Sunday, January 31, 2016

Ludwig von Beethoven: String Quartets, Vol. 1 (Op. 18, Nos. 1 and 2)

Reading John Cage's remarkable book Silence currently, it becomes very obvious that the famed experimental composer had a particular dislike for Ludwig von Beethoven.

Much of this may have been particularly musical, but a good deal seems also to have been because of the arch conservatism in the classical world that kept the fires burning for the standard composers from Bach to Mozart to Beethoven to Brahms to Wagner and so forth.

It is understandable that innovative modern composers, such as Cage and Harry Partch, were concerned that there was not enough opportunity given to those looking to move beyond traditional composing methods.  This listener is fascinated with the music of both of these amazing figures, along with other modernists whose work has been highlighted here.

At the same time, there is admiration for the stunning work of the earlier masters, as well, and there is no reason that Beethoven and other giants of the pre-modern world cannot be enjoyed just as much as later-day experimenters.

Anyway, this Naxos recording from the early 1990s presents the first two of Beethoven's string quartets.  Composed between 1798 and 1800, while Beethoven in his late twenties, as he was straining to move beyond the teachings and influence of his tutor, the great Franz Josef Haydn, these works show a composer who was already creating rich, complex and beautiful music that showed the way beyond Haydn and Mozart as a new century dawned.

The theme in the first movement of the first quartet, in F major, is a well-known one and it takes the listener into a very lively, dramatic and bright environment.  The second movement is subdued, slower and achingly beautiful and was said by the composer to have the famed burial vault scene in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet as inspiration.  The short third movement has another famed theme and has a notable rhythmic component to it, as well as a series of memorable melodic statements.  The concluding allegro movement is an amazing technical exercise that bursts with all kinds of remarkable interplay among the instruments and is a stunning finale to a remarkable first quartet by the master.

The second quartet, in G major, sounds simpler and was named "Complimentary Quartet" after its resemblance to the late works of Haydn because of its light and graceful touch.  This blogger is a great admirer of Haydn, so it is easy to enjoy this work, which abounds in gorgeous melodic statements and sprightly rhythms.  The economical presentation of this piece, at about 23 minutes, compared to the roughly half-hour length of the first quartet, is also worth noting, as it moves along with effortless pacing between the faster and slower movements and the fine formalistic interplay among the instruments.  The beauty of slower second movement is also something to behold--more gorgeous melodic work and harmony here.

To this untutored ear, the Kodaly Quartet from Hungary perform this music with great sensitivity, passion and telepathnic interplay and the recording quality is very good.  This is another stellar release from Naxos, though a  recent purchase of Beethoven's complete string quartets, spanning eight discs from the British Nimbus label, is being listened to now and it also presents this amazing music beautifully.

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