STRING QUARTETS OP. 18
Beethoven's own String Instruments
For the description of the musical content of these six string quartets we have Bernhard Jacobson's comment from the EMI edition all of Beethoven's string quartets, performed by the Alban Berg Quartet at our dispocal.
In his introduction, Jacobson points out that:
"The actual compositional order of Beethoven's Op. 18--allowing for all the imprecision implicit in his practice of exhaustive sketching and re-sketching--was 3, 1, 2, 5, 4, 6 and to look at or listen to the six quartets in that order is to gain a much clearer, more exciting, and indeed more moving view of a great musician's burgeoning sensibilities. . . . " (Jacobson, p. 10 in the CD brochure).
Op. 18, no. 3
With respect to this quartet, Jacobson first notes that already the first two bars "carry another great Beethoven imprint", namely the "strong melodic and harmonic emphasis on the dominant seventh", which he describes as as an intervallic and chordal nexus that, in Beethoven's works, shows a thus-far unknown strength and variety.
As Jacobson writes, in the exposition, we can sense Beethoven's fresh and free treatment of tonality. According to him, Beethoven diversifies an almost casual nod towards the traditional dominant key (of A-major) in the second group, with a not very usual flattening of the third degree of its scale and with an, in this context, unexpected excursion into the region of C-major.
Less individual is, as Jacobsen continues, the rather conventional setup of the movements which, after the "probing" Allegro, features a "suavely textured" Andante con moto, followed by a "tersely effective" Scherzo in the style of his First Symphony and by a Presto finale which playfully basks in harmonic ideas without "quite establishing an assured tonal stance of its own."
Op. 18, no. 1
As Jacobsen writes, the Quartet in F-major does not hint at Beethoven's late quartets; yet, in idiom and mood, the riveting unison theme of the Allegro con brio immediately raises Beethoven's style to a new power. He then compares this first movement with that of the Quartet no. 3 and states that, if the opening theme of the D-major Quartet, at a first hearing, appears to proclaim a fresh force in the musical landscape, it appears almost pale in comparison to the "arresting figure" of this movement. Jacobsen thinks that here, we already see the man at work who wrote the even "pithier" opening to the Quartet in F-minor, Op. 95, of 1810.
Jacobson describes the Scherzo of this quartet as the perhaps most well-rounded, successful movement, with its strange rhythms thrusting forward even farther, being somewhat akin to "the spectral, frightening scherzo of Op. 135" of 1826. He also considers the octave unisons that lead to the Trio section to be truly Beethovenish.
As Jacobson continues, between these movements comes a slow movement that presents itself as rather self-confident. Kerman, Jacobsen report, justifiably welcomed Beethoven's ambitious striving in this movement, but, rightly, also points out the "element of sentimentality" that undermines this quality.
In Jacobson's opinion, the finale is more attractive and "undeniably Beethovenish" in a style that is much closer to the final movements of his early piano sonatas than in all other early string quartets.
Op. 18, no. 2
In this quartet, Jacobson sees a man at work who had entered "a new phase of second-order composition" who was confronting his "two greatest forerunners directly as if to exercise their oppressive presences."
In this work, as Jacobsen writes, he is evidently measuring himself against Haydn, since he is looking at him from every angle, celebrating him, and coming to terms with him and then according him the importance that he deserves, from the viewpoint of a young composer who, in doing so, has gained enough experience in order to know how much he can achieve on his won and how much he has to.
In this quartet, as Jacobson writes, the comedy of the first movement "builds up a formidable head of dynamic steam as the cumulatively insistent pulse of the development forges into the recapitulation."
The melody that, according to Jacobson, appears to be, to some degree, short of breath, is a step backward in this context, but only for a moment, since the slightly forced rhetoric makes breaks off and since the music circles around a "hesitant little cadence phrase", to inconsequently move on into the mood of a dance at much greater tempo. After this brief but cheerful diversion, a "decorated reprise" of the Adagio completes the ternary pattern.
