String Quartet no.3 in D major, op.18 no.3
String Quartet no.12 in E-flat major, op.127
String Quartet no.1 in F major, op.18 no.1
Matthias Lingenfelder and Jens Oppermann (violins)
Stewart Eaton (viola)
Andreas Arndt (violoncello)
I have often felt ambivalent about some at least of Beethoven’s op.18 quartets. There are very fine things in them, yet I should have contested the Auryn Quartet’s claim, in the preface to the programme notes, that, from the great classical trinity of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, ‘only Beethoven’s quartets are all of a similarly outstanding quality; each one self-contained, unique in expression, and everyone a masterpiece.’ Perhaps it is because I am a pianist and only a very lapsed string player, but I have tended to think more highly, at least as a group, of the ‘early’ piano sonatas than the early quartets. Did the Auryn Quartet change my mind? Pretty much so with the performance of the D major quartet, op.18 no.3.
The opening Allegro has a sunny lyricism, basking in the warmth of open strings – and so it sounded here. The players’ scurrying questions and answers, and their offbeat accents made their point without being forced. A real sense of exploration was imparted to the development section, though always, quite rightly, within the bounds of Classical forms. So often nowadays Andante movements, let alone those marked con moto, are straightforwardly hurried; it was therefore a great relief to hear a performance, which, whatever the metronome might have told one – who cares? – sounded ‘right’. Again, the reading was unassumingly, but certainly not uneventfully, exploratory: just as it should be for the young(ish) Beethoven. The third movement was light-hearted yet never trivial; Beethoven’s equipoise between harmony and counterpoint, splendidly managed here, sees to that. The first violin’s flights of fantasy were always securely underpinned. Lively, never hard-driven, would be an apt summation of the finale. It was fun too, infectious in the catchiness of rhythm. This was Beethoven with a smile, not a grimace, flexible without indulgence. And the throwaway ending was delightful.
Whatever claims might be made for unity in Beethoven’s œuvre, the late works will always be special. Here we heard the first of the late quartets, op.127. I was much taken with the ‘openness’ of the Maestoso introduction to the first movement: ‘late’, to be sure, but harking back to the opening of Haydn’s final piano sonata, also in E-flat major. The Allegro lived up to Beethoven’s marking teneramente, ‘tenderly’. Through tenderness, the Auryn’s players combined strangeness and consolation, grandeur and concision, and proved this music as lyrical in its own way as the first movement of the previous quartet. Song was the essence in the slow movement, bringing the German Innigkeit (somehow more than mere ‘inwardness’) to mind. The variations unfolded with inevitability: again, strange, especially during the fifth, and consoling, especially thereafter, in what Richard Wigmore, in his programme notes, aptly termed a ‘spiritualised dance’. The radiant glimpse once again of E major in the coda seemed almost to foreshadow Mahler – perhaps the Mahler of the Fourth Symphony’s slow movement. Restlessness characterised the scherzo, with a nicely stomping trio, its rusticity almost but not quite sublimated. This found echoes during the finale, though the principal mood was of graceful, almost transfigured, dance.
Following the interval, the players returned to op.18, to the F major quartet, no.1. It was here that my slight doubts resurfaced, though the performance remained of a high level. Following a rare intonational lapse in the opening phrase, much of the first movement was delightful, the players revelling in an almost Mozartian profusion of melody, though perhaps with a garrulousness quite foreign to Beethoven’s predecessor. The slow movement, inspired at least initially by the tomb scene from Romeo and Juliet, attained true gravity, however, its development section played with moving, utterly committed intensity. Skittish unease was the hallmark of the scherzo, which flew by without the slightest sense of being unduly driven. (When will certain musicians learn that rhythmic propulsion does not equate to driving hard?) I felt slightly disappointed with the finale. The players brought good humour to their performance, but Beethoven here seems a little too expansive for his own good. Still, the twists and turns were all nicely handled.
There was, however, a splendid bonus to follow, in an encore of the finale to Haydn’s ‘Rider’ quartet, op.74 no.3. This was quite dazzling, full of dynamism that irresistibly propelled the players – and listeners – to the end. I realised then what had been missing in the previous quartet: Beethoven still had a little way to go to match Haydn’s mastery. Though how he would do so – and even surpass it…