Beethoven String Quartet no. 5 in A, op. 18, no. 5

performed by the Artemis Quartet, or below by the Alban Berg Quartett

(cover image by Andreea Chidu)

We’re finally nearing the end of Beethoven’s op. 18 quartets that he published in 1801. This fifth quartet in the series of six was very likely written fourth of the set, and as we will discuss in the near future, the final installment in this op. 18 set is the only one of the six that retains the same place in the published series as the order in which it was written. That is to say that none of the first five in this series are in the same order as the order in which they were composed.

You’ll read in various places that this work is modeled on Mozart’s K. 464 string quartet, which is in the same key. I don’t know anything about that, so I won’t comment much more on it except to say that apparently it informs some of the ‘Mozartean’ elements in the work. Even if you don’t hear the direct source of the inspiration, I think it’s still easy to hear the spirit of Mozart in the piece.

This work, like all the op. 18 quartets, is in four movements, but it is the only one to swap the order of the inner movements, with the minuet second rather than third. Overall, this is an interesting and perhaps surprisingly simplistic work with a few little gems hidden inside.

The first movement is the longest, and in sonata form, although… it almost isn’t. Aside from Mozart’s A major quartet, you might notice some similarity to Beethoven’s own second violin sonata, also in A. There are two themes here, the second a handsome cloud that casts a rich, grey shadow over the cheerfulness of the first subject, as either a contrast, or even just a completion of a thought. I can’t tell.

What we can tell is that this development is almost boringly simple. It’s a good thing Beethoven’s source material is so charming, because the development is just kind of retellings of the exposition, until there’s some sense of diversion or treading into new territory, but not for long in this 10+ minute movement. It’s understated, for sure.

Second is the minuet, a dance theme that might make us think more of Schubert than Mozart. At least one writer commented that it ‘foreshadows Schubert’, but that would seem to suggest that Beethoven knew who Schubert was and what he would become. Of course, it’s the other way around. Beethoven was a genius, but he (probably) wasn’t omniscient. The charm of the first movement remains, with splashes of the minor key here and there. Again, it’s a very congenial movement, a polite dance rather than a raucous one, but listen for the extremely brief trio, with its off-kilter gait, a little passage here that almost always stops me in my tracks. It’s so almost shockingly out of place, but also so perfect. The minuet theme also very briefly returns in canon to close this movement.

Exceeded in length by only the first movement, the Andante cantabile is a theme-and-variations movement. Who can’t enjoy a theme-and-variations from Beethoven’s pen? Surprisingly here, with this simple descending motif (in contrast, as the San Antonio Chamber Music Society mentions, with the ascending motif of the opening movement), in these five variations on the theme, it is almost as if it’s this movement, a middle-movement, that covers the most ground. (I can’t for the life of me find that article now, hence the lack of link.) Each variation isn’t just a slight retelling of the theme, but really something imaginative. The fourth of these is in the minor key, and the fifth is surprising in what is a ‘slow’ movement, very jovial, but only a glimpse of the energy in the finale.

The finale, dwarfed by the previous movement, again is a sonata movement with a recapitulation and coda. Again the first theme is the real focus here, and the initial opening sets us off, with this subject providing the vast majority of the momentum that propels us forward. The second theme is apparently again inspired by Mozart, but the development focuses mostly on the first theme. How couldn’t it?

The overall understated, subtle nature of this quartet is so greatly contrasted with the final outburst of excitement in this final movement, and yet… despite the increase of energy and growing momentum… listen to how the movement (and the entire piece) actually ends.

A work like this can illustrate the importance and the preciousness of being understated, of even just the slightest bit of restraint, like Coco Chanel saying you should take one thing off before you leave the house. Or something. Beethoven doesn’t give us a bunch of tricks and cheap thrills here. I’m not saying he killed all his darlings, because the work is, a few passages excepted, rather cheerful. It’s undeniably charming as well, but there’s certainly no sickening over-application of cheap cologne here, thankfully. So very tactful, but with plenty of excitement.

Soon, I guess, you’ll learn that when Beethoven appears, there’s likely an Editor’s Choice installment coming up. Thanks so much for reading, and stay tuned for the first appearance this year of a composer who we’ll be seeing much more of in 2018.

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