CARNEGIE HALL PRESENTS

Performance Friday, March 23, 2012 | 7:30 PM

Elias String Quartet

Weill Recital Hall
The members of the Elias String Quartet have “revealed themselves as superb exponents of Mendelssohn’s music” (The Sunday Times, London). In addition to Mendelssohn’s “Ist es wahr?” Quartet, they also perform works by Mozart and Janácek.
Back to Event Details
Print Program Notes

The Program

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
String Quartet in A Major, K. 464


About the Composer


By the early 1780s, Mozart had completed his informal apprenticeship in string-quartet writing under Joseph Haydn. If the elder composer had brought the Classical quartet genre to full maturity, the younger man invested it with unprecedented emotional depth and complexity. Nowhere are these qualities more apparent than in the half-dozen quartets composed between late 1782 and early 1785, known collectively as the “Haydn” Quartets. In dedicating the set to his esteemed mentor, Mozart reciprocated the magnanimous gesture that Haydn had made several months earlier, when he told Wolfgang’s father that his son was “the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.”


About the Work


Completed in January 1785, the A-Major Quartet, K. 464, is the fourth of the six “Haydn” Quartets. Mozart presented the published set to Haydn later that year, describing it as “the fruit of long and laborious study.” The truth of the statement is evidenced by the unusually large number of preparatory sketches that Mozart made, which attest both his industry and his “profound knowledge of composition.” Needless to say, however, these highly polished masterpieces betray no whiff of midnight oil. One contemporary critic chided Mozart for seeking novelty at the expense of conventional feeling; the quartets, this reviewer complained, were “too highly seasoned—and whose palate can endure this for long?” Evidently, he underestimated the European public’s taste for spicy musical fare. The “Haydn” Quartets were so enthusiastically received in Austria and elsewhere that the scores had to be reprinted several times.


A Closer Listen


In the opening Allegro, the first violin’s sweet-tempered melody is answered by a gruff unison phrase in the lower register. Mozart combines, recombines, and elaborates these two germinal ideas against a kaleidoscopically changing harmonic backdrop, varying and enriching the texture with imitative entries, syncopation, and contrary motion between the voices. After an unusually substantial Menuetto, built around a repeated-note figure in dotted rhythm, we reach the quartet’s centerpiece: an extended theme and variations in the dominant key of D major, featuring star turns for each of the four players in succession. A deceptively simple four-note theme, descending by half steps, announces the final Allegro, and soon we’re off on a merry chase, full of exuberant contrapuntal artifice, unpredictable instrumental pairings, and playful twists and turns. Keep your eye on the ball, Mozart seems to be saying as he dazzles us with his compositional virtuosity and sleight of hand.

—Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

 

LEOŠ JANÁČEK
String Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata”


About the Composer


Long after the successful premiere of his opera Jenůfa in 1904, Janáček remained little known outside his native Moravia. His modest fame rested largely on his accomplishments as a teacher, organist, and musical folklorist. Not until a revised version of Jenůfa was staged in Prague in 1916 did his fame begin to spread. Janáček was already moving away from the late-Romantic ethos of his early works to the distinctive sound world of his maturity, characterized by epigrammatic terseness, abrupt changes of mood and atmosphere, and irregular, speech-like rhythms. In the last decade of his life, his passionate but platonic affair with the much younger Kamila Stösslová sparked a white-hot blaze of compositional activity. Janáček immortalized his muse in such masterworks as the operas Kát’a Kabanová,The Cunning Little Vixen, and The Makropulos Affair, as well as the Second String Quartet of 1928, subtitled “Intimate Letters,” which he described as having been “written in fire.”


About the Work


Janáček’s gift for impassioned utterance and dramatic characterization are front and center in his First String Quartet of 1923. The work takes its subtitle from Leo Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata, in which a pathologically jealous husband stabs his wife upon discovering her with her violinist paramour. At a crucial point in the story, the two lovers play Beethoven’s well-known “Kreutzer” Sonata together, prompting the husband to declare that “music in general is a terrible thing … Its effect is neither to elevate nor to degrade, but to excite.” After reading Tolstoy’s novella in the original Russian many years earlier, the Slavophile Janáček had been inspired to compose a piano trio (now lost), some of whose ideas, he explained, “gave rise to the quartet.” Whether those ideas were musical or programmatic, Janáček’s own loveless marriage provides a compelling subtext for the First String Quartet—though, unlike Tolstoy’s tortured protagonist, he found at least a measure of happiness in his last years.


A Closer Listen


That Janáček envisioned the quartet as a continuous narrative is suggested by the fact that all four movements are marked Con moto. Yet nearly everything about the music—its restless, unstable rhythms, disjointed, episodic structure, and harsh juxtapositions of tender lyricism and savage angst—bespeaks discontinuity. The opening theme—a sad little tune that rises and falls back on itself, exhausted—casts a mood of bleak despair that is never fully dispelled: Its return in the quartet’s final bars is less a sign of closure than of open-ended grief. Even the work’s lighter moments, such as the cello’s perky countermelody at the beginning, are fraught with anxiety and foreboding. Whatever attracted Janáček to Tolstoy’s morbid tale of marital infidelity, his sympathies were clearly with the wife: In a letter to Stösslová about the quartet, he conjured the image of “a poor woman, tormented, beaten, battered to death.”

—Harry Haskell


 

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

FELIX MENDELSSOHN
String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 13, “Ist es wahr?”


About the Composer


No work better illustrates Mendelssohn’s prodigious precocity than the A-Minor String Quartet. Both its technical assurance and its depth of feeling belie the fact that its composer was an 18-year-old student at the University of Berlin. To be sure, by late 1827 Mendelssohn already had an impressive clutch of masterpieces to his credit, including the first version of the great String Octet and the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Yet none of his previous works quite prepares one for the boldly iconoclastic language of his second quartet. It was at once a tribute to his artistic progenitors and a declaration of independence.


About the Work


Mendelssohn freely acknowledged his debts to other composers. Prominent among them was J. S. Bach, who inspired the profusion of counterpoint in the A-Minor Quartet. (Weeks after finishing the quartet, Mendelssohn would begin rehearsals for his epoch-making revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in Berlin.) The strongest influence on Mendelssohn’s quartet writing, however, was Beethoven. Contemporary critics often bracketed the two composers together, and so characteristically “Beethovenian” are the A-Minor Quartet’s quasi-cyclical structure and generally high level of dissonance that one Parisian listener mistook it for one of Beethoven’s late quartets, much to Mendelssohn’s chagrin.  


A Closer Listen


The quartet opens with a luminous, triple-time melody in A major borrowed from a love song that Mendelssohn had recently composed. A three-note motif—first falling, then rising—soon emerges as one of the work’s germinal ideas. (It originally accompanied the words Ist es wahr?—“Is it true,” the lover asks, “that you are always waiting for me in the arbored walk?”) The rather severe fugue that constitutes the midsection of the quartet’s slow second movement recalls the Bach of the Musical Offering and the Beethoven of the late string quartets. Yet there is no mistaking Mendelssohn’s touch in the third movement, with its trademark gossamer scherzo. Nor is there anything remotely derivative in the masterly way the finale recapitulates and elaborates on the themes of the preceding movements. A spacious coda, in radiant A major, harks back to the question posed at the beginning of the quartet, wordlessly affirming the poet’s devotion to the beloved woman “who feels with me and stays ever true to me.”

—Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation 

This performance is part of Quartets Plus.

Part of

You May Also Like

Sunday, October 12, 2014
The MET Orchestra

Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Belcea Quartet

Wednesday, November 12, 2014
Quatuor Ebène

Load Testing by Web Performance