Sunday June 29, 2014 4:30pm

Juilliard String Quartet


The world-renowned Juilliard String Quartet will grace us with a wide variety of chamber music, from Bach’s Art of the Fugue to Alban Berg’s haunting Lyric Suite to Beethoven’s classic Op. 59, No. 3 (Razumovsky).

Bach / Contrapunctus I – IV from Art of Fugue, BWV 1080
Berg / Lyric Suite
Beethoven / String Quartet in C major, Op. 59 No. 3


Photo by Gabe Palacio

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The Juilliard String Quartet play selections from Beethoven’s Quartet in B Flat Major, Op. 130 and discuss their relationship with it.






The Juilliard String Quartet: Joseph Lin, violin; Ronald Copes, violin; Roger Tapping, viola; Joel Krosnick, cello

The Juilliard Quartet continues its vibrant and pioneering tradition of music making and teaching in the 2013-14 season welcoming violist Roger Tapping who replaced Samuel Rhodes following a final performance with the Quartet at the Ravinia Festival July 10, 2013 and ending a remarkable 44 years as the Quartet’s violist.

The Juilliard Quartet tours North America from San Francisco to New York where they play twice annually in Alice Tully Hall; at the Nasher Gallery in Dallas with guest pianist Leon Fleisher, two concerts in Philadelphia, and in Washington, D.C.  Major European cities include Amsterdam and Vienna.  Throughout the season the Quartet presents premiere performances of  a new string quartet by Rome Prize-winning composer Jesse Jones, his Quartet No. 3, “Whereof man cannot speak . . .”  written for and dedicated to the Juilliard Quartet.

Since its inception in 1946, the Juilliard String Quartet has made manifest the credo of founders Robert Mann and William Schuman to “play new works as if they were established masterpieces, and established masterpieces as if they were new.”   They have performed over 500 works including the premieres of more than 60 pieces by American composers, with works by the country’s finest jazz musicians among them.  The Juilliard Quartet was the first ensemble to play all six Bartok quartets in the United States, and its performances of Schoenberg’s quartets helped establish the works as cornerstones of the modern string quartet canon.  More recently the Quartet played and recorded the first four quartets of Elliott Carter and their latest recording, soon to be released is Carter’s fifth and final Quartet.

In recent seasons, the Quartet has performed at the Vienna Konzerthaus, the Berlin Konzerthaus, the International Beethoven Festival in Bonn, the Palacio Real in Madrid, the Cite de la musique in Paris, the Miyazaki Festival, Tokyo’s Kioi Hall, the Moscow International Performing Arts Centre, London’s Wigmore Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Musica Viva Chamber Music Festival in Australia, and the Israel Festival in Jerusalem.  In the United States, they have appeared at Carnegie Hall, the Tanglewood Festival, the Kennedy Center, Boston’s Jordan Hall, Los Angeles’s Disney Hall, Chicago’s Orchestra Hall and San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre.

In 2011, the JSQ and its recently appointed first violinist Joseph Lin were the subject of the film Keeping Beethoven Contemporary, produced and released by Michael Blackwood Productions, which showed the Quartet in rehearsal and performance of Beethoven’s Quartet in B flat Major, Op. 130 with the original last movement, the Grosse Fuge.

The Quartet has carried the banner of the United States and The Juilliard School throughout the world, contributing to the reputation of the School as one of the world’s foremost conservatories.  The Juilliard String Quartet was Quartet-in-Residence at the Library of Congress for more than 40 years and held a residency at Michigan State University for more than a decade.  The members of the Quartet have taught masterclasses and seminars worldwide and lead an annual five-day Juilliard School String Quartet Seminar, working with advanced quartets selected from international auditions.  Their work with graduate quartets in residence has been instrumental in the formation of numerous ensembles, among them the Alexander, American, Emerson, Tokyo, Brentano, Lark, St. Lawrence, Shanghai, Afiara, and Colorado String Quartets.

