The Consone String Quartet
Agata Daraškaite, violin
Magdalena Loth-Hill, violin
Kay Stephen, viola
George Ross, cello
Programme Notes by Donald Judge
In 1793, aged 61, Haydn had returned from his travels in Europe, including London where he was feted as a superstar. Commissioned by Count Antal György Apponyi of a noble Hungarian family and the Imperial court, he wrote the usual set of six string quartets, but for publication they were split into two sets of three, op 71 and op 74. Apponyi was also encouraging 23 year old Beethoven to write string quartets, but that would have to wait seven years before Haydn’s shadow lifted enough for the op 18 set. Quartets were relatively cheap to publish, and one of the quickest ways to spread a composer’s fame and earn money. Even better if works were given nicknames (invariably by people other than the composer) though this one has none. Op 74 no 2 begins Allegro spiritoso with all four players giving a brief unison introduction. The true first subject of the first movement follows a pause, and is a variant of the opening melody. A version of it in G minor follows, and then comes some supremely inventive fun between the parts, a lot of lively quavers, some beguiling chromaticism, and an arresting descending phrase with trills, again initially in unison. The development section explores the material further before coming to rest as if to continue in D minor. But always one to surprise, Haydn’s unison semibreves D and E lead us to the harmonious F major of the recapitulation. Unison playing almost finishes the movement before some assertive chords. It’s hard to imagine the Andante grazioso being played other than gracefully. A set of variations on a binary form melody in B flat with many dotted notes, the cello has the melody and the viola the bass for much of the first variation. The second takes us into the rare key of B flat minor, with the 2nd violin in the limelight. The third returns to the major key, where the varying includes triplet semiquavers initiated by the viola. These bring the movement to a hushed conclusion. The minuet is also graceful and elegant. For the trio, Haydn again writes five flats, but this time we’re in D flat major. The 1st violin has streams of quavers, and unusually, a bridge passage leads to the recapitulation of the minuet proper, with pizzicato chords to finish. The concluding Presto, in 2/4 time, is Haydn at his most playful, witty and inventive. There’s birdsong, a lot of staccato notes, interplay between pairs of instruments, a minor key melody with a moment of eerie chromaticism, and eventually triplet quavers before the final uplifting chords. Even in one of Haydn’s less well known and un-nicknamed quartets, it’s easy to see why even Beethoven felt daunted.
Gabriel Fauré 1845-1924 String Quartet in E minor op 121
Allegro moderato: Andante: Allegro
Of the many composers hesitant to write their first string quartet, Fauré stands out. In 1823, in his late 70s, he wrote to his wife from his retreat in Annecy: “I’ve started a quartet for strings, without piano. This is a genre which Beethoven in particular made famous, and causes all those who are not Beethoven to be terrified of it.” Maybe he didn’t know Beethoven was also terrified, thanks to Haydn! It was the last work he completed, in 1924, the last year of his life. He finally succumbed to suggestions from friends and colleagues to write his own, after his pupil, Maurice Ravel, dedicated his to him in 1903. Fauré had actually begun the Andante, the first movement to be composed. He considered adding a fourth movement, maybe between the first two, decided the work was complete. He declined a private performance as his hearing was by then so poor, and it was only premiered after his death. Fauré was a traditionalist, whose music was always restrained and meticulously crafted. He especially disliked excesses of orchestral colour, advising his students to avoid glockenspiels, celestas, xylophones, bells or electrical instruments. Debussy admired his sparse orchestration, but Poulenc found it leaden. Fauré much preferred chamber forces: even the celebrated Requiem – itself a very restrained setting, albeit very beautiful – uses brass sparingly, while reserving the violins for the final movement, In Paradisum. The quartet uses themes from an unfinished violin concerto. It may be restrained, with all the movements may be in duple or quadruple time, and none especially fast or slow, but it certainly doesn’t lack originality, invention, and especially craftsmanship. The opening sonata form Allegro begins with a viola phrase with a chromatic twist: when the 1st violin joins in, it’s with a faster, more rhythmical melody that descends and then rises to slightly higher than its starting point. This upward striving pervades the entire piece, maybe a longing for Heaven. The cello especially spends much time in its higher registers. The instruments often seem to be taking their own paths, as they develop the melodic ideas, a feature of French music since Berlioz. Franck excelled at it, as did Saint-Saëns. Fauré does so while maintaining his own unique voice. For all its restraint, few bars go by without changes of dynamics. Reaching cadence points is something Fauré skilfully avoids, making them all the more telling. The Allegro ends quietly. The form of the central Andante is much freer, but equally rich in counterpoint and emotion, the harmonies equally fluid, and the melodies with their chromatic inflections often soaring heavenward. One of them uses four notes, rising by whole tones, a scale Debussy much favoured. The conclusion is again a hushed one. A rising melody begins the final Allegro, again a sonata form movement. A seemingly unrelated offbeat pizzicato figure is much used. When the key signature changes to E major, the music remains just as fluidly chromatic and reluctant to reach a resolution. But when it comes, it’s a masterstroke. The final bars become very lively with triplet quavers, and the ending is as assertive as the previous ones were hushed.
