BEETHOVEN: String Quartets 12-16. Grosse Fuge in B-flat.
Hollywood String Quartet (Felix Slatkin, 1st violin; Paul Shure, 2nd violin; Alvin Dinkin, viola; Eleanor Aller Slatkin, viola).
Pristine PACM282 TT: 195:45 (3 CDs).

Legends return. As a teen encountering much of classical music for the first time, I had very little regard for Beethoven as anything other than an "historically-important" figure -- which meant that he did very little that moved me. At the time, I liked either very old music, like the Renaissance through Bach, or very new music like Debussy through Carter. The Classical and Romantic eras didn't interest me a lot, and of that era I tended to like oddball composers like Berwald, Grieg, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov Borodin -- you get the idea. The only mainstream composers I had a thing for were Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky. Sure, I liked some Beethoven pieces: the Pathétique and Waldstein piano sonatas, the Kreutzer violin sonata, the First, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Symphonies, the Missa Solemnis, the Violin Concerto and the Fourth Piano Concerto, plus a few others that I suspect appealed mostly to my sense of teenage drama, but on the whole I wouldn't have crossed the street to hear a performance of any of it, and to this day the Eroica remains my least-favorite Beethoven symphony. I can't say exactly why or how I turned around, but of course I did. The music's undoubted historical importance now seems to me the least interesting thing about it. Since I came so late to Beethoven, I still feel the thrill of discovering "new" stuff that others have long since taken for granted. I haven't yet heard all the string quartets, for example, although I know pretty well the middle and late ones.

I turned on to them in a way that might be familiar to some of you. When I drive, I try to tune in to a classical station on the car radio and, since I almost always seem to arrive in the middle of something, play Guess the Composer. Over the years, I've gotten pretty good at the game. Okay, I'll brag. I'm freakin' terrific at it. However, I once broke in on some string quartet which completely foxed me. It sounded both early Romantic and weirdly Modern at the same time, as if somebody like Ernst Toch or Busoni had decided to adapt an older style. It drove me nuts, until I heard Beethoven's name announced at the end -- one of the late quartets (so many years since, I can't even remember which one I'd heard, probably No. 14) -- but it gave me the shove I needed.

These quartets in particular gave the Nineteenth Century fits. The American composer Daniel Gregory Mason (born 1873) found them "repellent." Most writers today have reached the consensus of finding them among Beethoven's best music, although they can still fight over the quartets' "meaning." Perhaps the greatest music critic in English, George Bernard Shaw, in the provocative way of fin de siècle wit, contended that listeners didn't understand the quartets not because of their complexity, but because of their simplicity. I suspect he was just showing off.

Beethoven composed the quartets in the order 12, 15, 13, Grosse Fuge (the original finale to #13), 14, 16. I don't know why they have the numbers they do, but I suspect it concerns order of publication. He began them after the Ninth Symphony, and they constituted his main work from that point until his death. They epitomize his late period -- flirtations with structural breakdown and more highly contrapuntal textures than in his earlier work. Indeed, Bach becomes increasingly to the fore as a creative spur.

Some contemporary critics see these works as a unity, arguing that motifs from one will show up in others. I don't know the quartets in enough detail to weigh in on one side or another. Right now, they seem to me unified only in the sense that Beethoven wrote all of them in a space of two years. However, their differences -- mood, architecture, harmonic practice -- strike me as far more remarkable.

Quartet No. 12 in E-flat, op. 127 (1825)
The work begins with an unusually structured movement. A maestoso opening dissolves into a "wildflower," lyrical idea, a fore-vision of Elgar, which takes up most of the movement. However, the opening twice interrupts: once at the beginning of the development, and once near development's end. Furthermore, the lyrical bits proceed in 3-part counterpoint over a cantus firmus. The adagio second movement, the longest of the quartet by far, consists of six variations plus coda and follows a harmonic plan similar to the Ninth Symphony's finale. It starts up in the air, regarding key, on the tonic of the previous movement and doesn't resolve itself until a bit later into A-flat. A barcarolle becomes a sarabande and then a coarse country dance. An echt-Beethoven adagio (think the slow movement of the Ninth) follows, followed by a slightly faster variation in which the viola takes the lead. Throughout the quartet, incidentally, Beethoven divvies up the interest among the parts, not content to having the first violin lead all the time. This fits well with the composer's new contrapuntal viewpoint. After a while, the violin takes over with a decorative countermelody to the main theme. A fragmentary coda closes the movement.

