What’s Beethoven harping on about here?

Welcome to the 54th work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

String quartet no 10, The Harp, opus 74 (1809)

It is the year of the Emperor Concerto. Beethoven was at the summit of his fame and success. Publishers in three countries were demanding new works. Aside from his deafness and some worries about his brothers and their families, he should have been basking in his achievements and enjoying some of the rewards.

Instead, he lived in squalor. Here’s a visitor’s report from this time:
‘Picture to yourself the extreme of dirt and disorder: pools of water decorating the floor and a rather ancient grand piano on which dust competed for room with sheets of written or printed notes. Under it – I do not exaggerate – an unemptied chamber-pot… Most of the chairs had straw seats and were decorated with clothes and with dishes full of the remains of the previous day’s supper.’

Amid noisome chaos that would drive any sensitive person outside for fresh air and a fire hose, Beethoven created works of taut discipline, not a superfluous note, each part fitting the others like a machine-tooled jigsaw. From time to time he rushed to his brother’s cellar to hide from the unbearable noise of French guns.

The tenth of his string quartets takes its title The Harp for its plucked sections in the opening movement. Its opening is as laidback and relaxed as Beethoven ever gets. He even marks it sotto voce, so quiet it is announced as if under its breath. The second movement, equally slow, was a favourite of Mendelssohn’s for its lilting, smiling melody, as if the composer had not a care in the world. The contrast with his physical situation and the surrounding uncertainty is so extreme as to suggest a possible bipolar condition.  The third movement opens with a flagrant allusion to the opening of the fifth sysmphony. The finale has a retrospective feel to it, as if the composer is looking back at his rackety life thus far and preparing himself for the next great leap.

The Melos Quartet, a mainstream German ensemble from the 1960s on, present a textbook performance that leaves the listener plenty of room to fantasise about the composer’s ultimate intentions. If I had never heard the work before, I should probably start here, and maybe return to it as a point of reference, although not for ultimate revelation. You will want more salt and pepper in subsequent hearings.

Remarkably, the first recordings of this concerto were made in the mid-1930s by two Hungarian quartets – the Lener Quartet, which lasted only until 1939, and the Budapest Quartet which continued in different formations until 1967 having settled after much turbulence in the United States. Both of these performances are highly individualistic, the characters of their players emerging with striking difference. The calibre of the Budapest – Joseph Roisman, Sasha and Mischa Schneider, István Ipolyi – is a cut above and the vigour of their playing takes the breath away. A much later best-selling recording for Columbia lacks the original fire. A third Hungarian quartet – Sandor Vegh‘s in 1952 – is perhaps just a little too Magyar, sloping the accents some way off the straight and narrow, albeit in the most agreeable fashion. Wrong as it may be, I do love this reading.

Half a century later, in 2002, the Hungarians rise again with a rivetting Decca recording by the Takacs Quartet – Edward Dusinberre, Károly Schranz, Geraldine Walther, András Fejér – that has just about everything: poise, fantasy, wit and perfectionism. Not quite in the same class (though still of interest) is the Bartok Quartet (2014), playing a little too safe. I have no way of explaining why the Hungarians understand this quartet more roundly and profoundly than anyone else, but the recorded evidence is incontrovertible.

 

There is also a line of development in American interpretations of this enigmatic work. The Juilliard Quartet led by Robert Mann (1965) has a locker-room athleticism and a certain roughness to the sound. The Fine Arts Quartet (1966) present greater style and sophistication – also greater relaxation: listen closely and you’ll hear how American life has speeded up since then.

The Guarneri Quartet (1970) are masterful, measured, magisterial: one imagines pupils sitting at their feet, knowing that they will never attain this exceptional sheen. And I can never hear the Emerson Quartet (1997) without learning something new – in this instance, the play of light and wit in the theme and variations in the finale. As with the Hungarians, we are witness to an evolving tradition.

There is more contrast to enjoy – the warmth of the Amadeus (1988), for instance, against the clinical coolness of the Alban Berg Quartet (1979), or the studied hush of the Belcea Quartet (2012) compared to the headlong passion of the Cuartetto Casals (2019). And for the most exquisite and timeless eleganceno-one should ignore the Quartetto Italiano at their peak. If pressed, I would choose the Budapest and Takacs as being the most indispensable.

That a single string quartet can accommodate so many different style is itself a testament of its genius. And bear in mind that the Harp is not, by any measure, the most important of Beethoven’s string quartets. When we arrive at the late works the approaches are so varied that there is no telling right from wrong. All we can do is marvel at the diversity.

