Quartet in G minor op. 20 no. 3 Haydn (1732 – 1809)
Allegro con spirito
Finale Allegro molto
In the words of Rosemary Hughes: “in the short space of five years, between 1768 and 1772, [Haydn] composed in quick succession the sets published as op. 9, op. 17 and op. 20, in which we can watch the string quartet emerging, in substance and in texture, with the swiftness and inevitability of leaves breaking from their buds in a late spring…. culminating in the six masterpieces of op. 20.” The inventiveness of the G minor quartet is apparent from its opening, which is in seven-bar phrases giving a piquant lop-sided effect, a feeling reinforced later in the first violin’s improvisatory musings over off-beat chords. The two main themes are then broken down into phrases, and played in various keys, and the recapitulation contains further development. The minuet, determinedly in G minor and not at all a happy little dance, is built on rising and falling phrases, while the trio in E flat major is marked sotto voce, and has murmuring quavers in the first violin. The sonata-form slow movement is memorable for lovely writing for the cello, and some fascinating harmonic changes. The terse last movement mixes bravura passages for the first violin with contrapuntal touches, and in its semi-quaver motif seems thematically linked to the first movement.
Last ACMC Performance: the Navarra Quartet, December 2006
Quartet no. 7 op. 49 Lajtha (1892 – 1963)
Menuet: Quasi allegro grazioso
As a young man at the Academy of Music in Budapest, Lajtha studied the folk-music of his native Hungary in collaboration with his slightly older compatriots Bartók and Kodály, but, while they concentrated on vocal music, he concentrated on the instrumental. In addition to a large output of compositions, he was also pianist, conductor, and an influential Professor of Musical Folk-lore. Between the wars he travelled widely, and became particularly attracted to the culture and music of Paris. At the National Music School in Budapest he taught chamber music, and is known to have coached many of the great ensembles, such as the Roth, Végh, and Tátrai Quartets. In the 1950s he fell on hard times, being one of the few who would in no way co-operate with the Soviet regime. His career has been summed up as: “huge successes abroad, mild appreciation at home, and eventually complete disregard.”
Over his lifetime he wrote ten quartets, the seventh being composed in 1950, soon after a successful visit to London. Its serenade-like character makes it immediately accessible, and the influence of folk-music pervades all the movements. The bustling first movement is reminiscent at times of a Mendelssohn scherzo, but with a much more astringent flavour. The second movement uses long chords over which rise doleful melodies. In the gentle, somewhat plaintive third movement, the central section is a happier waltz. The witty last movement is a mixture of furiant dance, cheerful song, and more reflective moments.
Last ACMC Performance: the Auer Quartet, October 2008
Three Divertimenti Britten (1913 – 1976)
March: Allegro maestoso
These pieces started life as part of a five-movement work, Alla Quartetto Serioso, in 1933. They were reworked for performance in 1936, and are a kind on muscle-flexing before the writing of serious string quartets. Britten explores all the virtuosic devices of stringed instruments to create a brilliant colourful texture entirely characteristic of the string quartet medium. The musical ideas are handled with imagination, subtlety and wit,
Last ACMC Performance: the Endellion Quartet, October 1985
Quartet in D major op. 44 no.1 Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847)
Molto allegro vivace
Menuetto un poco allegretto
Andante espressivo ma con moto
Presto con brio
In 1837 Mendelssohn was leading an increasingly busy and successful life, composing commissioned works, performing as pianist, and conducting throughout Europe. In March on his honeymoon tour he began writing a set of three quartets, op. 44. It had been a decade since the two marvellous quartets op. 12 and 13, composed when he was young and carefree, and op. 44 marks a more mature, considered approach, lacking some of the originality and experimentation of form of the early works, and instead looking back to Haydn, whose quartets Mendelssohn had diligently studied. The quartet in D, published as no. 1 of the set of three, was in fact the last to be composed, in 1838.
The first movement is bursting with exuberance, the opening arpeggio soaring upwards with excited energy. The movement is in standard sonata form, with the wistful second subject offering a rare moment of repose. The subsequent minuet is even more Haydnesque in its gentle transparency. The running quavers of the central section reappear in the coda, over a hint of the first theme. The Andante is a typical ‘song without words’, with a lovely melody charmingly harmonised with insistent semi-quavers in the second violin, and cello pizzicati. Reminiscent of the Italian Symphony, the last movement is a saltarello, a dance with a quick hopping step, in 12/8 time. The brilliant surface conceals a deftness of technique, as the themes are mixed and combined in contrapuntal fashion, but the final impression is of breathless momentum.
Last ACMC performance: the Kodaly Quartet, October 2004