Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)String Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, no. 2
Béla Bartók (1881–1945)String Quartet No. 2
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 59 no. 2
The Quartet’s four musicians play treasured Italian instruments and bring a fresh pioneering approach to our Beethoven survey, created in honor of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven whose music continues to inspire people all over the globe. Join us as they perform their final season after 40 years together.
This paired program features four Beethoven quartets from different parts of the composer’s career. Two are from Op. 18, early works that show Beethoven writing in the classical style of Haydn and Mozart but already speaking in his own distinctive voice. Concert One also contains the second of the “Razumovsky” Quartets, Op. 59, while Concert Two includes the “Serioso” Quartet, Op. 95, works written during Beethoven’s “heroic” decade and revealing the forceful personality of the composer at the height of his powers. As an extra, the Auryn Quartet punctuates these works by Beethoven with quartets by Bartók and Mendelssohn.
Concert One premieres Saturday at 5:00 pm MST. Concert Two is available immediately following so you may watch it after an intermission (or watch separately on the following evening).
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An outstanding career spanning four decades has made the Auryn Quartet one of the most sought-after and respected ensembles performing around the globe, and during this long period the Quartet has not changed its personnel. The ensemble continues to impress audiences with its fresh and pioneering approach to all genres of music.
During the period 1982 to 1987, the Auryn Quartet had two main mentors, the Amadeus Quartet, with whom they studied in Cologne, and the Guarneri Quartet, at the University of Maryland. Claudio Abbado was also an important influence on the Quartet’s development, under whose baton they were string principals in the European Union Youth Orchestra.
The Quartet won its first prizes at the London International Competition and the ARD Munich Competition, both in 1982, one year after its inception. The ensemble also won the main prize at the European Broadcasting Competition in Bratislava in 1989. Invitations to international music festivals followed in quick succession: Lockenhaus, Salzburger Festspiele, Edinburgh International Festival, Musiktage-Mondsee, Stavangar, to name a few.
Recent tours have taken the Quartet from Lincoln Center to the Concertgebouw to Wigmore Hall, where they performed a complete cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets. Another vast project was the complete performance of Haydn’s quartets in eighteen-concert cycles in each of the cities of Detmold, Cologne, and Padova.
Since 2003 the Quartet has been sharing its wealth of experience with musicians of the younger generation in the form of a teaching position at the Music Academy in Detmold, where they are professors of chamber music. The four musicians of the Auryn Quartet play on wonderful Italian instruments: a Stradivari violin (1722 Ex-Joachim), a Petrus Guarneri violin, a Brothers Amati viola (1616), and a Nicolò Amati cello.
This is the third time the Auryn Quartet has performed on our Evening Series concerts, with previous appearances in 2011 and 2015.
“It is probably not too much to say that Op. 59 doomed the amateur string quartet.”Joseph Kerman, The Beethoven Quartets
BEFORE BEETHOVEN LEFT BONN for Vienna in 1792, his friend Count Waldstein told him that there “he would receive the spirit of Mozart from Haydn’s hands.” Beethoven had hoped to study with Mozart once in Vienna—but since Mozart had recently died, Beethoven undertook instruction from Haydn instead. However, Beethoven, whom Haydn called “The Young Mogul,” was too impatient to appreciate the master’s lessons, and the studies soon ended because of their temperamental differences. But when Beethoven began to write his Opus 18 quartets in 1798, he closely examined the mature quartets of Mozart and especially Haydn for guiding principles. A high point of his “first style period,” Beethoven’s Opus 18 set reveals awareness of the guiding principles of Haydn and Mozart but a steady expansion of their classical boundaries. Beethoven’s originality is evident in all of these six string quartets, each of which opens with a small generative idea that gradually expands to form a large and brilliant design.
Despite Haydn’s position as Beethoven’s early mentor, it was reported that when the aging composer heard these inventive and deeply expressive quartets at Lobkowitz’s concerts, he decided to abandon string quartets and devote his efforts to religious choral music. Since Viennese composers typically avoided competing genres, this observation most probably has truth.
WRITTEN IN 1798, the G Major Quartet presents a charming mood that is close in spirit to the rococo style of the earlier eighteenth century. Its subtitle “Compliments” was bestowed a century after its composition by a critic who heard in its elegant opening phrases the suggestion of “an eighteenth-century salon, with all the ceremonious display and flourish of courtesy typical of the period—bows and gracious words of greeting.”
Although this tightly unified quartet appears to have been effortlessly composed, Beethoven’s sketchbooks reveal the intensive labor of its creation. His thirty-two pages of drafts demonstrate that the quartet began as many disparate elements that only gradually merged into a coherent whole. Strongly influenced by Haydn’s practice of expanding small motifs into a large design, Beethoven also sought to exploit the interrelationships among them. For example, in the luminous C major Adagio movement the exuberant middle section (F major) is based on a short motif derived from the closing material of the first section. Yet what the listener apprehends, especially in the final two movements, is an overall mood of good humor and high spirits. Beethoven described the finale as aufgeknöpft (unbuttoned), suggesting a free and informal character.