With more than 100 releases to its credit, the JSQ is one of the most widely recorded string quartets of our time. The Quartet’s recordings of the complete Bartók quartets, the late Beethoven quartets, the complete Schoenberg quartets, and Debussy and Ravel quartets have all received Grammy Awards.  They were inducted into the Hall of Fame of the National Academy for Recording Arts and Sciences in 1986 for its first recording of the complete Bartok quartets and were awarded the Deutsche Schallplattenkritik Prize in 1993 for Lifetime Achievement in the recording industry.  In 2011 the Juilliard String Quartet became the first classical music ensemble to be honored by The Recording Academy (the Grammy Awards) with a Lifetime Achievement Award.


Joseph Lin, violin

An active solo and chamber musician, Joseph Lin was a founding member of the Formosa Quartet, winner of the 2006 London International String Quartet Competition. He was named a Presidential Scholar in the Arts and has won numerous awards, including the Concert Artists Guild International Competition, the Pro Musicis International Award, and First Prize at the inaugural Michael Hill World Violin Competition in New Zealand. His recordings include the music of Korngold and Busoni on the Naxos label, the unaccompanied works of Bach and Ysaÿe on the N&F label, and the Formosa Quartet’s debut CD released by EMI. Mr. Lin has appeared as a soloist with the New Japan Philharmonic, the Sapporo Symphony, the Taiwan National Symphony, the Auckland Philharmonia, the Ukraine National Philharmonic, and the Boston Symphony.

After graduating from Harvard in 2000, he began an extended exploration of China in 2002, and studied Chinese music in Beijing as a Fulbright Scholar in 2004. From 2007 to 2011, Mr. Lin was an Assistant Professor at Cornell University, where he organized the inaugural Chinese Musicians Residency. Joseph Lin’s violin teachers have included Mary Canberg, Shirley Givens and Lynn Chang.

Joseph Lin is an alumnus of Caramoor’s Evnin Rising Stars program, He was named as a Jeffrey and Tondra Lynford Rising Star during the 1997-98 season.


Ronald Copes, violin

Praised by audiences and critics alike for his insightful artistry, violinist Ronald Copes has toured extensively with Music from Marlboro ensembles, the Los Angeles and Dunsmuir Piano Quartets, and with the Juilliard String Quartet. During the 2011-13 seasons, he and Seymour Lipkin will perform cycles of the complete Beethoven Sonatas for Piano and Violin at the Kneisel Hall Chamber Music Festival and The Juilliard School.

Mr. Copes has recorded numerous solo and chamber music works for radio and television broadcast as well as for Sony Classical, Orion, CRI, Klavier, Bridge, New World Records, ECM, and the Musical Heritage Society. He has worked closely with composers including Stephen Hartke and Donald Crockett, and has garnered prizes in the Artists’ Advisory Council International Competition, the Merriweather Post Competition and the Concours International d’Exécution Musicale in Geneva. During the summer he is on faculty of the Kneisel Hall Chamber Music Festival. For two decades, he served as Professor of Violin at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and joined the faculty of The Juilliard School in 1997, where he serves as chair of the violin department.


Roger Tapping, viola

Roger Tapping moved from London to the USA in 1995 to join the Takács Quartet. During his time with the quartet, their international career included many Beethoven and Bartok cycles in major cities all over the world. Their recordings for Decca/London, including the complete quartets of Bartók and Beethoven, placed them in Gramophone Magazine’s Hall of Fame and won three Gramophone Awards, a Grammy and three more Grammy nominations, three Japan Record Academy Chamber Music Awards, the BBC Music Disc of the Year Award, and the Classical Brits Award for Ensemble Album of the Year. As a member of the Quartet, Mr. Tapping taught regularly at the Aspen Festival, the Taos Quartet School, and London’s Guildhall School of Music.