The scherzando vivace reminds me less of the archetypal Beethoven scherzo and resembles more closely the one in the Ninth, in that the composer bases both on fugato technique. Also in both, the music soars and then suddenly stops and restarts. Such moments occur frequently in late Beethoven (practically a structural principle in the Missa Solemnis and the finale of the Ninth), as if he wants to tear through the musical fabric to the near-complete destruction of musical coherence, without actually committing it. The finale is a rare combination of vision and good humor. It begins, like the second movement, in harmonically-ambiguous octaves, and becomes a series of faux-naïve country dances, anticipating Dvorák's decades later.

Quartet No. 15 in a, op. 132 (1825)
In five movements, this work may have inspired T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets. For me, it's one of Beethoven's oddest, especially the first movement. I'd had trouble trying to understand it as a sonata until I realized that it wasn't. However, I still had no idea what it was, other than a one-off. I then came across an analysis by composer Roger Sessions who argued for it as a movement of three expositions of the same ideas. Although I'm not sure why that doesn't count as a sonata with development, it makes as much sense as anything. The pervasiveness of the rising half-step as a generator of ideas interests me more -- true not only for the first movement, but throughout the quartet. To me, it signifies Beethoven's chops as a composer like little else, in that something so minimal can create such formal richness. The second movement, a quick minuet with trio, emphasizes the rising semitone in its main theme. The trio resembles a musette, a country dance marked by the drone of bagpipes.

The slow movement consists of a dialogue between two contrapuntal ideas: the first consisting of imitative entrances of rising sixths; the second of falling fifths and sixths. Beethoven wrote it during a period of serious illness, with pain in his gut so severe he expected to die. Nevertheless, he pulled through. He titled the movement in full "Molto adagio -- Andante -- Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart. Molto adagio -- Neue Kraft fühlend. Andante -- Molto adagio -- Andante -- Molto adagio. Mit innigster Empfindung." The German translates as "Holy song of thanks from a convalescent to the divinity, in Lydian mode. . . . Feeling new strength. . . . With innermost feeling." The music begins with the gravity of a stilo antico motet, and yet constantly turns to hope and devotion. The simple architecture belies both the emotional complexity and the thematic interpenetration of both ideas.

After the nobility of the slow movement, a genuine oddity follows. Beethoven puts up a trite little march. He probably recognized its triviality, because it suddenly poops out into a recitative that has nothing to do with anything previously heard in the quartet, as far as I can tell. The recitative then leads to the final movement, a sonata rondo of the form A B A C A B A coda. However, the form is less remarkable than the music -- a genuine waltz, suave and melancholy, in a vein later found again by Schumann and Brahms. I can't think of a precedent to this movement's lyricism. Beethoven seems its "onlie begetter." By the way, according to the Great God Wiki, he originally planned to use this as the main theme to the finale of the Ninth. I can't imagine how that would have fit in and let out a whew that he came up with "Freude" instead. Structurally, the quartet's finale couldn't be clearer, until you get to the final appearance of the main theme and a crazy, manic presto codetta which seems to deconstruct that theme. The entire quartet speaks to Beethoven's incredible originality.

String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat, op. 130 (1825; rev. 1826)
The two dates mean something. Beethoven originally ended this six-movement quartet with the Grosse Fuge, which would have added 20 minutes to an already-hefty score. However, to Beethoven's chagrin, audiences seemed indifferent to the fugue. The publisher balked and persuaded the composer to supply something less ambitious. The new finale became Beethoven's last completed work.

Beethoven, notoriously recalcitrant about changing his music at the prompting of outsiders, must have seen some merit in the publisher's misgivings. The Grosse Fuge (published separately as op. 133) to my mind overwhelms the rest of the quartet, while the new finale fits right in, but others have done battle for the original arrangement, seeing the later ending as removing monumentality from the quartet.

Of a widely-acknowledged set of enigmatic pieces, I find this quartet one of the odder ones, although its structure doesn't present many problems. However, the music seems to follow many different impulses: Beethoven's typical late-period concerns, as well as looking back to the Baroque dance suite and movements expressively unlike any before or since. The first movement alternates a slow chorale and an allegro, with threatened breakdown at the junctures. It works with four basic ideas. A descending line, in harmonically ambiguous octaves, opens the quartet and constitutes the main matter of the chorale. Two cells -- a rapid downward figure and a thrusting rising fourth, introduced simultaneously -- constitute the first subject group of the allegro. A wide rising interval distinguishes the second subject. The music stretches harmonically, reaching the remote key of G-flat. The chorale interrupts to bring us closer to harmonic home, but the allegro still takes off again for exotic places, including (I think) G major. Nevertheless, we return to B-flat in time for a modified recap.

