ILKLEY CHAMBER MUSIC ONLINE
Wednesday 17th March – Tuesday 23rd March
Mendelssohn Fugue in E flat major, op 81 no. 4 (Start ~ 34:15)
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PROGRAMME NOTES – © C.N.Lane (except Grosse Fuge) and G Kinder (Grosse Fuge)
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) – String Quartet no. 16 in F major, op 135
Allegretto (F major)
Vivace (F major)
Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo
Grave – Allegro – Grave – Allegro
Finished five months before his death in March 1827, this quartet, his sixteenth, was the last work Beethoven completed in any genre. Only the replacement for the Grosse Fugue final movement of the Opus 130 quartet was to follow it. Although it is usually grouped with the other late quartets (Opp. 127, 130, 131 and 132) it is very different from those monumental, multi-movement, genre-expanding and, at times difficult, masterpieces. It is less complex, much more concise and has a standard four movement structure reminiscent of the Opus 18 quartets of 1798-1801. It cannot, however, ever be mistaken for one of those less mature works. For all its tight musical argument and conventional structure, Opus 135 has an elusive yet profound spirit.
The textures of the opening movement are as spare as any Beethoven composed. The movement is in standard sonata form and the main theme is a genial Allegretto in 2/4 time but the melody continually fragments and the building blocks of the music are laid bare. In the quicksilver scherzo which follows, the opening section sets off with each instrument sitting on the wrong beat before joining heavily in unison, also off the beat. This jocular start is brought to a dramatic end in a fortissimo passage with the ‘cello and viola grind out the base line as the first violin spirals away, seemingly out of control. The tension dissipates and briefly the four simple pitches on which the movement is based emerge before the rollicking opening returns.
The Lento assai in D flat major (a world away from the F major of the remainder of the quartet) is one of the most moving of all Beethoven’s slow movements. In early sketches, Beethoven referred to it as ‘Süsser Ruhegesang oder Friedengesang’, a sweet song of calm or peace. It consists of a theme and four variations, each unfolding seamlessly out the last. In the second variation, the music enters a space of desolation and almost comes to tragic rest. The third variation lifts the music gently back into the major whilst, in the final section, the first violin rises in gentle, gasping rhythms before ebbing away into stillness. At the very end of his life, Beethoven had perhaps reached the same conclusion as Isaac Newton: ‘I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion.’
The manuscript of the finale is headed, ‘Der schwer gefasste Entschluss’, or ‘The Difficult Resolution.’ Under the slow introductory chords, Beethoven has written, ‘Muss es sein?’ (Must it be?) and, where the music speeds up, answers the question, ‘Es muss sein!’ (It must be!’). There has been much debate as to what difficulty needed to be resolved, ranging from the human condition to the composer’s laundry bill. However, Beethoven himself appears to have provided the answer in a letter to his publisher: ‘Here, my dear friend, is my last quartet. It will be the last; and indeed it has given me much trouble. For I could not bring myself to compose the last movement. But as your letters were reminding me of it, in the end I decided to compose it. And that is the reason why I have written the motto: “The difficult resolution–Must it be?–It must be, it must be!’
The music opens quietly with a rising minor key query in the ‘cello and viola. An anguished climax is reached and resolves before the music achieves sunlit uplands with a carefree melody. The return to the minor key (‘Muss es sein?’) is shocking as it enters almost without warning. But this is the last storm cloud and, as the music brightens once again, a coda, starting pianissimo, rounds things off with a final, boisterous flourish.
FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) – Fugue in E flat major, op 81 no. 4Read More
All Mendelssohn’s opus numbers after 72 are posthumous publications. In the Four Pieces for String Quartet, Opus 81, the composer’s publisher brought together a number of diverse works from Mendelssohn’s short but intensely creative career. The Pieces are sometimes played together but they were never intended by the composer to comprise a single work. Pieces 1-3 are late works (1843-147) but Number 4, the Fugue in E Flat Major, dates from 1827 when the teenage Felix was keen to keen to demonstrate that his youth did not mean that he was not also a serious composer who had mastered the complexities of academic forms. The fugue begins with considerable, even self-conscious, gravitas, evolving soberly despite the upward jolt of a minor 7th in the fugue subject. Mendelssohn’s academic credentials are firmly established as a second exposition reveals that we are listening to not just one but two fugues. The second, swifter theme moves up and down the scale before combining seamlessly with the first. Happily, any academic dryness is hydrated by warm, glowing tone colours across all the instruments; the mood is more cosy Biedermeyer Berlin than the bracing contrapuntal rigour of J S Bach’s Leipzig.
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) – Grosse Fuge, op 133Read More
In 1822 Prince Galitzin asked for one, two or three quartets for a fee that Beethoven could decide on. But he had to wait for them as Beethoven was too busy with the Missa Solemnis and the Choral Symphony. Tonight’s quartet was first heard in March 1826 and its huge finale was met with such
incomprehension that Beethoven wrote an alternative ending, the last piece he ever completed. Tonight we shall hear it as he first intended. This is
the longest of his quartets and is in six wildly contrasted movements with a central group of three lighter ones to act as a foil to their more demanding neighbours.
