String quintets op 4, 29, 104, 137
Stop ten people in a Vienna street and ask them for Beethoven’s greatest innovations. Bet you three Karl Böhm LPs to a Mozart Kugel that not one of them will mention the string quintet.
Yet his insertion of a second viola into Haydn’s format of 2 violins, viola and cello was a breakthrough moment of Beethoven’s earliest years, a way of deepening the quartet sound into almost a chamber orchestra. It appears first as Beethoven’s opus 4 of 1795 and, while he does not revert to it much in his glory years, the very last catalogued work of Beethoven, opus 137, is a fragment for string quintet, as is what is believed to be his final written notes, the String Quintet in C major WoO 62 ‘Letzter musikalischer Gedanke’. These scraps alone should confirm the string quintet’s importance in Beethoven’s mind, but the form then inspires what many believe to be Schubert’s greatest masterpiece, two more by Mendelssohn, the American Quintet of Antonin Dvorak, as well as major works by Brahms, Bruckner, Nielsen, Milhaud, Martinu and more.
Some ascribe the invention of the string quintet to Mozart, but he described them as ‘viola quintets’, never aspiring to the orchestral balance that Beeethoven achieved.
The earliest quintet, opus 4 in E-flat major, could be titled That’s Entertainment. It’s frothy, Mozartian, four movements long and untaxing for the players’ fingers or the litener’s brain. There’s a paucity of available interpretations. Of the three listed on Idagio, I’m torn between the lush sound of the Venezia Quartet with extra viola Danilo Rossi (2006) and the more languorous Endellion Quartet with David Adams (2008), recorded in an idyllic Welsh castle. Both are excellent.
The opus 29, dated 1801, is far more extensively performed, with around 20 versions on Idagio. It is a hugely significant piece, throwing itself forward into the great works of Beethoven’s middle period with explicit hints in the opening movement of the first Razumovsky Quartet and the Archduke Trio. You can practically hear Beethoven clearing his desk of immature stuff and glaring resolutely ahead.
Passing reluctantly over a 1957 Baden-Baden radio recording of the youngish Amadeus Quartet with Cecil Aronowitz – high energy, inadequate sound – I can confidently recommend the same ensemble, recording for DG in Berlin a dozen years later, a very smooth finish.
The Guarneri Quartet have Pinchas Zukerman as spare viola on their fabulous 1980 performance, luxury casting in sumptuous sound. There is a good case to be made that Zukerman was the finest violist of his time, more relaxed and expressive than he ever sounded on the violin; this recording amply supports that proposition. The musical conversation here is of exceptional interest.
The Tokyo String Quartet also import Zukerman in 1993 – were there no other violists free that week? – and the results are commensurately less interesting. The Medicis (1994) are always worth hearing for their tight ensemble; Simon Rowland-Jones fits well as the extra viola. Then there’s the Elias Quartet with Malin Broman at the Wigmore Hall (2014), wonderfully communicative.
Two generations of the Kuijken family (2007) deliver a historically informed performance of unassuming affability, so unassuming that it might be my favourite of all thse listed above. There are a couple of versions by chamber orchestra colleagues, one from the London-based Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the other from WDR symphony orchestra in Cologne (2019); neither is strong on character. The Nash Ensemble on the other hand are fiercely expressive; their Hyperion recording is not yet on Idagio.
The opus 104 need not detain us long. It’s an upgrade of a piano trio from Beethoven’s first published set, opus 1. The Fine Arts Quartet offer a highly civilised reading with Gil Sharon (2008); the Lindsays with Louise Williams (2002) are a little too insouciant for my taste.
The Fugue for string quintet opus 137 is about two minutes long. As such, it requires intense concentration and repeated listening. its texture is that of the last quartets: austere, solemn, resigned, yet with a propulsive rhythm and a still-urgent life force – which is not surprising since it was written a few years before the final quartets and tacked onto the fi9nished catalogue by a cupiditous publisher. There is not much to hear. What there is, is best performed by the Delian Quartet with Gerard Caussé (2010). A further fragment survives as Quintettsatz in D minor.
The last known thoughts of Ludwig van Beethoven – String Quintet in C major WoO 62 ‘Letzter musikalischer Gedanke’ – are almost four minutes long and relatively untroubled by the preoccupations of mortality that imbue the final quartets. This is open-hearted Beethoven, sharing a melodic idea that has come to him around a distinctive grouping of musicians that he formed in his youth and in which he remains absolutely at home. The only credible recording I can find is by Daniel Hope (Violin), Ikki Opitz (Violin), Amihai Grosz (Viola), Tatjana Masurenko (Viola) and Daniel Müller-Schott (Violoncello), recorded in 2019 in Berlin at the Dahlem Jesus-Christus-Kirche.
See also this weekend: Is there such a thing as a Beethoven violinist
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