In recent years he has been on the viola faculty of the New England Conservatory where he has also been directing the Chamber Music program. He also taught at the Longy School in Cambridge and the Boston Conservatory.

During the summers he has served on the faculties of Itzhak Perlman’s Chamber Music Workshop, the Tanglewood String Quartet Seminar, and the Yellow Barn Festival, and he has given viola masterclasses at Banff. He has also given viola and chamber music masterclasses at other festivals and conservatories in the USA and Canada.

Born in England in 1960, Mr. Tapping played in a number of London’s leading chamber ensembles, making several highly acclaimed CDs, before joining Britain’s longest established quartet, the Allegri Quartet, with whom he played for six years. He taught at the Royal Academy of Music in London, was principal viola of the London Mozart Players, a member of the English Chamber Orchestra and a founding member of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

He has continued to play as a recitalist and chamber musician, performing frequently as a guest with quartets from the U.S. and Europe and as a member of the Boston Chamber Music Society.

His teachers were Margaret Major, of Britain’s Aeolian Quartet, and Bruno Giuranna in Berlin, and he took part in masterclasses with William Primrose. He holds degrees from the University of Cambridge.

Mr. Tapping is a member of the Order of the Knight Cross of the Hungarian Republic, has an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Nottingham, and is a Fellow of the Guildhall School of Music in London.


Joel Krosnick, cello

Joel Krosnick has performed as soloist, recitalist, and chamber musician around the world. As the cellist of the Juilliard String Quartet since 1974, Joel Krosnick has performed the great quartet literature throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. With his sonata partner of more than 30 years, pianist Gilbert Kalish, Mr. Krosnick has performed recitals throughout the U. S. and Europe. The duo have recorded the complete sonatas and variations of Beethoven and the sonatas of Brahms as well as works by Poulenc, Prokofiev, Carter, Hindemith, Debussy, Janáček and Cowell for the Arabesque label. Mr. Krosnick’s recording of the Sonata for Solo Cello by Artur Schnabel appears on the CP2 label, and his CD of Roger Sessions’ Six Pieces for Solo Cello is available on Koch Classics.

Mr. Krosnick is chair of the cello department of The Juilliard School and is on faculty of the Kneisel Hall Chamber Music Festival. A recipient of the Chevalier du Violoncelle Award from the Eva Janzer Memorial Cello Center at the Indiana University School of Music, Mr. Krosnick completed his Bachelor of Arts degree at Columbia University and holds honorary doctoral degrees from Michigan State University, Jacksonville University, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.


Johann Sebastian Bach/1685-1750/Contrapunctus I-IV from Art of Fugue, BWV 1080

The work known to us as Die Kunst der Fuge (“The Art of Fugue”) was left incomplete at Bach’s death in 1750—the last monument of a monumental musical life. It has been surrounded for centuries by legends and misunderstandings, though none of these detract from its breathtaking demonstration of the composer’s astonishing mastery of the materials of music. Evidently planned as a systematic demonstration of all the various possibilities of fugal writing through the use of a single theme that appears, in some guise, in every component, the work contains fugues on a single subject, as well as others on two and three subjects, one of which is always the main theme. Finally there is an incomplete fugue evidently planned to contain no fewer than four different fugal subjects, each developed by itself, then combined; the third of these is the musical translation of the composer’s own name (B-A-C-H, according to German notational practice, results in the pitches B-flat, A, C, B-natural).

Bach began work on the composition in the mid-1740s and worked on the revision of the piece for some years. Its publication was well underway by the end of 1749, but it had not been finished at the time of his death the following July. The Art of Fugue was seen through the press posthumously, mostly by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, who was not privy to his father’s final intentions for the work. The myth-making begins right on the last page of the (incomplete) final fugue, where the composer’s son wrote: “NB While working on this fugue, wherein the name BACH is introduced as a countersubject, the author died.” This statement cannot be taken literally, since Bach was blind for some months before his death and unable to write anything. The latest known example of his handwriting, cramped and clumsy because of the cataracts that blinded him, comes from May 1749, more than a year before his death.

