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).
NOW FROM PRISTINE AUDIO
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
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
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
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
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
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)