. Haydn had been dead for only a year, and the old friend to whom Beethoven dedicated op. 95, Nicholas Zmeskall, had been the dedicatee of Haydn’s op. 20 quartets some forty years earlier. What is amazing is the development of the string quartet form in such a relatively brief period. The F minor marks a further stage in this development, belonging to Beethoven’s middle period, but with foreshadowings of the great last period quartets which were to come some fifteen years later. Beethoven gave it the subtitle Quartetto Serioso, and the prevailing mood is of passionate intensity, relieved by flashes of tenderness. Mendelssohn considered it the most characteristic thing Beethoven ever wrote. The first movement begins with a terse phrase in unison, including a semiquaver motive that is to have a pervasive influence. The sonata form is much compressed, adding to the sense of urgency, before the brilliant coda. The second movement begins with a pensive falling phrase on the cello, which seems to be derived from the opening phrase of the first movement. There is a wistful fugal episode, which reappears later with a spiky little counter-subject (the notebooks for op. 95 also include Beethoven’s copy of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue). The third movement is ABABA form, with alternations of recklessness and resignation. The final movement begins with a deeply felt slow introduction, leading to the troubled allegretto agitato. But there is still a typical surprise to come, variously described as ‘the error of a genius’, ‘a shout of joy’, and ‘a comic opera finale’. Take your pick!
Last ACMC Performance: the Johnstone Quartet – December 2003