Then comes the question: for what kind of performance did Bach envision this music? The published score of the Kunst der Fuge (the title was assigned by the publisher, not the composer, who simply identified each individual movement as Contrapunctus) is laid out in what is called “open score”—four separate staves, with soprano, alto, tenor, and bass clefs respectively. Some writers have asserted that Bach simply wrote this music as abstract counterpoint, never intended to be heard in an actual performance. Still, we find it hard to imagine music—especially by a composer of such towering mastery—being consigned forever to the dusty study, so performers have sought ways to bring it to actual sound.

Today musicians look at the published score and naturally think of four instruments, such as the strings of a quartet. But there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that Bach intended the work for keyboard. First of all, his own manuscript is written in “closed score”—on two staves, like modern piano music. Publication in open score follows a long-standing tradition—going back some two centuries—that keyboard music of a strongly contrapuntal character was published that way. For one thing, it simplified the task of printing. Any keyboard player worth his salt was expected to be able to read four or more staves in as many different clefs without difficulty.

What, then, of ensemble performances? Until very recently almost all recordings or performances of the Art of Fugue were arrangements for some group of melody instruments. A natural ensemble for our time is the string quartet, though it did not exist in Bach’s day. The four players can blend to project the harmonies while at the same time keeping Bach’s contrapuntal lines discrete. Bach himself, the quintessential arranger of music for different ensembles, would scarcely have objected to such an ensemble.

The sequence of movements in the Art of Fugue is problematic. It is conceivable that Bach would have composed still other fugues to insert into the overall plan in addition to the one that is unfinished at the end. In any case, the performance to be heard here begins with Contrapuncti I-IV, the first major section of the work, in which the fugue theme is heard first in its original form (Nos. 1 and 2), then in inversion (that is, turned upside-down, in Nos. 3 and 4). Each of the four fugues begins in a different voice.


Alban Berg/1885-1935/Lyric Suite

For half a century after its composition, Berg’s Lyric Suite was regarded as one of the great pieces for string quartet composed in the 20th century, a masterpiece of expressive content in an abstract framework that employed the twelve-tone technique quite consistently throughout (for almost the first time in Berg’s work), calling for unprecedented resources of technique and sonority in the quartet medium. When the Kolisch Quartet gave the first performance at the Baden-Baden Festival on July 16, 1927, the audience demanded and received an encore.

Over the years commentators have been aware of an unusually dramatic expressive character in the piece. Berg himself prepared notes for Rudolf Kolisch at the time his quartet was preparing the work for its premiere; in these comments, he explained that the thematic connections between the different movements were not merely mechanical repetitions, but were motivated by “the large unfolding (the continuing intensification of mood) with the whole composition.” The entire work is conceived in six movements, alternating fast and slow, but with the fast movements getting ever faster and the slow movements getting ever slower, so that the tempos increasingly diverged.

Like much of Berg’s other music, the score is shaped according to certain numerological precepts, with significant events occurring on measures or beats that are multiples of 10 or 23. (Berg had long considered 23 to be “his” number, and he employed it in various ways in a number of works; but until recently no one could explain the significance of the number 10.)

It had been noticed that Berg quoted the Tristan chord as well as a theme from a song cycle of Alexander von Zemlinsky, where it appeared with the words, “Du bist mein eigen, mein eigen!” (“You are my own, my own!”) Summing all this up, Theodor Adorno called the Lyric Suite “a latent opera.”

Then in January 1977 came a surprising discovery that made headline news all over the world. George Perle, a composer who was also one of the world’s leading Berg authorities, found a copy of the first edition of the Lyric Suite in which the composer had personally written extensive annotations on 82 of the score’s 90 pages. Far from being technical and analytical detail, Berg’s notes revealed that the Lyric Suite concealed an intensely personal, even operatic, story
behind it.

