Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Beethoven Trios, Plus a Bit More on Quartets

Even early in Beethoven's compositional years, (from his move to Vienna in 1792 he was known less as a composer and more as a piano virtuoso, where he sometimes wrecked the poor mostly wood pianos of the days with his thunderous playing) he was able to pull in some nice money with his compositions. For example, his Op. 9 string trios, numbered 1-3, pulled down an advance of 50 ducats from the publisher, Johan Traeg. For comparison, this was about the cost of a grand piano at that time.

The CD in my collection of these trios is performed by the Kandinsky Trio. I've found the combo of string trio to be easier to follow and understand that the quartet (at least, Beethoven's, especially his late ones), even though these trios were composed just a bit before the first Op. 18 quartets. My favorite of the three is the third trio in C minor - which tracks evenly with my preference for minor mode compositions (Hey Mom, do we have gypsy blood in our pedigree?).

Listening again to Robert Greenberg's Great Masters:Beethoven - His Life and Music from The Teaching Company, I was reminded of the pressure Beethoven faced when composing his first quartets. The string quartet was considered a very serious compositional challenge, and was to chamber music what the symphony was for orchestral music. In addition, he had the long shadows of Mozart and the still living creator of the string quartet, Joseph Haydn, looming over his back. His quartets would be compared to these two greats. How would the avante-garde Beethoven assert his style, and yet stay at least somewhat close to the form laid down for all time by Haydn? With various compositional details throughout all these first "Early" quartets Beethoven's style shows up to those who look beneath the surface - for, on the surface, these sound Haydnesque. However, on the sixth quartet, Beethoven stuck in an "extra" movement, entitled La Malinconia.

So, with the understanding that the string quartet has the highest standing in the classical era oeuvre of chamber music, some other combos were composed for amateur. One such combo was the piano trio. The first works that Beethoven had published, his Opus 1, was a set of piano trios. They were debuted at a private salon, with Haydn in the audience. These were not trios for amateurs, unless they were very accomplished players. Haydn was said to be pleased with them, though he thought such complexity should be saved for a string quartet.

Sadly, I don't have a copy of those first piano trios. But they have moved to the top of my "wish" list.

The recording I do have of piano trios is a re-release a 1970 recording, and it features Daniel Barenboim on piano, Pinchas Zukerman on violin, and Jacqueline du Pre on cello. The published work of two trios were labeled Op. 70, but they were the fourth and fifth piano trios Beethoven wrote (again among published works). (The first three were Op. 1). No. 4 in D is subtitled "Ghost", apparently a reference to a phrase in the second movement Beethoven contemplated for setting the Witches' scene from Macbeth. In three movements, the first leaps out at you at the beginning of the opening movement. These bursts are interlaced with some wonderfully lyric music coming from all three instruments. Trio No. 5 has four movements, and I need to spend some time with it to get it into my musical memory databank.

There is also a piano trio from around 1791, predating Beethoven's move to Vienna, that is listed as WoO. 38, where WoO stands for Werk ahne Opuszahl or "Work without an opus number." It is thus designated because it was not published during Beethoven's lifetime. Perhaps this would really be piano trio number one?

Tacked on to the second CD, which leads off with WoO. 38, are two cello sonatas recorded in 1965, with Stephan Kovacevich on piano and Jacqueline du Pre on cello. These are beautiful pieces, with which I want to spend more time as well. du Pre has a special place in my collection which contains her recordings (so what is this recording doing in the Beethoven section? gotta think about that), and though I don't know much about her, there is apparently a special story to her life, which has led to a movie, books, and the like.

Next up are Beethoven's five piano concerti. I'm a bit jazzed at the idea of moving over to some orchestral music.

Incidentally, you've heard me carry on about Robert Greenberg on this blog. If you'd like to spend a pleasant hour, he gave a talk to the Chautauqua Institution, and has posted it here. He's really great, and this talk is typical of his teaching style.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Beethoven's String Quartets Part 3

Rounding out my exploration of Beethoven's string quartets, I've been listening to the last two CD's in the collection of Late String Quartets performed by the Guarneri Quartet. This includes (in order of the recording) Opp. 131, 127, 130, 135.

Op. 131 in C-sharp Minor is seven movements long, busting the standard number of Mozart and Haydn of four. I don't know how many times I tried to listen to this quartet, but it must have been dozens. Like an earlier quartet, it just put me to sleep. I did get one full listen-through and found that I did like it, especially the second movement, but, otherwise, it just didn't stick.

In fact, none of them really stuck in my head.

I did find Op. 127 pretty uplifting. Makes pretty nice patterns in my Windows Media Player, too. It contains only four movements, with the last movement recorded on the third and last CD (seven movements take up a lot of space).

Next is Op. 130, which is six movements long. The Grosse Fugue (Op. 133, written about in the last entry) was originally the last movement of Op. 130 (Quartet No. 13). This is another work which has a full sound, which appeals to symphony lovers like myself.

Finally, there's Op. 135, Quartet No. 16. At only four movements, we find Beethoven coming back to the standard number of movements. This is probably my favorite of the Late Quartets. With my limited knowledge of chamber music, this work sounds more like I expect to hear from a string quartet. I've found it on YouTube, performed by the Hagen Quartet, and embedded it below.

I've begun listening to trios:piano trios and string trios. This should prove to be a nice warm-up for tackling Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas. For that, at least, I'll have Robert Greenberg to help me.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Beethoven's String Quartets, Part 2

After the Razumovsky quartets, there are two more that are considered as "middle" quartets.

The "Harp" quartet, Op. 74 in E flat major, is so named due to the use of pizzicato throughout the piece. Pizzicato is a technique where a string player, rather than bow the instrument, plucks the strings instead. I have to be very honest about this work: my experience of it is quite low, as it always puts me to sleep. I'm not sure what it is about this work that has such an effect on me, but it occurs in every movement. In trying to get to know it, I've tried starting each movement separately, but I go to night-night land each time. Sorry, but the blog is about experiences in encountering the music. This quartet puts me to sleep.

The last of the "middle" quartets is Op. 95, the so-called "Quartetto Serioso." As implied by the name, this quartet starts off in a very serious tone in F-minor. The notes that come with the CD collection calls these phrases "violent abruptions." In between these (in the first movement) there are explorations of themes, an occasional silence, and quiet, sometimes major mode variations. The second movement is more lyric. The third movement is a bit more agitated (marked serioso). The fourth begins with a "larghetto expressivo" that transitions to another agitated section that jumps into an ending allegro.

What's interesting about this quartet is how, at times, it seems like there are more than four performers. Beethoven is able to get a full sound, a kind of sound you would expect from a larger ensemble.

The "late"quartets consists of Ops. 127, 130, 131-133, and 135. The CD collection I've got is performances by the Guarneri Quartet.So far I've had a chance to really hear only Op. 132, a quartet in A minor, and the single movement Grosse Fugue. I found a performance of the quartet by the Alban Berg Quartet on YouTube in two parts, embedded below.

If you have listened to the Grosse Fugue performances, you've probably noticed the many dissonant passages. Many of Beethoven's contemporaries were very critical of the piece. To me, it sounds like the music that was written a century later.

The CD collection I have does not have the works played in numerical order, and the first CD contains the Op. 132 Quartet in A minor (as well as the Grosse Fugue). What struck me about the Opus 132 is the beautiful third movement.

The last two CD's contain the rest of the quartets, on which I will next concentrate.