ALTHOUGH BARTÓK DID NOT SERVE during World War l, he suffered a crisis of confidence at that time and withdrew from musical society. As a result, composition of Quartet No. 2 was extended over a two-year period. Intensely expressive and highly contrapuntal, the work suggests the chromatic influence of early Schoenberg but also reflects Berber elements that Bartók heard during his pre-war visit to North Africa. Bartók described its unusual structure: “I cannot undertake an analysis of the form—there is nothing special in the form. The first movement is a normal sonata form; the second is a kind of rondo with a development section in the middle. The last movement is difficult to define—mostly an augmented A-B-A form.” Bartók’s inversion of the traditional movement order creates an unorthodox framework for Quartet No. 2. The calm first movement is succeeded by a spirited Allegro, and the slow finale projects an atmosphere of brooding melancholy. Bartók’s friend Kodály observed that the quartet had an autobiographical basis and subtitled the work “Episodes: Peaceful life—Joy—Suffering.”
The Moderato opens with a two-bar violin theme that provides the foundation for the entire movement. After its initial expansion, a three-note unit derived from an augmented triad and a tranquil third theme are developed with chromatic transitions. In the recapitulation, dissonant half-step intervals assume prominence. The closing section, with the theme heard in octaves in the first violin and viola accompanied by sliding parallel fifths in the cello, suggests the impressionist influence of Ravel. A coda combines the first and final themes, which can now be perceived as closely related.
Dominated by a barbaric ostinato inspired by drums heard in the Biskra region of Algeria, the Allegro evokes wild folk dance. Rapid changes from even to uneven meters build tension. The late Romantic harmonic background of the first movement has vanished to be replaced by propelling percussive reiterations of dissonant intervals. A ghostly atmosphere prevails at the pianissimo coda.
The primary theme of the plaintive Lento suggests a folk dirge. Its melodic outline is an actual quote of the main theme of the first movement, soon reduced to short sighing figures. The mode changes from major to minor, and rising thirds in the violins, steadily increasing in dynamic level, convey tragic weight. Gravely silent moments interrupt the flow. The work concludes in a subdued atmosphere with a cadence derived from Hungarian folksong.
PERHAPS THE MOST MUSICALLY FLUENT of Beethoven’s aristocratic patrons was the Russian Count Andreas Razumovsky, son of the Empress Catherine’s “favorite” and recipient of a lifetime ambassadorship to the Hapsburg Court at Vienna. An accomplished amateur violinist and cellist who maintained a superb string quartet as part of his household staff, Razumovsky commissioned Beethoven to write three quartets for concerts intended to serve a dual purpose—both to celebrate his palatial new embassy, grandly adorned with statuary by Canova, and also to commemorate the grievous 1805 Austro-Russian military defeat by Napoleon at Austerlitz, which left thousands of his countrymen dead. Razumovsky stipulated that each of the quartets include Russian themes as a patriotic gesture, and Beethoven searched for appropriate melodies to honor this request. Although engaged with other large-scale projects of his productive “middle period,” Beethoven devoted his full attention to the commission, and he soon completed his Opus 59 (1806). These “Razumovsky” Quartets mark a new era for the string quartet. Formerly a genre written for intimate chambers, the string quartet is here an expanded, quasi-orchestral form intended for a concert hall with a large audience.
Beethoven at this time was obsessed by his desire to master sonata form—an established, yet flexible, eighteenth-century scheme that provided large works with a coherent structure: the exposition of ideas, their full development, their return in mostly original form, and an extensive coda. This clear framework allowed Beethoven to create dramatically nuanced, spacious designs with maximum thematic and harmonic contrast. Each of the Razumovsky Quartets features at least the opening movement in sonata form.
Beethoven wrote much of Opus 59 No. 2 during his 1806 summer visit to the Gratz castle of his patron, Prince Lichnowsky. There he binge-worked with such absorption that the castle staff described him as “not in his right mind.” The visit ended badly after Lichnowsky asked Beethoven to perform for several French officers who were at leisure after their victory over the Russians and Austrians at Austerlitz. Beethoven refused to perform for the conquerors, and he and the Prince quarreled. With his patronage in jeopardy, the enraged Beethoven set off for Vienna despite a heavy rainstorm, which slightly damaged his new manuscripts.
Inward and mysterious, the compact sonata form Allegro of Opus 59 No. 2 begins with two terse chords followed by wisps of a theme. Although subsequent reiterations are gradually woven into an extended melodic line, shifting rhythms and numerous short pauses create an aura of uncertainty that is only resolved at the assertive coda.
The eloquent Molto adagio, also in sonata form, develops a theme possibly derived from the selling of Bach’s name, which in German is B flat, A, C, B natural. According to Beethoven’s friend Czerny, this movement occurred to its composer “when contemplating the starry sky and thinking of music of the spheres.” As homage to Razumovsky, the Allegretto showcases the Russian patriotic hymn Slava (Glory) in its trio section. The brilliant finale, in sonata-rondo form, gains tension with unexpected harmonic relationships. One hears the Russian herd heading to the front in its spectacular coda.
Notes by Nancy Monsman