Virtually every note of the score symbolized a passionate but frustrated love that had overwhelmed Berg in 1925 and that remained fully in force until his death a decade later, though both parties kept it a close secret, since both were married. But in the private copy of the Lyric Suite which Berg presented to the woman he loved, he explained in detail how the music reflected their passion. The score passed into the hands of the woman’s daughter, who showed it to Perle when he came to ask her about Berg’s relationship with her parents (she had never bothered to tell anyone previously, she said, because no one had asked).

The real story of the Lyric Suite begins in May 1925, when Berg went to Prague to attend the festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music, at which Zemlinsky was conducting the Three Excerpts from Wozzeck. He was the house guest on that occasion of Herbert and Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, to whom he had probably been introduced by his wife’s closest friend, Alma Mahler Werfel. (Hanna was Franz Werfel’s sister and therefore Alma’s sister-in-law.) During that visit, Berg and Hanna evidently realized (apparently on May 20, as will shortly appear) that they were profoundly in love.

The emotion soon issued forth in music. On October 12, Berg told Anton Webern by letter that he had just made his “first attempt at strict twelve-note serial composition.” He had set to music a poem by Theodore Storm, Schliesse mir die Augen beide (“Close my two eyes with your dear hands; then everything I suffer turns into contentment”). He had already composed this text once as a tonal song in 1907—when he had offered it as a gift to the woman he was determined to marry. It is significant, given Berg’s lifelong interest in symmetry, that he should set the same text to music again, in a more mature musical style, as his first musical offering to Hanna Fuchs (Webern, of course, was told nothing of the song’s emotional significance to Berg.)

Not long after this, Berg evidently began work on the Lyric Suite. When it was published, its official dedication was to Zemlinsky; but Berg wrote in the private copy  annotated for Hanna that “in spite of the official dedication on the following page,” every note had been written for her and her alone: “May it be a small monument to a great love.” Berg carefully conceived his material so as to make frequent reference to the pitches B, F, A, and B-flat. In German notation, these would be read as H-F-A-B, the initials of Hanna Fuchs and Alban Berg. At the same time the metronome markings for the tempi are multiples of 10 (Hanna’s number) and 23 (Berg’s number). The movements are divided into sections similarly organized around the numbers 10 and 23.

Berg explained to Hanna that the first movement, “whose almost inconsequential mood gives no hint of the tragedy to follow” is based on a tone row—the basis of the entire work, and first heard in full at the entrance of violin I—that begins on the note F and ends on H (B-natural). In other words, the fundamental element of the score is embedded within her initials. The mood of the first movement is indicated by the marking Allegretto gioviale—“jovial,” we assume, because it celebrates the first meeting of Berg with the family in an attitude of social ease.

The second movement, Andante amoroso, bore Berg’s private dedication:

To you and your children, I have dedicated this “Rondo”—a musical form in which the themes (specifically, your theme) closing the charming circle, continually recur.

Berg’s annotations to this movement are in three colors, red for Hanna, blue and green respectively for her son Munzo and her daughter Dorotea (whose nickname was Dodo). The first sixteen bars present Hanna’s theme, followed by music for Munzo (described by Berg as “not unintentionally with a gentle Czech touch,” since Munzo was attending a Czech school at this time and spoke that language more fluently than German). Following a return of Hanna’s music, Berg goes on to refer to Dorotea: her nickname is actually composed into the viola part, which consists of repetitions of middle C:  do-do!  One can imagine the little girl running in and out, paying no attention to the increasingly intense conversation going on between her mother and the visitor. The remainder of the rondo involves the interplay of the three musical ideas. At the end, Berg noted that the movement was 150 measures long—that is, 15 times Hanna’s number, 10.

