Innsaei String Quartet
Emily Blayney, violin
Elyena Clapperton, violin
Beth Willett, viola
Alec Smith, cello
Beethoven: Quartet op 59 no 1, Razumovsky
Grieg: String Quartet in G minor
Programme notes written by Donald Judge
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Quartet in F major op 59 no 1, Razumovsky
Allegro: Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando: Adagio molto e mesto – attacca: Thème Russe – Allegro
This is the first of Beethoven’s middle period quartets, his seventh, published in 1808, and the first of three making up op 59, dedicated to Count Andrei Kirillovich Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to Vienna, and a keen amateur cellist – hence the prominent and often virtuosic cello part, and the use of a Russian folk melody in the finale. Although it finds Beethoven in a very good humour and lyrical mode, it is a far weightier work than any quartet he or anyone else had written, at around 40 minutes, even though Beethoven omits the traditional repeat of the first movement exposition. Dispensing with a slow introduction, the opening features a cello melody beneath chugging quavers from violin 2 and viola. When violin 1 enters, it’s to repeat the previous four bars of the cello melody 2 octaves higher and then extend it to greater heights. The chugging quavers seem stuck on a dominant 7th, but this is finally resolved with fortissimo F major and contrasting new material – march like followed by more lyrical with violins and then viola and cello in pairs. Another fortissimo heralds the cello alone, beginning a rising theme with triplet quavers. Beethoven’s imagination, contrasts, and the range of keys visited knows no bounds as he develops his material, and eventually he arrives at a fugato section combining some spiky quavers with a longer melody and a minor key feel. When the opening music returns, Beethoven, unsatisfied by a conventional recapitulation, takes us into more far-flung tonal territory. Passages originally in F major are suddenly in G flat major, before Beethoven extricates himself. Though the remaining material adheres more closely to traditional sonata form, it is still highly inventive, including the surprises Beethoven saves for the final bars. The scherzo being placed second rather than third seems typical of Beethoven, but guess what? Haydn beat him to is around 35 years earlier, for example in the op 20 G minor quartet. But this could only be music by Beethoven. A rhythmic pattern on a single note is given by the cello, answered by a spiky melody on violin two. This is repeated in a surprising key by viola and violin 1. Anyone expecting a conventional movement with repeated sections and a central trio may be bewildered. Beethoven is no less inventive in developing his material and visiting as many keys as possible. It’s violin 1 that takes centre stage to start the slow movement: a sad melody in F minor, marked sadly (mesto) but the cello soon takes it over. Once again, Beethoven’s invention combining and developing melodies and accompanying motifs and visiting a range of tonalities bears the mark of genius, all four playing their part in remarkable textures. Some pizzicato adds to the inspired variety. As to its conclusion, it’s inconclusive, a violin 1 cadenza leading to a trilled C. Copying the structure if not the notes of the first movement, the cello enters with an innocuous Russian folk melody of dubious tonality (F major / D minor) which violin 1 takes onwards and upwards. Beethoven’s treatment of his material is again staggering in the transformations and excursions to remote places. An oasis of peace is reached; the tempo Adagio… But the briefest of codas, marked presto and fortissimo, powers the work to a thrilling finish. Haydn wrote his last music for quartet in 1803, unfinished due to ill health and retirement. 5 years later this quartet was part of the announcement of Beethoven’s Middle Period, and a challenge to his contemporaries, such as he himself had felt about Haydn’s symphonies and quartets that persuaded him to wait until 1800 and the age of 30.
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907): String Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 27
Un poco andante – Allegro molto ed agitato; Romanze: Andantino; Intermezzo: Allegro molto marcato – Più vivo e scherzando; Finale: Lento – Presto al saltarello
Grieg completed an early quartet in D minor which, sadly, is lost. In the final year of his life, he left a string quartet in F major unfinished. The G minor quartet was written in his mid-thirties, and finished in 1878. Grieg wrote to a friend saying: “I have recently finished a string quartet which I still haven’t heard. It is in G minor and is not intended to bring trivialities to market. It strives towards breadth, soaring flight and above all resonance for the instruments for which it is written.” It’s certainly a substantial work by a composer who wrote no symphonies except an early attempt he suppressed, only the one concerto, and who thrived on beautifully crafted miniatures. Apart from the piano concerto, one of the best-known and loved, his most widely heard pieces are incidental music for Ibsen’s epic play Peer Gynt, and his tribute to another Norwegian playwright, Ludvig Holberg 1684-1754, who lived in Grieg’s home city of Bergen, contemporary with Bach and Handel, hence Grieg’s brilliant evocation of the Baroque, even if he originally wrote it for piano.