 

 

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  • I hear a lot more pain in this music than you do, Norman. The introduction to the first movement is indeed slow and (mostly) quiet but starting in the fourth bar there is some of the most daring and agonized chromatic writing that Beethoven had yet attempted. There are also two extremely disruptive loud chords that seem to come out of nowhere, both on weak beats, within the first minute or two of the piece. I find them enigmatic and extremely disconcerting.
    I don’t hear the slow movement as “lilting”, but rather as almost painfully personal and deeply felt. There are two interludes that explore a key that was quite exotic and mostly uncharted at this time–A Flat minor. This music is operatic in its eloquent, simple pathos.
    The last movement ends rather enigmatically; for once Beethoven eschews the heroic. It is over before the audience realizes it, and consequently never seems to garner the applause with which the previous “Razumovsky” quartets are reliably rewarded. For this reason I think this extraordinary masterpiece never gets the appreciation it deserves; I would argue that your review here does not give it its due.
    I do concur with your recommendations for recordings, though, especially the Italiano.

    • I completely agree Max. Beethoven, for some reason, simply chooses to blow out the candles on this quartet with two light puffs of chordal harmony.

      For a performance that succeeds in transitioning from the Presto to the Allegretto without the sense of dropping a gear, while making the closing bars as affirmative and optimistic as can be imagined, check out the brilliant Danish String Quartet:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=exMaWKVcCEs

  • Also in the American line of development, by a more circuitous route, is the Tokyo String Quartet on RCA. Should not be overlooked.

  • It should be noted that Roger Tapping was violist on the Takacs Quartet’s Beethoven cycle on Decca (He is currently violist of the Juilliard Quartet). Ms Walther joined In 2005 after decades as principal of the San Francisco Symphony.

  • Among the American Quartets not yet mentioned, I’d put in a vote for the marvelous, beautifully played and interpreted performances of the Cleveland Quartet (Telarc edition).

    • The Cleveland with Weilerstein is indeed my favorite performance of this piece. Weilerstein’s sweet mellifluous tone and kind spirit are a perfect match for the sentiments, and he dispatches the arpeggios with ease. While this recording is on YouTube I fear that some of the first Cleveland Beethoven cycle can’t even be found digitally. While I prefer the Emerson in many cases the Cleveland under Weilerstein is a close and complimentary second and I hope it has not been lost to history.

  • Max Raimi, 10 points. Your eloquent and knowing post, from the standpoint of violist and composer, helped me understand why I “know” this quartet less well than its neighbors. I’ll hear it again in the light of your comments.

    As for recordings, I hope there is one by the Borodin Quartet unless I imagined it; I’m surer of a classic Westminster version by the Vienna Konzerthaus Quartet,whose Schubert, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven I still love after all these years.

    I hope Norman gets to the”Eyeglass” Duo in E-flat vor viola and cello, and that you will share your observations on it. I’ve loved it dearly ever since the Primrose-Feuermann record, which I think they slightly edited, around the lead-back to the da capo. I talked once to Paul Silverstein of the LSO about it; he complained of its difficulty for the viola. Every cellist does the same.

    • My brother is a cellist, so the “Eyeglass” is close to my heart. A very underrated work, to my mind. It makes technical demands on the viola that are rarely if ever to be found in any other Beethoven, and the cello part brings to mind the writing in the “Triple Concerto” in its difficulty.
      You are right about the editing. As I understand it, the only version we have from the composer’s time has no slurs and no dynamic indications, not unlike a lot of Bach. I always appreciated the freedom this gave me in coming up with my own solutions for bringing this exuberant, athletic music to life.

      • Max Raimi, many thanks for your comments on Beethoven’s “Eyeglass” Duo and the Triple Concerto, another favorite. You’re lucky to have a cellist brother to play it with,– like Paul and Rudolf Hindemih, Sven and Kurt Reher, and I guess Ricci and his brother, or Fritz and Hugo Kreisler. Poor Primrose didn’t have a brother far as I know, but he had Feuermann.

        The “Eyeglass” Duo sounds like a text-book sonata allegro. It’s said Beethien wroteit for himself to play as violist with his cellist friend the musical Count Ameskal, and that the ms. was found in 1927 in one of the conversation books, but I don’t know if that’s true.

        Good point about edited ms. vs. unedited.

  • The Lener Quartet lasted to 1947 (not 1939). As a matter of fact, between 1942 and 1947 there were two Lener Quartets, one with Jeno Lener as first violinist and new members and the other with the former members of the ensemble with a different (Mexican) first violin.

  • Thanks, Mike, I KNEW Silverstein wasn’t right but was afraid to get out of here to look it up and lose the post, which usually happens. Now … back to the Harp and Eyeglass Duo. I talked to Paul SILVERTHORNE again the last time he was here with Colin Davis and the LSO. He was a big fan of the Amadeus Quartet and Peter Schidlof. I’d better stop dropping names or I’ll get more wrong. I knew it wasn’t Silverman …

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