Berg annotates the third movement, Allegro misterioso, with the crucial date, May 20, 1925. He explained the tempo marking, by noting “for everything was still a mystery—a mystery to us.” Here the basic cell, A-F-H-B, occurs independently, making its own statement. The four pitches are presented (in different order) in Violin I, then Violin II, Viola, and back to Violin I. Yet the fact that Berg calls for the strings to be muted, even though the dynamic marking is fortissimo, evidently has programmatic significance: the “breaking out” is still “repressed, still with mutes.”

After 70 measures of this Allegro, the Trio ecstatico (“ecstatic trio”) is qualified by Berg’s note, “suddenly bursting out.” They have jointly recognized the passion that has sprung up between them, but they must express it as quietly as possible: “but repressed, still with mutes.” When the Allegro returns, it appears in retrograde—that is, with the notes and rhythms presented in reverse order. This is again apparently programmatic, because Berg wrote into the study score “Forget it–!” at the beginning of the recapitulation, apparently referring to an attempt on both their parts to control this new-found passion, to recapture, somehow, the last moment before the fateful realization.

The fourth movement, Adagio appassionato, further develops the material from the “Trio ecstatico” of the preceding movement. Berg wrote into Hanna’s score that this was “The next day.” In measure 24 the viola and first violin are presented in imitation (Berg wrote: “I and you”). At measure 32, the viola (Berg) quotes Zemlinsky’s song, with the words understood: “You are my own, my own.” The first violin sings out the notes H[anna] F[uchs] A[lban] B[erg] before the second violin quotes the Zemlinsky themes (“Now you say it too: You are my own, my own!”). The closing section is annotated with the words “fading – – – into – – – the wholly ethereal, spiritual, transcendantal.”

The fifth movement, Presto delirando, is a study in extremes. The movement, wrote Berg, “can only be understood by one who has a foreboding of the horrors and pains which now follow.” The movement alternates the delirious presto, which Berg identifies as “the horrors of the days with their racing pulses,” and a slower Tenebroso, in which the phrases are longer and quieter: “of the painful nights with their darkening drift into what can hardly be called sleep.” Three days and two intervening nights pass, each with an additional comment in Berg’s annotation. They seem to be frantically suppressing the powerful passion and doing their best to conceal it from everyone else.

The final movement, though it can only explicitly refer to the first months after Alban and Hanna met (because he wrote the quartet about a year later) also projects what seems to have been the fact that they recognized implicitly: they would almost surely never meet again. Prague and Vienna are not all that far apart, but a married woman with young children could not simply dash off on a lark, and a world-famous composer could not visit another national capital with arousing a great deal of press interest. So Berg expressed his overwhelming feelings in this final movement of the Lyric Suite, in which he concealed a “song” of tragic yearning—concealed it by the simple expedient of not writing any words into the music, except into the private copy that he sent to Hanna. Woven throughout this Largo desolato (which begins, once again, with the basic tone-row embraced by Hanna’s initials in the cello) is a hidden setting of Stefan George’s German translation of Baudelaire’s De profundis clamavi. It begins in the viola at measure 13, where the hidden words are “Zu dir, Du einzig Teure, dringt mein Schrei” (To thee, my only beloved, my shriek presses). The secret song continues throughout the movement. During its course, Berg quietly slips in one fleeting reference (in cello and first violin) to the opening of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, the music that more than any other in the history of the art represents unfulfilled passionate longing.  Eventually, one by one, the instruments drop out: violin II, cello, violin I, leaving the viola to die away on repeated notes of F and D-flat, to which Berg writes the urgent note to the player explaining that these two notes can be repeated several more times as the sound dies away…but under no circumstance must the music end on the D-flat. The last note we hear must be the F, Hanna Fuchs’s initial. And here, in the dying bars, Berg wrote his last annotation: “Dying away in love, yearning, and grief…”

Long before Berg’s annotated study score came to light, commentators universally felt that the Lyric Suite was among the most powerfully expressive scores ever written in Schoenberg’s system involving the employment of twelve-tone rows. This was not simply a mechanical manipulation for the sake of sheer technique, but somehow a look deep into a shattered heart. It was hailed without question as one of the most extraordinary compositions of the 20th century.