The quartet certainly opens with breadth, and a feature of the work becomes immediately apparent – the richness of the scoring, the resonance Grieg wrote of. It’s easy to imagine the chords are played by a string orchestra, an effect achieved by double, triple and quadruple stopping. The bow can only sustain a sound on two strings, but this effect dates from the earliest days of the viol and violin families and was used by many composers including Bach to create richness – and harmony in solo works. Grieg sometimes asks for the same note to be played on two strings, for example an open D string with the same note fingered on the G string. This so concerned his usual publisher Peters that they rejected the work, suggesting it needed to be rewritten as a piano quartet or quintet. Grieg stuck to his guns and found another publisher. The quartet’s dedicatee Robert Heckmann led a successful premiere in Cologne in 1878, the sheet music sold, and Peters relented. After the slow introduction comes the driven allegro, marked very fast and agitated, beginning pianissimo in the lower registers, but soon becoming a fortissimo covering a much wider range. There are frequent instructions to hold back or increase the tempo. Syncopation and increasingly conflicting rhythms including triplet crotchets rack up the tension. A climax is reached and a descending unison figure precedes a completely empty bar – another device Grieg uses frequently to dramatic effect. The second subject of this sonata movement is much more lyrical, with harmony very typical of the composer. Any hint of sentimentality is soon blown away by the agitato music, and the exposition ends with triumphant B flat major chords. These are immediately repeated in B flat minor, and in that remote key the development section begins. At times the music is disjointed and more sparse in texture as Grieg plays with the musical motifs, but the drama continues. The recapitulation is, initially, textbook writing, but Grieg has surprises in store as he extends the movement. The key signature changes to G major for a passage with the three upper instrument playing eerie tremolandi sul ponticello (on the bridge) accompanying a long breathed cello solo based on the second subject. But the agitato music has the last word: in fact the tempo increases throughout the final few bars and three dramatic chords bring a triumphant conclusion, albeit resolutely in G minor. The Romanze that follows shares the lilting melody out pretty fairly: beginning in B flat major, it’s Grieg at his lyric best, reminiscent of Elgar in his lighter moments. But then the tempo if not the time signature changes. The music is now allegro agitato and has more of a minor key feel. The opening tempo and melody return with new accompaniments. Development of the two different ideas continues, alternating and with frequent pauses. But the slower music prevails and the inspired final chord is composed entirely of harmonics – very high notes achieved by touching a string lightly with the finger rather than pressing down. The intermezzo begins as a rumbustious country dance defying the 3/4 metre but softens into something almost like a waltz. At one point cello and viola play oom-pah pizzicato chords seemingly in duple time and at odds with the violins. The result is quirkily charming rather than unsettling. As in previous movements, the different types of music alternate until we reach what is in effect the trio section of this scherzo. Now the key signature is 2/4 and a melody very akin to a folk dance played by cello alone introduces it. When the others take it on in turn, it’s to a jaunty off beat accompaniment of pizzicato chords. There’s a brief moment of swagger before the opening section is repeated, with a coda that ends with a smile. Back to dark drama as the finale opens with a slow introduction in which the music descends from high on violin 1 to near the bottom of the cello’s range before some pungent chords herald the Saltarello. This is a medieval Italian dance with a parallel in Germany, the hoppentanz. Both imply leaping and Grieg certainly has his players leaping about in a very fast 6/8. A new section in 2/4 time is a little less frantic, but its melodies and rhythms soon become confused with the 6/8: perfect music for a Troll King’s party, at its wildest when it reaches G major. But how will it end? In a blaze of glory or fizzling out to nothing. Grieg’s answer is a master stroke. After spending an entire page seemingly stuck on repetitions the same grinding fortissimo chord, melodies heard in earlier movements make an unexpected return. So contrasting are these ideas that Grieg keeps us guessing until the last moment. So for those who don’t know this fine work, let’s not spoil the surprise.
David Balakrishnan (b 1954): Sky Life
Balakrishnan is the Los Angeles born violinist, composer and founder of the Turtle Island Quartet established in 1987. Sky Life is only around four minutes long, will speak for itself, and unless you’ve listened to Turtle Island’s YouTube will be a surprise. The writer of this note, who must confess this is new to him, stopped listening deliberately after less than a minute so as not to spoil the live moment. He also looked at page one of the score posted on Turtle Island’s website, where violin one is told to play “chops alternated with throws.”