Friday, January 30, 2015
Ludwig von Beethoven: String Quartets (Complete) Vol. 1
This excellent 1995 Naxos release features the Kodaly Quartet, a Hungarian ensemble, performing two quartets, one in F major and the other in G major, of the sixteen written by the master and Opus 18, consisting of the two works here, were the first to be developed, coming between 1798 and 1800, when Beethoven was in his late twenties.
The F major has a beautiful first movement full of feeling, melody and drama--in fact, it is said the composer envisioned the classic vault scene from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet as he wrote the piece. To some observers, this quartet and the others of its time were hallmarks of Beethoven's emergence into full maturity as a composer.
Moreover, he was in a class all by himself as he introduced notions in his complex musical structures that took him beyond Haydn and Mozart, his most famed precursors. The second movement has a particularly restrained but very pretty melodic statement and makes use of space and harmony that are very appealing.
Whereas a typical Beethoven scherzo to date was full of power and aggression, the short scherzo in this quartet is quieter and yet also playful and joyful. The fourth movement has a strong rhythmic component that is lively and energetic, but not overly fast, and the figures move smoothly and easily.
The G major is often called the "Compliments" quartet and its light, buoyant sound is reminiscent of what Haydn produced in his remarkable quartets decades earlier. In fact, it is said that Beethoven was directly playing off Haydn's work in this piece, while providing the level of complexity, harmonic richness and dramatic use of counterpoint that made his composing so distinctive.
His use of changes in tempo, key and harmony set him apart from his predecessors, to the point that an alleged Haydn lament that someone was needed to write minuets in a new way was probably countermanded by the amazing work Beethoven did in these and other string quartets in those years from the late 1790s until his death thirty years later.
The Kodaly Quartet plays remarkably and its quarter century together by the time this recording was made reflects the synchronicity and unifying sense of purpose that a superior group of musicians can achieve.