Sunday, April 3, 2016

Enso Quartet Redux: Beethoven & the 'Harp'

The Enso Quartet
Neither rain nor snow nor... no, wait, even the mail didn't get out after that snowstorm! Thirty inches of snow? Come on...

One of many events felled by the Blizzard of January 2016, the Enso Quartet's appearance with Market Square Concerts was able to be rescheduled to Wednesday, April 6th, and switched to Market Square Church.

One hopes this time the weather will be better...

A couple of things about that, too,  to accommodate their traveling schedule, since they're now "just passing through" on their way between Tennessee's concert the night before and a 1pm concert in New York the following day: the start time of the concert here is 7:30, earlier than usual - and the repertoire has been altered to fit in with their current tour. Originally to be Alberto Ginastera's 1st Quartet and Beethoven's "3rd Razumovsky," it's now Ginastera's 2nd Quartet and Beethoven's Quartet in E-flat, Op. 74, the "Harp." In between, we still get to hear one of the major works of one of the more amazing composers of the 20th Century, Henri Dutilleux and his "nocturne," Ainsi la nuit.

I'll be doing a pre-concert talk 45 minutes before the program begins, so that means it starts at the rather ungainly time of 6:45.

The concert is dedicated to the memory of Dorothy Anderson, a long-time supporter of the arts and education - and especially "education and the arts."

You can read about the Ginastera 2nd Quartet here; and about Dutilleux and Ainsi la nuit here.

Beethoven in 1806
After Beethoven composed the very symphonic, certainly extroverted quartets dedicated to Count Razumovsky, completed in 1806 - the Enso Quartet had originally planned to perform the 3rd of these: you can read that original post, here (especially if you've always been wondering what a 'Razumovsky' is) - he took what seems like a step back with his next quartet, the one in E-flat Major, published as Op. 74.

By comparison, yes, it is more intimate and despite being in Beethoven's favorite "heroic" key (for instance, the Eroica Symphony and the 'Emperor' Piano Concerto), it is certainly not comparably heroic in stature.

1806 had been an amazing year - amazingly productive, given all the works he completed then, including the 4th Symphony and two largely 'serene' works, the 4th Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto. On the other hand, 1809 was a horrendous year. Yet, once the worst was behind him, he composed this quartet, the 5th Piano Concerto, the Les Adieu Sonata, the F-sharp Major Piano Sonata, and started sketching what became the 7th Symphony.

But Beethoven typically alternated between extroverted works and more intimate ones (I don't think I could ever use the word 'introverted' in relation to Beethoven). Even within a particular piece, the contrasts between the two could be very strong and the 'Harp' Quartet is one such work.

In this recording, made at the Market Square Church in October, 2012, we hear the 'Harp' Quartet performed by the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin when they opened Market Square Concerts' 2012-2013 Season:

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The “Harp” Quartet earns its nickname from the unusual passages where the instruments pluck the strings – called pizzicato – as part of the opening theme at 2:07-2:18, part of a transition passage leading to the second theme in the secondary key (in the repeat of the opening section at 3:39) and again at 6:10-6:34, where it leads up to the climactic return of the main theme in the home key, then again at 6:58-7:22 where he expands it to reintroduce the 2nd theme in the main key. At 8:53-9:22, he brings it back again, this time as part of the coda (the 'ending' bit) where it's finally subsumed in the great noise that sounds like it's going to bring the movement to an "extroverted" close before Beethoven changes his mind, bringing the pizzicato motive back one more time (9:41-10:00) where eventually it goes from plucked to bowed strings to conclude - decisively but not so heroically as it seemed to be going for a bit earlier.

The second movement (at 10:15), the slow movement, is a straight-forward adagio in A-flat Major, which Philip Radcliff in his book on the quartets calls “one of the most directly appealing movements that Beethoven ever wrote” with its “mood of Olympic serenity.” While it may sound more "classically lined" that the first movement, this movement reminds us that Mozart was always Beethoven's ideal, not necessarily his teacher, Haydn.

Judging from the sketches, this long-breathed theme came into existence more spontaneously than usual for Beethoven who frequently struggled with his ideas, the final version sometimes lacking any similarity with his first attempt.

The third movement (at 19:38) abruptly changes the overall mood. In Beethoven’s darkly dramatic key of C Minor (think especially the C Minor 5th Symphony), it bears many resemblances to the scherzo of the 5th with its almost constant “fate” rhythm in the background. Unlike the 5th, however, the transition (24:23) leading to the finale works in reverse: rather than building up to it, it’s more like the Storm movement in the 6th Symphony, the Pastorale, where the thunder and tension recedes into the background. It moves directly into the 4th Movement (24:49) without a break.

But this finale is not the finale of the 5th Symphony, a victory dance responding to the famous "Fate Knocks at the Door" Motive. It starts off almost anticlimactically with a seemingly mundane theme. This, however, sets up a series of variations that soon shifts into the patterns we’d normally associate with Beethoven. The harmony is simple, almost prosaic – easy for a listener to follow than some of the things he’d written before which often left listeners unwilling to leave the 18th Century behind them.

Rather than being old-fashioned, it’s his way of taking “something old” and turning it into “something new.” Perhaps not as new as the variations that would conclude his late piano sonatas and would fill the Late Quartets with some of their most magical moments, but well on its way.

And this quartet is a difficult work to “place.” It follows the symphonic brilliance of the three “Razumovsky” Quartets (Op. 59) and though it seems to be a “one-off” work, not part of a larger set, it’s actually part of a pair of quartets that were written about the same time, though its companion piece, the Op. 95 Quartet in F Minor, which Beethoven called the “Serioso,” was completed the following year but published several years later. Then, it would be twelve years before Beethoven would begin his last set of string quartets, known collectively as the “Late Quartets,” when we'll find ourselves in a whole different world.

- Dick Strawser

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