For the first time, continues Jacobson, Beethoven juggles here with the "relative functions of his movements" in an overall context and thus opens up a path to the differentiated simplicity of the small dance movements of his later quartets.
"For good measure", as Jacobsen reports, Beethoven bases his witty, pointed scherzo on a cheerful, exuberant theme that "may seem new" but that turns out to be a free version of the melody from the slow movement that was, without respect, relieved of its heavy weight.
After that, Jacobson writes, it is hardly important any more that the finale, with a very obvious outline, is somewhat of a disappointment. However, Jacobson finds the level of development reached, thus far, is "thrilling."
Op. 18, no. 5
In Jasobson's opinion, this quartet in A-major is evidently shaped after the example of Mozart' Quartet K464, and Beethoven loved this work and copied it often. Therefore, many passages in Beethoven's outer movements appear to be an echo of certain Mozartean passages. The slow movement, a them with variations as in Mozart's work and, as in it, also the third movement, "follows and re-interprets the earlier work's device of a cello ostinato linking final variation to coda."
The Mozartean character of the dance movement, this time not a scherzo but a minuet, writes Jacobson, shows itself from a higher plane, and again, this is the best movement, in his opinion, "with glinnting threads of unison emerging momentarily from the texture, flowing counterpoints, and a sense of harmonic poise and subtlety that truly emulates Mozart."
Op. 18, no. 4
The Quartet in c-minor, Jacobson writes, is stylistically less well-founded, but interesting insofar as it continues Beethoven's experimentation with movement roles. In it, he actually reverses the traditional characteristics of the slow movement and of the dance movement.
As Jacobson writes, that, which, in a way, is the "slow" movement, takes on the character of a scherzo, by means of an almost unchanged staccato and by "lightfooted contrapuntal play", and, indeed, this movement is described as a scherzo, and the movement that appears to be a "dance movement", is to be played fairly fast, and in the recapitulation even faster, and is rather a minuet than a scherzo and "the smoother and more sustained of the two inner movements in expression." However, as Jacobson thinks, the role reversal has not been fully carried through.
Jacobson describes the outer movements of this quartet as less daring, whereby the first movement, the Allegro ma non tanto, "canters along in a notoric manner that distinctly suggests the language of the Mannheim school of composers." Its "most rewarding" feature is the cleverly varied interplay of long and "rather sumptuous" melodic lines, that, intentionally, show "scrappy little phrases."
The finale, Jacobson opines, is a gypsy-like Rondo in a style that, heretofore, had been mastered by Haydn and, subsequently, by Brahms, but does not reach their quality.
Op. 18, no. 6
Jacobson writes that Beethoven's early experiments "in the reinterpretation of movement roles", in this quartet, "reach their most substantial and forward-looking result so far." The last three of the five movements are connected to each other in an extraordinary manner. The Scherzo, according to Jacobson, "is built on a persistent ambiguity between its proclaimed 3/4 metre and a t6/8 scansion across the beat."
La Malincolia, Jacobson reports, forms the transition of one of Beethoven's most profound harmonic inventions, which is based "in a clouded and chromatically inflected B flat major with constant stresses on F sharp, and marked to be played "with the greatest delicacy"."
The following, dance-like 3/8 Allegretto quasi allegro appears inconsequent, bordering on triviality to Jacobson, but "from the formal point of view, it subtly reshapes the line of the scherzo theme", and in its mood, it actually points to the illogical character of melancholy, an emotional state in which serene and somber moments interchange without apparent reason and, with that, probably proves that the Adagio of the Malinconia might actually not be a separate movement and that the title might refer both to the slow and the fast parts.
Consequently, Jacobson writs, the shadow of melancholy returns after a carefree interlude, in the original Adagio tempo, after which the Allegretto returns, confusedly, in a questioning a-minor, however, the relationship between a-minor and B-flat major is of such a nature that one does not arrive "there" "from here". As Jacobson writes, the Allegretto breakt off abruptly, however, the shadow returns shortly, whereby, however, the Allegretto finds its way back to the "home B flat" via G0major and whirls off to a Prestissimo finale.