Arts & Events

New: New Esterházy Quartet Plays Beethoven’s 15th & 16th String Quartets

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday August 29, 2015 - 02:13:00 PM

On Friday evening, August 29, Berkeley’s Hillside Club once again hosted The New Esterházy Quartet in their series of concerts devoted to Beethoven’s Late Quartets. The program for this concert featured Beethoven’s 15th and 16th Quartets, the former in A minor, Op. 132, and the latter in F, Op. 135. The A minor Quartet is one of three late quartets by Beethoven in which he experimented with the structure, going far beyond the Classical string quartet structure of four movements. His Op. 130 contains six movements, his Op. 132 has five movements, and his Op. 131, (which was actually composed after the Op. 132 Quartet), contains seven movements.  

As the A minor Quartet opens, the cello is heard introducing the low notes with which this work begins, though the violins and viola quickly join in. The dotted rhythm of the first subject generates almost obsessively the pure lyricism of this movement . Everything here is short-lived and succinct. A poised march-like entry lasts only four bars before giving way to the dotted motif. The second subject is allotted only three fleeting bitter-sweet appearances. One has the impression of a concerted effort to arrest momentum. The second movement, however, seems an exercise in perpetual motion. Here there are only two elements, artfully combined in a subtle web of contrapuntal brilliance. The central section of this Allegro movement spurns all counterpoint and offers instead a dance theme borrowed from an earlier piano Allemande. The third movement, a Molto adagio, is sub-titled “A convalescent’s Hymn of Thanksgiving to God, in the Lydian mode.” Here, Beethoven, who was frequently ill throughout the years 1825-6, offers an almost mystical meditation on overcoming illness. It is a heartfelt set of reflections, somber in tone yet offering hope. Twice there are moments marked, “Feeling new strength,” characterized by broad melodies, sonorous textures, trills, decorations, and a general feeling of exultation. The fourth movement features a march, which, brief as it is, brings us back to the mundane world after the quasi-mysticism of the previous movement. However, as the march transitions into the work’s finale, there is a shift to the sublime. Now, in the finale itself, Beethoven explores a waltz-theme, as it were, a valse triste. Yet it is by no means so triste as to preclude a triumphal flourish as the work concludes.  

Beethoven’s final string quartet, the Quartet in F, Op. 135, marks his serene return to the Classical style. After the Sturm und Drang of the experimental quartets, Beethoven no longer feels the need to venture into uncharted territory. Rather, he stakes out ever-new space within the familiar territory of the Classical, four-movement quartet structure. Here there are no surprising, audacious key changes, and the proportions are strictly conventional. The viola opens each movement and often leads in stating the main subjects, accompanied in the opening moments of the work by pizzicato from the cello. The Allegretto offers brief, succinct episodes, which are frequently interrupted only to start each time anew. The second movement, marked Vivace, is a scherzo whose main feature is a clanging motif, suggestive of the pealing of bells. The third movement, whose tempo markings are very precise – Assai lento, cantante e tranquillo” (“Fairly slow, singing and peaceful”) – offers a pensive meditation. The finale is preceded in Beethoven’s score by the words “Muss ist sein? Es muss sein.” (“Must it be? It must be.”) Prior to playing this Op. 135 Quartet, violist Anthony Martin explained the origin of these words in a joking remark by Beethoven. However, the very fact that the composer chose to memorialize these words at the beginning of the final movement of his final string quartet suggests that he saw a larger sense in these words than a mere joke. Many scholars and musicians have taken these words to be a farewell to composing. Indeed, after completing the Op. 135 Quartet, Beethoven composed only the alternative finale to the Op. 130 Quartet, and these two works share a common, sunlit serenity that rises above all notions of struggle, sorrow and pain, radiating instead an almost Apollonian affirmation.