A very brief presto follows, but it doesn't sound like previous Beethoven prestos. In expression, it could have come from Mendelssohn, who certainly learned a lot from the late Beethoven quartets. It begins in duple time, moves abruptly to triple time, stutters, and starts again. The end comes before you have time to take it in. Beethoven follows this with what sounds like his take on a gavotte, but it also seems to provide a source to someone like Dvorák, especially in his treatment of peasant dances. This is a "time-travelling" movement par excellence. We can say the same for the next movement, a "German dance," a smoothly flowing waltz.

We now come to one of the most remarkable movements in all of Beethoven, the "Cavatina." Nominally a Beethoven Adagio, it's probably better called an adagio by Beethoven. To me it bears no resemblance to any other Beethoven adagio, not even the one in the Ninth, a pretty recent sibling. Furthermore, it sounds like nobody else. Beethoven opened up more than his share of new paths, many of which his successors took up. This is a particularly beautiful one that he seems to have walked alone -- once.

The finale, another sophisticated evocation of a lively country dance, sounds like another hint to Dvorák.

Grosse Fuge in B-flat, op. 133 (1825)
The title means little more than "grand (or long) fugue." It may count as the largest movement for string quartet Beethoven ever wrote. The Nineteenth Century (and some of the Twentieth) hadn't a clue. Stravinsky was one of the first composers to express unqualified admiration for it. Although it has long passages in fugue, much of it isn't fugal at all. You can read a good analysis of it on Wikipedia. I find myself allied with the Nineteenth Century. Yes, it's an amazing fugue, but I'm less impressed with it as a piece of music. It seems way too relentless for me, especially since Beethoven keeps hammering the same rhythm through much of it and tends to give me Excedrin Headache #403. So call me a Philistine.

String Quartet No. 14 in c#, op. 131 (1826)
Talk about strange. This piece still causes writers to scratch their heads. Formally, it bears little relation to other quartets of the time, even Beethoven's. It proceeds in seven continuous movements. It boldly teleports to distant keys, beginning in c#-minor. There are inter-movement thematic correspondences, pretty much used at the time only by Beethoven, at least with his level of subtlety. Transitions between the movements are brilliantly worked out. The miraculously idiosyncratic part-writing anticipates the Twentieth Century. We know from letters that the composer spurred himself to greater effort for this work. Listening to these quartets as a chunk can lull you into lapsed attention. You recognize their worth, but after a while you tend to take them for granted. Then a work like this comes along to shake you up. I once resolved to read all of Yeats's poems from beginning to end. After three or four, I said to myself, "Oh, I see how he's doing this. It's just a matter of this diction and this sense of music and these ideas. I could learn these tricks." Then I'd come upon a poem totally unlike the others, totally unanticipated by them and exponentially better, and realize I wasn't a genius after all.

The first movement, a slow, melancholy fugue full of chromatics, shows Beethoven's increased interest in imitative counterpoint (see especially the fugues in the Hammerklavier, Sonata No. 31, Missa Solemnis and the last movement of the Ninth) as well as in Bach as an influence. Throughout Beethoven's notebooks of this period we see Bach themes scribbled in the margins. Beethoven knew Bach's music, particularly the Well-Tempered Clavier, from his days as a performing pianist and had read the Förkel's Bach study, the very first biography of Bach. However, Beethoven brings to the fugue a Romantic psychology, a rapprochement to the drama of his late sonata forms. To me, the fugal subject has a "Jewish" wailing quality, a "Kol Nidre" vibe. The fugue ends in C#-major. Beethoven then gives us bare C# octaves and boldly begins the next movement in D, as if those octaves were leading tones, rather than the previous tonic. This presto, gossamer in texture and certainly a hint to Mendelssohn, is a mini-sonata. At the end of the movement, Beethoven shifts the tonality to b-minor.

