Performance Wednesday, November 7, 2012 | 7:30 PM

Belcea Quartet

Zankel Hall
The Belcea Quartet, a group that approaches everything it plays with “timeless daring” (The New York Times), continues its three-concert focus on Beethoven’s epoch-making late quartets. This program features the E-flat–Major Quartet, Op. 127—the first of the five final quartets that changed the string quartet genre forever—and the B-flat–Major Quartet, Op 130.
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The Program

String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 127

About the Work

Beethoven may have begun sketching the E-flat–Major Quartet as early as 1822, but it was only after the premiere of the Ninth Symphony in May 1824 that he really got down to work. His renewed interest in the quartet medium had been sparked by a generous commission from Prince Golitsïn, one of Vienna's foremost patrons of music. "I am really impatient to have a new quartet of yours," the prince wrote, adding that he knew well that "you cannot command genius" and that Beethoven was "not the kind of person to sacrifice artistic for personal interest and that music done to order is not your business at all." In the end, Beethoven was paid only for Op. 127; despite the prince's good intentions, the chaotic state of his finances prevented him from fully fulfilling his obligation before the composer's death.

Although Beethoven was quite deaf by the mid-1820s, he could still keep tabs on performances of his quartets by following the players' bow strokes. At a rehearsal of the E-flat–Major Quartet in 1825, the first violinist decided to ignore Beethoven's meno vivace marking at the end of the last movement and maintain the original tempo. Afterward, everyone looked at the composer to see if he had noticed the change and how he would react. According to the violinist, "Beethoven, crouched in a corner, heard nothing, but watched with strained attention. After the last bow stroke, he said laconically, 'Let it remain so,' went to the desks and crossed out the meno vivace in the four parts."

A Closer Listen

A majestic sequence of chords in the home key of E-flat major gives way to a gracefully undulating melody in triple time, paired with a vigorous countersubject built on rising and falling eighth-note scales. These two simple ideas provide grist for Beethoven's mill in the opening Allegro, as he leads us down the labyrinthine byways of his fertile imagination. The excursion is twice interrupted by recurrences of the introductory Maestoso chords, first in G major and later in C major; but far from helping us find our bearings, they merely deepen the sense of tonal dislocation. The A-flat–major Adagioone of Beethoven's most sublimely expressive slow movementscharts a similarly wayward path, with its alternation of long-breathed, tenderly lyrical passages and playfully syncopated, dancelike music decorated with sparkling trills.

Sharp contrasts of texture, dynamics, tonality, and rhythmic motion characterize all four movements of the Op. 127 Quartet, but they are the very essence of the Scherzando vivace. A bouncy dotted figure introduced by the cello and viola gradually gathers force and momentum as it migrates to the upper voices. The movement's giddy energy abruptly turns demonic with a modulation to E-flat minor for the rushing triplets of the presto sectionBeethoven's nod to the central trio in a conventional scherzo movement. After venturing so far afield, it is almost a relief to return to more familiar ground in the unison opening of the Finale. The movement's clear, diatonic harmonies and four-square rhythms convey a reassuring sense of sweet-tempered geniality. The violins hover momentarily in the air, warbling trills in thirds as the harmony shifts from minor to major, then plunge down to earth, ending the quartet in a fantasy of swirling triplets.

—Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130

About the Work

Chronologically, the Quartet in B-flat Major was the last of the three quartets that Beethoven wrote for Prince Golitsïn between 1824 and 1826. It followed hard on the heels of the String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132, with its majestic and deeply felt slow movement that Beethoven had offered as a "sacred song of thanksgiving from a convalescent to the divinity" upon recovering from a severe intestinal ailment. Interestingly, the most carefree of the Op. 130 Quartet's six movements—the lively danza tedesca, or "German dance"—was originally earmarked for the A-Minor Quartet. It is also one of two movements—the other being the darkly urgent Presto—that Vienna's illustrious Schuppanzigh Quartet encored by popular demand at the first performance of the piece on March 21, 1826.

The version of the B-flat–Major Quartet heard on that occasion climaxed in a titanic fugue, analogous to the one Beethoven wrote at the tail end of his Op. 59 set. It was designed as a counterweight to the quartet's first movement, a "serious and heavy-going" piece by the composer's own admission. When Beethoven's publisher complained that this Grosse Fuge—which one bewildered reviewer declared "incomprehensible as Chinese"—would scare off potential customers, he obligingly replaced it with a more easily digestible finale.

A Closer Listen

After the slow, richly textured introduction, a flurry of 16th notes in the first violin seems to signal the start of a conventional sonata-form allegro. But the bursts of almost manic energy are repeatedly interrupted, and that—plus the contrasting rhythms, dynamics, and tonalities—gives the quartet's opening Allegro a decidedly mercurial character. The Presto, in rounded A-B-A form, similarly veers between extremes: The jaunty triple-time midsection in B-flat major is sandwiched between statements of a nervous, tautly compressed tune in the parallel minor key. In the third movement, marked Poco scherzoso ("A little playful"), Beethoven weaves an intricate tapestry of themes and motifs with a combination of elegance and whimsy.

The quartet's loosely structured, almost suite-like format continues with a slightly buffoonish German dance in G major. A series of swooning phrases in 3/8 meter, neatly apportioned into three groups of eight bars each, give way to smoothly interlocking roulades and a display of acrobatics by the first violin before returning at the end in fragmented form. The tender, ravishingly melodious Cavatina serves as a prelude to Beethoven's substitute Finale: a zesty Allegro in rondo form whose dancelike theme, propelled by an insistent eighth-note pulse, seldom sinks far below the music's sparkling surface.

—Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

This concert is made possible, in part, by an endowment fund for young artists established by Mr. and Mrs. Anthony B. Evnin and the A. E. Charitable Foundation.
Funding for the Carnegie Hall Live broadcast series is provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Additional support for this Carnegie Hall Live broadcast is provided by Tourism Ireland.
This performance is part of Chamber Sessions II.

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