Performance Thursday, April 19, 2012 | 7:30 PM

Brentano String Quartet

Weill Recital Hall
On this final night of its three-concert series in Weill Recital Hall, the Brentano String Quartet performs Busoni’s powerful Second String Quartet and focuses on two late masterpieces by Beethoven. London’s Independent has hailed the group’s approach to the Op. 130 quartet as “passionate, uninhibited, and spell-bounding.” Together with the Große Fuge, it’s part of a season finale not to be missed.
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The Program

String Quartet No. 2, Op. 26

About the Composer

Ferruccio Busoni defies categorization as much as any figure in the music world of the late 19th century. On the one hand, he was preeminent among concert pianists of his time and had a profound influence on following generations; on the other, he was also influential as a composer and composition teacher—among his many students were Edgard Varèse, Percy Grainger, and Kurt Weill. An ethnic Italian born in Tuscany, Busoni was ultimately a citizen of the world, living his life in Austria, Finland, and the US before settling down in Berlin. He was at once both more radical and more conservative than the musical establishment of his time: He is famous for his devotion to the work of Bach, but is also noted for a manifesto-like essay that welcomed the coming of a new avant-garde, exhorted his fellow composers to throw out the old laws, and predicted the division of the octave into more than 12 tones.

In the realm of chamber music, Busoni's name is not a common sight. The Second Quartet dates from approximately 1887, when Busoni was 21 and studying in Leipzig. This quartet is the work of a brilliant young mind mulling over several powerful currents from the musical past: Its richly polyphonic textures reflect his extensive study of Bach; its indomitable spirit recalls Beethoven in many places; and several intimate gestures evoke the work of Schumann, who was the teacher of Carl Reinecke, Busoni's own teacher in Leipzig. Concurrently, Busoni embraces the spirit of his own times. He is at ease writing in an extremely chromatic style, foreshadowing the work of younger contemporaries such as Max Reger and Alexander Zemlinsky. Also, like many late-Romantic composers, he unifies the work by recasting themes from earlier movements in later ones.

The first movement opens with three monolithic chords. What follows is a fairly substantial movement characterized by rhythmic drive and intricate contrapuntal techniques. The movement is an unmistakable homage to Brahms's First Quartet, recalling its meter, textures, and symphonic scope. However, Busoni injects bravura exuberance into his writing in preference to Brahms's tighter reasoning. The Andante second movement opens with a simple, rustic exchange between the cello and the violins that sets the stage for a transparently textured movement. This section is succeeded by a warm, chorale-like theme in the lower three instruments that is answered in rhapsodic triplets by the first violin. After this is developed, a sudden ominous appearance of the opening melody from the first movement halts all progress; the music gradually feels its way back to its own material and draws to a conclusion. The third movement, a rapid scherzo, alludes to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with its D-minor octaves and exciting drive. The contrasting trio section's Schumannesque dreaminess is more intimate—a lovely foil to the lightning of the main section. A slow and somber passage opens the last movement; we hear references to Beethoven's Op. 18 and Op. 135 quartets. The main body of the movement moves to D major—jovial, busy, and brimming with contrapuntal games. Various barriers inhibit the music's forward progress late in the movement: the return of the slow opening material, and a fierce attack from the minor theme that opened the first movement. But ultimately, a dramatic accelerando overcomes these difficulties, and the movement rockets to a euphoric conclusion.

—Misha Amory

String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130, with Große Fuge, Op. 133

About the Composer

The 16 string quartets that Beethoven wrote between 1798 and 1826 constitute a towering legacy, one that has both inspired and intimidated composers for more than two centuries. Compared to Haydn's 68 quartets and Mozart's 27, Beethoven's output was modest. Moreover, his production of quartets was sporadic, usually prompted by commissions from various aristocratic friends. The six Op. 18 quartets and the "Harp" Quartet, Op. 74, are dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz, Vienna's foremost patron of the arts in the early 1800s, while the three Op. 59 quartets were written at the behest of Count Andrey Razumovsky, Russia's ambassador to the Viennese court and a keen amateur violinist. Toward the end of his life, after a hiatus of some 14 years, Beethoven accepted a commission from Prince Nikolai Galitsin, a cello-playing Russian nobleman, for "one, two, or three new quartets" on exceptionally generous terms. The Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130, is dedicated to the prince, as are the Op. 127 and Op. 132 quartets.

Regardless of who was paying the piper, Beethoven showed little inclination to let either his enlightened benefactors or the Viennese public call the tune. To modern ears, the early Op. 18 quartets are models of Classical poise and lucidity. That's not how they sounded to the composer's contemporaries, however; one critic observed that they were "very difficult to perform and not at all popular." The weightier, more contrapuntal style of the middle-period quartets—the three "Razumovskys," the "Harp," and the "Serioso"—encountered similar resistance. Most challenging of all to performers and listeners alike were the five late quartets, opp. 127, 130, 131, 132, and 135.  These knotty, introspective masterpieces that Beethoven labored over from the summer of 1824 to late 1826 stretch the formal and expressive language of the Classical string quartet almost to the breaking point.

About the Works

Whether or not he made a conscious decision to devote his final years almost exclusively to writing string quartets, there is little doubt that he regarded these five extraordinary works as the capstone of his life's work. The language of the late quartets—with its radical discontinuities, far-flung tonal relationships, and bold reconfiguration of musical time and space—exerted a seminal influence on composers as diverse as Schumann, Bartók, and Shostakovich.

The Quartet in B-flat Major was the last of the three quartets that Beethoven wrote for Prince Galitsin in 1825. It followed hard on the heels of 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. In fact, the most lighthearted of the B-flat-Major Quartet's six movements—the lively "danza tedesca," or "German dance"—was originally earmarked for the A-Minor Quartet.

The original version of the B-flat–Major Quartet climaxed in a titanic fugue, analogous to the one Beethoven had placed 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. Both adjectives apply in spades to the dense, closely argued, and somewhat enigmatic Große Fuge, or "Great Fugue," which one bewildered reviewer pronounced as "incomprehensible as Chinese." When Beethoven's publisher complained that the fugue would deter potential customers, he unhesitatingly replaced it with a more conventional finale. The Große Fuge was subsequently issued as a freestanding opus, in versions for both string quartet and four-hand piano, with rehearsal letters inserted in the score at the publisher's insistence to keep unwary amateur players from losing their way in the thickets of counterpoint.

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; these interruptions plus the sharp contrasts of rhythm, dynamics, and tonality give the quartet's opening movement 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, Beethoven weaves an intricate tapestry of themes and motifs with a combination of elegance and whimsy.

The quartet's loosely structured, 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 an acrobatic display by the first violin before returning at the end in fragmented form. The tender, ravishingly melodious Cavatina, suffused with the warmth of E-flat major, serves as a prelude to the final movement.

The uncompromising intensity of the Große Fuge makes heavy demands on the listener, though it's unlikely to faze anyone who knows the quartets of Schoenberg or Bartók. The subject of the fugue—a sequence of half-steps separated by wide leaps—is both simple and impossible to miss. The four players present it in unison at the beginning, with dramatic accents and pauses. A quiet interlude of a more searching character leads to the fugue proper, which breaks out at a gallop in jagged, energetic rhythms. "Partly free, partly in strict counterpoint," as Beethoven indicates in the score, the fugue is divided into clearly defined sections of varied textures, meters, and tonalities. As in any fugue, part of the fun is listening for the theme as it darts in and out of the tightly knit musical fabric, like a golden thread.

—Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

This concert and the Brentano String Quartet series are 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.
This performance is part of Brentano String Quartet.

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