The accident that opened its “secret” love story a full half-century after the work had entered the repertory merely highlights this fact. It is a score that has astonished, delighted, and mystified theoreticians, analysts, performers, and listeners for years. They were astonished and delighted by its formal musical qualities, its range of invention and expression, all the while it was considered an abstract musical structure. How much more astonishing it is, then, when we realize that while Berg was composing that brilliantly conceived structure, he was also weighing every note for what it could signify about the great love of his life.


Ludwig van Beethoven/1770-1827/String Quartet  in C, Op. 59, No. 3

Following the completion of the Opus 18 quartets, Beethoven avoided the string quartet medium for a time. The gap was not especially long—only about four years—but it was momentous for Beethoven’s creative development. Those four years saw the creation of the Eroica Symphony, which marked the opening of the floodgates. Never again was Beethoven to be so prolific, turning out symphonies, concertos, quartets, and an opera, along with many other works, all projected on a scale much larger than before.

Until very recently it was always the middle period that people referred to when they spoke of Beethoven’s style; the early works were too much influenced by his forebears, it was said, while the late ones were too bizarre and récherché. Even today, though we recognize the authentic Beethoven behind the masks of all three periods, we often feel that his middle period Beethoven’s works are individual in a way not always true earlier (though even here, his enormous debt to Haydn and Mozart is still evident).

Composition of the Opus 59 quartets occupied Beethoven in 1805‑6, during which years he also composed the Fourth Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, the Appassionata Sonata, and Fidelio (in its first incarnation as Leonore). These three quartets have often been compared with the Eroica Symphony and, rightly or not, their taut muscularity generally symbolizes our concept of what is Beethovenian.

A Viennese composer writing a quartet in C Major with a slow introduction featuring mystifying and dissonant suspended harmonies cannot fail to call up the ghost of Mozart; and Beethoven’s Opus 59, No. 3, does indeed recall the “Dissonant” Quartet of the earlier master, at least in its opening measures, which play musical puns with Beethoven’s favorite chord of ambiguity, the diminished seventh. The Allegro vivace gets underway with a two-note rhythmic figure consisting of pickup and downbeat rising stepwise, a figure that become nearly ubiquitous in the movement to follow. The chords that support this figure punctuate interjections by the first violin taking off in solo flight. (The concerto-like flashiness of some of the soloistic writing calls to mind the fact that Beethoven was heavily involved in the composition of concertos immediately before and after the Opus 59 quartets: the third through fifth piano concerts, that for violin, and the Triple Concerto all appeared within a year or two on either side.)

The slow movement, in A minor, though not too slow (Beethoven modifies the marking Andante con moto with the addition specification “quasi Allegretto”), is filled with soulful “Russian” qualities, perhaps to make up for Beethoven’s failure to include a Russian folk song in this score, as he had done with the other two works in this set dedicated to a Russian nobleman. In any case, the hints of modal themes and scales in this extended movement may very well have been his idea of what Russian folk music sounded like.

By way of contrast, the movement that follows is unexpectedly a Minuet, squarely phrased, a decidedly old-fashioned genre employed here as a buffer between the somber, heavily minor-key weight of the slow movement and the vigorous energy of the finale.

The last movement is one of Beethoven’s most vigorously pushy, even hectoring quartet movements, built on a racing, somewhat repetitious fugato designed to return at the recapitulation enriched by the addition of a new counterpoint. The emphatic buildup to climaxes (sometimes rudely undercut, other times allowed to grow to completion) obviously recalls the triumphant C-Major conclusion of another work of those years—the Fifth Symphony. Here, as elsewhere in his quartet output, Beethoven strains the rhetorical possibilities of the medium to the limit so as to close in a burst of glory.


Program notes © Steven Ledbetter