We arrive not at a full-blown movement, but essentially a transition from one place to another, allowing Beethoven to modulate to A-major, for a large set of seven variations, with coda, ending in A-major. Beethoven doesn't even bother to prepare us for the next movement but breaks in with a presto in E, as manic as a child on a sugar high, with abrupt changes from soft to loud and little time-outs, as if the kid is trying to decide where to rush off to next. The movement ends on G# octaves, the third note of E. These become the tonic of g#-minor, the key of the next movement, another transitional passage, which nevertheless sounds like it will become a full movement as it sings another lament. The G# gets emphasized, but the underlying harmony treats it as the dominant to the key of c#-minor. Once Beethoven establishes this harmonic state, he goes directly to the finale, another sonata. The first subject group marches along with vigor. In the second subject, a drop to the violin's low register followed by a lyrical singing at its top. Here Beethoven manages to refer to the subject of the first-movement fugue, perhaps a dig at the audiences who rejected the Grosse Fuge as the quartet's ending.

String Quartet No. 16 in F, op. 135 (1826)
From an extremely high overview, this work seems more conventional than its predecessors -- four movements of the "correct" character (allegro, scherzo, lento, allegro) -- but from the very beginning, it confounds expectations.

The first movement begins in harmonic ambiguity, briefly resting in its home key of F-major, before heading toward Novosibirsk. Furthermore, Beethoven throws out a slew of distinct ideas and seems hell-bent on developing every one of them. The movement quickly moves from one idea to the next and includes a fugal development. It leaves the impression of huge substance crammed into a small space. It normally takes me several listenings before I have some grasp of the whole.

Although the following presto has the character of a scherzo, it is actually a compressed sonata on two ideas -- the first, free and easy; the second, a bit anxious. Both, however, are so heavily syncopated, that a listener occasionally loses the downbeat and becomes rhythmically untethered. Events within its three minutes seem to happen at great speed, so it too packs a lot into a little. The movement becomes more manic as it proceeds, culminating in a "barbaric passage" of wailing open fifths.

So far, Beethoven has grounded the quartet in F tonality. The slow movement, yet another variation set (although, extremely condensed, it differs from most of the final period), begins on a single F, to which Beethoven adds an A-flat, leading one to expect a movement in f-minor. However, he then throws in a D-flat and establishes D-flat major as the home key -- a bit startling, but in a good way. You feel suddenly lifted into a more solid, secure emotional space, especially after the presto. The composer seems to aim for the celestial, perhaps a response to another serious illness -- swollen feet and abdomen, jaundice -- indications of the liver cirrhosis and multiple organ failure that killed him. The variations themselves are leisurely and spacious.

The finale has provided food for speculation ever since its publication. Beethoven wrote under the first notes of the grave intro, "Muss es sein?" (must it be), and "Es muss sein!" (it must be) under the following allegro's main theme, the intro notes upside-down. But what is "it?" Some have seen this as Beethoven asking an existential question. Others point out that the theme itself comes from a humorous Beethoven canon. I strongly suspect the composer of setting the cat among the pigeons. The opening may pull a serious face, but the following allegro exudes light-heartedness and wit -- "turning a frown upside-down." Even though the solemn intro returns just before the recap, "es muss sein!" creeps back in and blossoms into its cheerful self and an even merrier coda. A very satisfying end.

The Hollywood String Quartet consisted of the top studio musicians in the film industry, including Leonard Slatkin's parents, Felix Slatkin on violin and Eleanor Aller on cello. Felix's relatively early death in 1963 cut the quartet's career short, but I regard them as the great American quartet of their era, playing at or very near the level of the Quartetto Italiano, my gold standard. Their tone was strong and remarkably consistent among the various players. Slatkin may at times, like many first violinists, be slightly too prominent, especially in the top register, but the color of his instrument doesn't differ from those of his colleagues and the lapses are rare. Overall, however, their performances remain pretty much touchstones for these works. If elegance is the hallmark of the Quartetto Italiano, rhythm is theirs. I don't really think of Beethoven as an elegant composer, so the Hollywood moves ahead of the Italians here. Their tempo choices strike me as dead on, as does their view of the character of each movement. Furthermore, they handle Beethoven's rhythms almost like jazz musicians. You don't feel as if the performances rest on a metronome, but on a perfect mental synch. They swing. The only complaint I could make doesn't concern them but EMI/Capitol, the original issuer. The label's top leadership was convinced stereo would turn out a fad refused to record them in anything but mono.

I had these accounts on Testament. Pristine improves on that sound, creating a sense of space around the music. I recommend these incarnations over either Testament or EMI.

S.G.S. (March 2013)