Beethoven String Quartet No. 2 in G, op. 18, No. 2

performed by the Artemis quartet, or in a live performance below by the Belcea quartet

(I always love to watch the intensity of the performers playing these works)

We’re on to Beethoven’s second string quartet, the no. 2 of the opus 18 set, even though it was likely the third to be written. I had, many months ago, originally planned to do all six of these op. 18 quartets in one string of three weekends, but I’m glad I didn’t. He doesn’t have nearly as many quartets to his name as Haydn or Mozart, so let’s take our time and savor them.

What I also decided to do was get back into the earlier chamber works, string pieces before the quartets, so yesterday’s piece was his first string trio. If you didn’t go back and read the articles on the op. 1 piano trios linked in yesterday’s article, they were a strategic way for the young LvB to make his mark on a form without challenging the Masters Who Cast Large Shadows in his day. Misha Donat says at The Beethoven Project:

Beethovens hesitation in approaching the medium of the string quartet reflects his awareness of the rich legacy of Haydn and Mozart. His still sadly neglected string trios were his means of dipping a toe into string quartet waters without invoking direct comparison with his great predecessors.

The string trio is a step closer to the quartet than the piano trio is, and those three op. 1 works are really wonderful. There are some other chamber works between op. 1 and op. 18, but we’ll get to them eventually.

I’m not sure if I’ve listened to the first two quartets of op. 18 because they are the most endearing, or if I like them because I’ve listened to them the most. In any case, this one is also crisply, sunnily delightful.

The two themes of the chipper first movement are almost surprisingly straightforward. There’s nothing terribly overt or trying-too-hard about them, and it’s a certain magnificent kind of subtlety, I think, where these two pretty basic, almost deceptively simple, charming themes sprout out into a fascinating development section that does as much combining of themes as it does break them down. There are a few points to listen for.

For one, the transition material between the two themes is quite dramatic, almost a climax in itself, as is the end of the exposition section before the (repeat and the) development begins. These transition passages are high points, but it only gets better from there.

The development sounds to me like the piece (or the four performers) left the safety of the sunny pasture and went off to play in the forest, subsequently losing each other. The material builds and falls apart, and at a few points, the cello stands out, as if to gather everyone back together. There are some fugal passages, and finally that last big call of the cello heralds the reuniting of the players, as well as both themes in the real climax of the movement as it inches toward the recapitulation, which just begins after everything cools back down. It’s a very satisfying movement.

If we are to continue with this (entirely fabricated) fairy tale idea of the players exploring a castle grounds or playing outside, it seems in the second movement they’ve stumbled upon a wedding or ceremony of some kind. The second movement, adagio cantabile, is lyrical and intimate. The Brentano Quartet has here a wonderful article of program notes on the work, in which they say of the second movement that “We seem to be transported, for the time being, from the quartet chamber to the opera stage, where the soprano sings her love with coloratura flourishes.” The second movement is in ternary form, with the A part at the beginning and the end being our slow, lyrical, intimate theme, but then seeming out of nowhere, the procession is disturbed. It’s like the classical-era version of kids chasing their pet pigs through the aisles of whatever respectable outdoor occasion this might be. Things go a bit wild, good-natured and fun, but in stark contrast with what comes before and after. It seems again that cello has the last voice in the frolicking, and brings the lyric A theme back, singing with violin this time. The second half seems a bit more ornate and even virtuosic than the opening.

The scherzo seems to play off the bouncy, frothy energy of the B theme from the last movement, although more decisively playful. The scherzo, in two parts, is not just playful and good-natured though, giving us some storm and emotion along the way. The first part of the trio seems almost to be comically polite, and then, as if the players can’t keep a straight face for long enough, devolves into a fun kind of jumpy, prickly, even  almost mischievous second part before the scherzo returns.

I was surprised (and a little disappointed, to be honest) to look to the Brentano Quartet’s (above-linked) program notes about the fourth movement to see that they mention games… So maybe my storybook idea isn’t as novel as I had hoped. It says:

The Finale opens with a single voice, the cello, inviting everybody to come out and play. This movement is all about games: copycat, hide-and-seek, leapfrog, and chase scenes, played at full speed.

It also mentions that “A favorite game is ‘guess my key'”, which seems to be a favorite joke of Beethoven’s anyway. While this movement is in sonata form, with two themes and a development, recapitulation and coda, for some reason it felt to me more episodic, like a rondo. Although the sonata form and its mile-marker points are obvious, perhaps its the playful here-then-gone again atmosphere of the work that makes it feel that way.

Right before the coda, it sounds like the strings’ batteries have run down. Ever had a cassette player’s batteries die while you were listening, and your music kind of grinds to a hault? That’s a bit like what the (deceptive) end of the movement sounds like, but the coda rounds out the work with one good last laugh.

Whether you think of it in terms of some sunny outdoor play-day story or a young composer doing his level best to put his own stamp on a form already mastered by the Giants of the Generation (Mozart already gone almost a decade by this time, Haydn to live less than another decade from this point), it is undeniably a wonderfully effective, charming, engaging work, one with equal amounts of fun, simple pleasure and rich depth. Again, if this is what we’re already sinking our teeth into at this early stage, we’re in for real treats for the composer’s middle- and late-period works, so stick around.

We’re not quite there yet, though, and the coming week will show us a bit more of his orchestral work, so stay tuned.


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