Monday, September 16, 2013

Beethoven's Op. 18 String Quartets

Joseph Franz Maximilian Lobkowicz (1772–1816)
In the 1790's in Vienna, one gained a reputation among the cognoscenti as a composer by acquiring a commission to write something for performance in one of their palaces and then perhaps elsewhere. Many of the ruling class in Austria and certain among the diplomatic corps of many adjacent countries who were in regular attendance at the Hapsburg court were amateur or better musicians.
On another post we said that many of the first performances of the classical period string quartets took place within the confines of these palaces away from the attention (or lack of it) of the general public. Ideally suited to be played in dedicated rooms, as one hears those of the young Beethoven as they stack up against the creations of Mozart and Haydn, one is struck by a number of features missing in the works of the other two. Beethoven is always an innovator throughout these, which were Beethoven's first six string quartets and he remains throughout always unmistakably Beethoven.

One patron was Prince Lobkowicz who also figured in the production of Haydn's Lobkowitz quartets. Yes, there does seem to have been at least a genial competition between the young man from Bonn and the ageing composer from Estahaz.  These quartets are played here expertly by the now disbanded Quartetto ItalianoThese performances are thus a kind of musical treasure or legacy, the kind that is meant to set a standard for future performances.

Of course these remain a certain test of the abilities of any string quartet that attempts them. Rather than being confined to a room where only the four musicians can hear them, these works are better suited for performance in small concert venues where perhaps fewer than 500 can hear them at a time. We are placing them here that more become aware of the fact that though Beethoven's last quartets are certainly astounding, these early works are in their way no less remarkable and in fact they actually set down many nuances, scenes, balances of harmonic colour, structure of themes and phrases, etc. all of which he would carry though to their ultimate realizations in his last works. We believe it's high time for more to recognize the remarkable first six of Beethoven's incomparable production in this form for what they are; works demonstrating Beethoven's remarkable genius. As a friend remarked as we heard them together, “why should any composer bother to try and do any better.” Well, we all stand on the shoulders of giants in most fields of endeavour, why should it be any different in music? One of those giants has surely always been Ludwig van Beethoven, long may his beloved music sound!

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