Claude Debussy 1862-1918 String Quartet in G minor op 10
Animé et très décidé: Assez vif et bien rythmé: Andantino, doucement expressif: Très modéré – En animant peu à peu – Très mouvementé et avec passion
Debussy’s only string quartet premiered in 1893, ten years before Ravel’s and thirty years before Fauré’s, who might have been as terrified of theirs as he was of Beethoven’s. The 31 year old Debussy’s work certainly took the musical world by storm and reactions were mixed. Pierre Boulez regarded Debussy as the first truly modern composer, who finally freed music from constraints of form and harmony. Although it’s in the traditional four movements, with the scherzo placed second, all of them are very flexible in form and tempo: they recycle and transform melodies much as Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner and Franck had done. Compare Debussy’s tempo markings with Fauré’s. It’s not just that they’re in French. They point to what traditionalists would have considered over the top self-indulgence. The arresting opening is just about in G minor, but F natural and A flat pervade the sound world. A singing melody, first on violin 1 and then cello, is accompanied by restless, chromatic semiquavers from the other three. Like Fauré, there are plenty of dynamic markings, but there are also many indicating changes of tempo, including Tempo rubato – an instruction to vary the rhythm for expressive purposes, something easier to achieve on a solo instrument – as Chopin does. Near the end of the movement the time signature changes from 4/4 to 6/4, the speed increases, and a dramatic conclusion in a modal form of G minor (ie without any expected F sharps) is reached. In the scherzo, pizzicato chords introduce the viola, transforming a now familiar melody. The viola persists with this while the accompaniment features more pizzicato and triplet quavers clashing with duplet ones: a device Brahms was very fond of. The material is shared out more equally before what might be a trio section. But in Debussy’s hands this is nothing like the expected form: melodies, textures and dynamics are constantly changing and surprising us. There isn’t even an official return to the opening music before the mercurial ending. Mutes are required for the slow movement, marked very moderate (in tempo!) and sweetly expressive. Ostensibly in D flat major – as far from G minor as possible – the theme, again a transformation of an earlier one, has a Russian flavour to it. Debussy’s patroness in the 1880’s had been Nadezhda von Meck, better known for her support of Tchaikovsky. The livelier music that ensues features whole tone melodies before the opening theme returns but transformed and enriched, before the movement ends with another “excessive” marking: as pianissimo as possible. The finale begins with the cello and then others in rhapsodic vein as if wondering where to go. But after a chord in the remote key of E major, a faster rhythmic phrase derived from the very opening melody begins on the cello and soon builds. There are frequent changes of tempo, mood and texture as the themes are further explored. The music ebbs and flows like the sea that so obsessed its composer. The excitement and the speed build until a bar of 19 ascending semiquavers from violin 1 lead to triumphant G major chords. Debussy wrote that “Any sounds in any combination and in any succession are henceforth free to be used in a musical continuity,” and yet this quartet is surely as closely argued as any, a kaleidoscopic feast that draws on a relatively small amount of very distinctive material.