Sunday, October 20, 2013

The State of The Late Quartets

In most serious music circles, when one remarks of the late quartets, one can mean but one thing; a reference to the last string quartets by Beethoven. In fact they were the last of his completed works and comprise a kind of last will and testament.

This post furnishes the last of a series that began with the last post on Beethoven's Op 18 string quartets, the six that began his contributions to this form. There will be one for the middle quartets as I am currently listening to them all once again. This time we're going to focus on live performances and their recordings available at this time on the internet. We're looking for the current state of excellence when it comes to playing these works. Those of us who have known these pieces a long time regard them with some sense of awe and reverence as being timeless, eternal and without peer in this genre and somehow part of that which lies nearest the very heart of everything classical music stands for or ever intends to be. Some of us who attend chamber music concerts regard many of the players as the equivalent of superstars. It is in that spirit that this post is intended and dedicated.

When one describes the “late quartets” one means those Beethoven composed after his 9th Symphony (completed in 1824). They comprise the following:

Opus 127: String Quartet No. 12 in E flat major (1825)
Opus 130: String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major (1825)
Opus 131: String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor (1826)
Opus 132: String Quartet No. 15 in A minor (1825)
Opus 133: Große Fuge in B-flat major for string quartet (1826), originally the finale to Op. 130
Opus 135: String Quartet No. 16 in F major (1826)

A song, "Der Kuss," that Beethoven had written in 1822, became his Opus 128. The lively little gen of wit, Rondo à Capriccio for piano in G major ("Rage over a lost penny") became his Opus 129. But he had written it back in 1795. His Große Fuge Op. 133 was originally intended to conclude his Op. 130 but he got into a disagreement about it with his publisher and then decided to have it come out separately as Op. 133. A four hand piano arrangement of the Große Fuge became his Opus 134 (1826). See, he really believed in his work and as it turned out, to a few of us anyway, he was right; the Große Fuge is on many of our lists as a piece we would dearly love to hear played live and by a quartet too, not a string ensemble. We'll be presenting it here as the final movement of #13, Op. 130, where we think it belongs! Beethoven's last three opus numbers, 136-138 are works that were all written much earlier. So these five quartets are Beethoven's last completed works and the Finale of Op. 130, a replacement for the difficult to grasp Große Fuge, and the finale of Op. 135 are in fact his last complete works. Modern conventions for Op. 131 are to play the movements as they will be presented here, with the Große Fuge in the place originally assigned it by Beethoven, while his replacement Finale movement is seldom heard, even though it is in fact his very last work. The Talich Quartet plays it at the inserted link above.

Quatuor Ysaÿe

String Quartet No. 12 in E flat major Op. 127 (1825) 
1. Maestoso – Allegro 
2. Adagio, ma non troppo e molto cantabile
3. Scherzando vivace
4. Allegro

Quatuor Ysaÿe performed this piece sometime before 20 January, 2013.

The Brentano String Quartet

String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major Op. 130 (1825) 
1. Adagio, ma non troppo – Allegro
2. Presto 
5. Cavatina. Adagio moltoespressivo 
6. Große Fuge 

The Brentano Quartet performed this piece at Princeton University, April 2012.

The American String Quartet

String Quartet No. 14 in c sharp minor Op. 131 (1826)
1. Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo
2. Allegro molto vivace
3. Allegro moderato – Adagio
4. Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile – Più mosso – Andante moderato e lusinghiero – Adagio – Allegretto – Adagio, ma non troppo e semplice – Allegretto
5. Presto
6. Adagio quasi un poco andante
7. Allegro

The American String Quartet performed this piece live at Tel Aviv Museum, January, 2013.

The Avalon String Quartet

String Quartet No. 15 in a minor Opus 132 (1825)
1. Assai sostenuto – Allegro
2. Allegro ma non tanto
3. Molto Adagio – Andante – Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart. Molto adagio – Neue Kraft fühlend. Andante – Molto adagio – Andante–Molto adagio. Mit innigster Empfindung
4. Alla Marcia, assai vivace (attacca)
5. Allegro appassionato – Presto

The Avalon String Quartet performed this piece sometime before 6 June, 2012.

Anima Kwartet
1. Allegretto 
2. Vivace
3. Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo
4. “Der schwer gefaßte Entschluß (The difficult decision).” Grave, ma non troppo tratto (Muss es sein?/Must it be?) – Allegro (Es muss sein!/It must be!) – Grave, ma non troppo tratto – Allegro

Anima Kwartet performed this piece in the Nederlandse Strijkkwartet Academie on 20 November, 2011 in Utrecht, Vrendenburg Leeuwenbergh.