Sunday, April 21, 2013

Beethoven: String Quartet in E flat, op. 127

In my "Masterpieces of Music" series, while putting up several posts on Beethoven, I managed to miss quite a few important pieces. One of them is the first of the late string quartets, op. 127 in E flat. This is an extraordinary piece. I can recall being astonished by some of the clashing harmonies in the first movement even the first few times I listened to it over forty years ago. I wrote about that here.

The quartet is in four movements, but, at nearly forty minutes in length, it is twice as long as a quartet by Haydn or Mozart. The first movement, remarkably lyrical, is based on contrasts: between the maestoso introduction and the allegro main section (which is interrupted twice by the return of the introduction) and between the E flat tonic harmony and some prominent moves to a bright C major--something that the quartet keeps returning to in later movements. Here is how that first movement begins:

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What a wonderful contrast between the ponderous opening and that lilting waltz theme! Here is a performance of the first movement:

It is with the second movement that Beethoven really begins to exceed the bounds of the classical quartet. This is an enormous set of variations that are humbling in their immense calm. One of the greatest examples of decorative variation ever composed and fifteen minutes in length! Here is how that second movement begins and you can see how he lays out extended layers to create the feeling of almost inhuman calm:

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Here is a performance of the second movement:

The following scherzo is, in the words of Joseph Kerman, “one of Beethoven's most explosive pieces, bursting with energy and malice, crackling with dry intelligence.” Here is a performance with the score:

The finale is deceptively simple sounding, both magical and folk-like, but perfectly conceived and constructed. No matter how many times one might listen to the Beethoven late quartets, there is always something more to discover. Again, here is a performance with the score:


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