Musical Notes: Beethoven

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As many of you who read my submissions to the Edited Guide will know, I have an ongoing and abiding passion for the life and works of the composer Gustav Mahler. He does not however have my entire undivided attention, to the exclusion of all other composers. My musical tastes have always been somewhat catholic, however from time to time over the years of my music listening, I have found myself drawn towards a more in-depth study of some particular set of musical works. There is no obvious trigger at the time to explain why the group in question should attract my attention, it just does. In the past, these musical magnets have included the symphonies of Brahms, the Bach cantatas, the Wagner Ring cycle of operas and many others. It has happened again recently, when my focus has been on the string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven.

The string quartet is a very intimate form of music-making and it requires great musicianship for the four musicians to perform as a single entity. The standard string quartet comprises two violins (first violin and second violin), viola and 'cello; the player of the first violin part is the musical chief of the quartet – the leader. A string quartet can be said to represent a direct implementation of what is known as four-part harmony.

Beethoven lived from 1770 to 1827 and left us 16 quartets, written over the span of almost his entire life. Musicologists and other writers on Beethoven usually divide the quartets into three groups, unimaginatively called the Early, Middle and Late period quartets, although these are rather more stylistic periods than chronological ones.

Whereas we would probably refer to the composer's five piano concertos as Piano Concerto No. 1 to Piano Concerto No. 5 ('Emperor'), the string quartets are normally identified by their opus numbers:

The Early Quartets

  • Op.18, a set of six quartets, published 1800-01. They developed and perhaps brought to an apogee the classical style of the quartet form laid down by Beethoven's predecessors, especially Haydn and Mozart.

The Middle Period Quartets

  • Op.59, a set of three quartets published in 1808 and known as the 'Rasumovsky' quartets after their dedicatee, the then Russian ambassador in Vienna, Count Andreas Razumovsky (the disparity in the spelling of his last name is quite normal)

  • Op.74 ('Harp'), published 1809

  • Op.95 ('Serioso'), written in 1810 or 1811 but not performed until 1814

The Late Quartets

  • Opp.127, 130, 131, 132 and 135. These string quartets are among Beethoven's final works, written in 1825-6 when the composer was profoundly deaf. They are considered the greatest of his work in this form and indeed perhaps the greatest quartets written by any composer. They are more symphonic in concept than the earlier examples. Beethoven frees himself from the constraints of a four-movement sonata format. Opp.130, 131 and 132 all have more than four movements, in the case of Op. 131, as many as seven movements which are played without a break.

It is not my intention to give, nor indeed is this the place for a detailed description of the quartets individually. My reason for mentioning them here will become apparent shortly, but first...

I first encountered the Beethoven quartets in the early 1960s when I purchased an LP recording of the Op.18 quartets Nos. 3 and 4, one on each side of the disc. They were on the Saga record label, a budget label costing 12s6d (62½p), a considerable saving on the cost of full-price records, at that time 37s6d (£1.87½p). My hard come-by pocket money and other earnings from various schoolboy enterprises had to be spent prudently. On that particular disc, recorded in 1959, the performers were the Fine Arts Quartet, an American quartet founded just after WWII and still playing today, albeit with several changes of personnel over the years. As an aside, I also purchased at about the same time a full set of the six Bartok quartets, on the same record label and played by the same quartet.

As I said previously, the string quartet is a very intimate form of music-making, and in order to make valid comparisons, one with another, across the whole set of quartets, it helps to eliminate as many variables as possible. One such elimination is to have all the quartets performed by the same musicians. Although I have recordings of most of the quartets, either on vinyl or CD, they are by a number of different groups, so I set about looking for a reasonably-priced complete set. As Google is my friend, I started there and before long came across a wonderful set recorded in 1952 by the Végh Quartet, and guess what— available for free, courtesy of the Internet. Whoopee!

Being a 1952 set, the recordings are of course in mono, but of excellent quality, and that is the reason for this column; I discovered that the mono sound is in one respect actually an improvement over the stereo equivalent, surprise, surprise. The Végh Quartet had a very long association; it was founded in 1940 and continued with the same line-up for almost 40 years, only changing members in the last two years of its existence. By the time of these recordings, the quartet had long been an instinctive ensemble, each member responding automatically to the subtle musical nuances of the others.

So why do I prefer these mono recordings to stereo ones? Essentially it's because the collapse of the wide stereo image to a central focal point reinforces the vertical harmony of the composition, akin to neatly squaring up a deck of playing cards. Earlier I said that the string quartet is one of the two simplest representations of four-part harmony, the other of course being four voices: soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Each 'voice' (in the case of the string quartet the four voices are first violin, second violin, viola and 'cello) has an independent life, and in a stereo recording is placed in the stereo 'image' spread out aurally in front of you. Certainly it enables you to follow each voice quite easily, but that in itself tends to distract from the harmonic progression which a mono recording tightens up.

As a collector of vintage recordings, I am quite familiar (and indeed perfectly content) with a mono sound. Perhaps others, used only to stereo recordings, might find the unfamiliar mono sound something of a distraction, but for me, on the earphones of my MP3 player, the experience is enchanting.

Until next time, happy listening.

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