Quartet in B flat op. 71 no. 1 Haydn
Allegro (1732 – 1809)
The six quartets op. 71 and 74 lie between the perhaps better known sets op. 64 and 76, and mark a transition in Haydn’s quartet style. The op. 64 show the quartet in its intimate salon perfection, music to be made with a circle of friends. Just after their composition, Haydn was carried off by the impresario Salomon to make his triumphant visit to London, broadening the horizons of a man who had never before travelled further from Vienna than Esterhazy, and bringing him new energy and enthusiasm. It also showed him that the quartet could take its place in the concert hall, as amply illustrated by the much more public masterpieces of op. 76.
Op. 71 was written in 1793 after Haydn’s return to Vienna, for his friend and patron Count Apponyi. All these quartets begin with a brief introduction; in tonight’s B flat quartet a series of chords command attention. The first violin’s mezza vocetheme which follows is contrasted with more bravura passages involving all four voices. The slow movement shows Haydn at his most Mozartian and is a gentle lullaby in 6/8 time, but with Haydn’s own imprint of remote, almost abrupt modulations, and a subtle use of grace-notes. The minuet is contrasted with the trio not by a change of key, but of textural character. The finale is a fine example of wit and exuberance.
Last ACMC Performance: the Vellinger String Quartet, March 1995
Quartet no. 1 in D op. 11 Tchaikovsky
Moderato e semplice (1840 – 1893)
Scherzo: Allegro non tanto
Finale: Allegro giusto
In 1865 Tchaikovsky became a poorly paid professor at the Moscow Conservatory. His first quartet of 1871 was written for an all-Tchaikovsky concert intended to supplement his income. In contrast to his other works of the period (Romeo and Julietwritten in 1869 was a flop in Paris, and hissed in Vienna), the quartet was a success from the start. A great deal of its appeal lies in its feeling of Russian folk-music, although only the andanteis based directly on a folk-song. In 1868 Tchaikovsky had met his near-contemporaries Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov, and been impressed by their enthusiasm for nationalism in art. Years later, writing to his patron Madame von Meck, he commented that the affinity of his melody with folksongs, sometimes intentional sometimes subliminal, came from “having spent my childhood in the country, and having … been filled with the characteristic beauty of our Russian folk-music”.
The opening movement, in sonata form, begins with a rocking series of syncopated chords that leads through running figures to a simple but impassioned melody, before accelerating into a spiky little rising phrase, which permeates the development section. The famous andanteis built on two ideas, the first a working-out of a folk-song, which has been translated as “Vanya one night sat sadly on the divan, a glass of rum in his hand, to drown his sorrow and forget tomorrow”. Whatever its mundane words, the poignant melody, alternating between bars of 2/4 and 3/4, becomes almost sublime. The second idea is a more straightforward tune over a persistent pizzicato bass line. It is said that this movement moved Tolstoy to tears when performed at a concert in his honour in 1876. The energetic scherzo,a foot-stamping dance, has a gentler trio. The finale, also in sonata form, has an invigorating, bright first subject, and a second subject that spotlights the viola, with an abrupt little accompaniment.
Last ACMC Performance: the Royal String Quartet, January 2012
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Quartet no. 13 in B flat Major op. 130 Beethoven
Adagio ma non troppo – Allegro (1770 – 1827)
Andante con moto ma non troppo
Alla danza tedesca: Allegro assai
Cavatina: Adagio molto espressivo
In the last three years of his life, Beethoven concentrated almost exclusively on the string quartet, with an intense experimentation and creativity, which stretched the form to its limits. Always there are fascinating extremes: sudden outbursts and moments of deep contemplation, unexpected key relationships between movements, the breaking-down of the music into melodic fragments. In the original version, op. 130 had as its final movement the massive Grosse Fuge,now op. 133. However, Beethoven was persuaded by his publisher to replace this with a technically and emotionally less demanding finale, and this was his last completed composition, written only four months before his death.
The first movement of op. 130 is in essence in sonata form with a slow introduction. However, the gently imploring adagio, with its semi-tone intervals, is intertwined both temporally and thematically with the more violent allegro, with its sharp little fanfare, surrounded by agitated semi-quavers. Theprestois a breathless scherzowith a stomping trio – listen for the humour of the skidding scales that make the transition back to the scherzo. The andante, not too slow, not too fast, is marked pocoscherzoso, a bit of a joke, but it is also a marvel of rich texture, with moments of great tenderness. The German Dance is similar in form to a minuet and trio, but the simple theme is transformed by squeeze-box dynamic hairpins. The cavatina– a brief operatic song – is an intensely expressive sotto voce, with a remarkable episode where the violin stammers and hesitates over agitated pianissimo triplets. The second violinist of the Schuppanzigh quartet who gave the first performance, recalled that this movement “cost the composer tears in the writing, and brought out the confession that nothing he had written had so moved him”. The replacement last movement is by complete contrast a Haydnesque, if somewhat irregular, rondo.
Last ACMC Performance: the Elias String Quartet, November 2011