The huge finale begins with an ‘Overtura’ that sets out the chromatic theme that will be the DNA of the whole movement. Then comes the first big fugue, the chromatic theme accompanied by a spiky rhythmic idea that dominates the music almost exhaustingly. Respite is offered by a slower
section with gentle murmuring figures against the main theme. The fugue starts up again, this time in dance-like rhythm but any feeling of
relaxation is soon dispelled by trills that become ever more insistent. The gentle music returns but now in a very forceful guise. There are references to earlier material before the rush to the end. Stravinsky wrote of it ‘this absolutely contemporary piece of music will be contemporary forever…I love it beyond any other
BRODSKY STRING QUARTET – © S Warnes
Next year the Brodsky String Quartet will celebrate its Golden Jubilee! Formed in 1972 in Middlesbrough, taking its name from the great Russian violinist, Adolf Brodsky, the Brodsky Quartet has long enjoyed a busy international performing schedule, extensively touring the major festivals and venues throughout Australasia, North and South America, Asia, South Africa and Europe. The Brodsky’s have regularly recorded for television and radio with their performances broadcast worldwide.Read More
Over such a long period one would expect the occasional change of personnel but, remarkably, Ian Belton violin and Jacqueline Thomas cello have been with the quartet from the beginning. Paul Cassidy viola joined the group in 1982. The leader’s chair has seen rather more activity with Gina McCormack violin being the fourth occupant of the seat. She completes the set-up for the Kings Place recording of Mozart’s Prussia Quartets that you are about to hear. But sadly, since this recording was made last October, Gina has had to leave the Brodsky due to her husband’s illness. Fortunately she has been replaced by Krysia Osostowicz who members will remember as a founder member of the Dante Quartet.
Over the years the Brodsky have undertaken numerous performances of the complete cycles of quartets by Schubert, Beethoven. Tchaikovsky, Britten, Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, Webern and Bartok. Their complete Shostakovich cycle in London in 2012 resulted in their taking the prestigious title ‘Artistic Associate’ at London’s Kings Place. Four years later they made their second recording of the cycle, this time live from the Muziekebouw, Amsterdam.
The Brodsky have always had a busy recording career and currently enjoy an exclusive relationship with Chandos. For their 40th Anniversary they released a celebratory album of ‘Encore’ pieces under the title ‘Petits Fours’. ‘In the South’, a CD featuring works by Verdi, Paganini, Wolf and Puccini was also released around this time as well as a disc of New World Quartets by Dvorak, Copland, Gershwin and Brubeck. The latter was a specially commissioned work by the quartet, the only string quartet Brubeck ever composed. For the 250th Anniversary of the birth of Beethoven the Brodsky released a highly acclaimed box set of the late quartets.
Throughout their career the Brodsky’s energy and craftsmanship have attracted numerous awards and accolades worldwide. For recordings they have received the Diapason D’Or and the CHOC du Monde de la Musique. They have also received a Royal Philharmonic Society Award for their outstanding contribution to innovation in programming.
In the field of education the Brodsky have taught at many international chamber music courses. They have held residences in several music institutes including, at the start of their career, the first such post at the University of Cambridge, and latterly at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where they are visiting International Fellows in Chamber Music. They were awarded Honorary Doctorates by the University of Kent and an Honorary Fellowship at the University of Teesside where they were founded.
As well as partnering many classical artists the quartet have made musical history with ground-breaking collaborations with some of the world’s leading artists across many genres. They have commissioned works and championed many of our leading composers and have worked closely with the ‘Manchester School’ i.e. Birtwistle, Maxwell Davies and Goehr. After a performance of Lutoslawski’s String Quartet the latter was heard to exclaim tearfully, ‘it’s theirs!’
One of the Brodsky’s more unusual collaborations was struck up in 1985 with Japanese designer Issey Miyake who provided the quartet with innovative concert attire, with the emphasis on comfort, practicality and style. The quartet took to the catwalk playing ‘live’ for Miyake’s Men’s Show in Paris the following year.
In the early nineties the Brodsky demonstrated their versatility and broad musical interests again, this time collaborating with Punk musician Elvis Costello, jointly writing and recording the ground-breaking work The Juliet Letters, a song cycle for quartet and voice. They have worked with other leading figures from the world of pop, including Sting, Björk and Sir Paul McCartney, performing with the latter at St James’s Palace in the presence of HRH Prince Charles. The Brodsky also took part in the Perfect Day best-selling single for Children in Need.
During their 40th Anniversary year the quartet presented a concert called Wheels of 4tunes in which a huge wheel containing 40 string quartets was spun 4 times by audience members to ‘select’ a programme. Fun but apparently extremely stressful! One wonders how on earth they will top that for their 50th Anniversary next year??
We are very grateful to Jacqueline Thomas who has kindly supplied us with the following account of the Brodsky’s activities over the past traumatic year.Read More
It’s exactly a year since we gave our last concert before the coronavirus pandemic hit. We were in Glasgow performing a complete Beethoven Cycle in collaboration with students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. The week’s grand finale was an all-in-together performance of the Grosse Fuge, a really life-affirming experience for us and the students alike. As lockdown continued and more and more of our concerts were cancelled, we felt that this would be a great final concert if we never were to get back to touring life!
Gina’s news about her husband’s terrible illness made that a distinct possibility, but she soldiered on as we reconvened through the autumn, recording and performing in sporadic bursts, including the concert you are about to watch. Now she has sadly decided she must give up the quartet to offer all the support she can and we are immensely sorry to be losing her.
But we are fortunate to be able to move forward with another wonderful violinist, Krysia Osostowicz, with whom we are already working hard behind closed doors during this latest lockdown.
During the year of enforced rest from performing, we have all been using our time away from each other extremely productively. The fruits of Paul’s labours, an arrangement for String Quartet of the three Solo Violin Sonatas of Bach, is now available in print for all you keen quartet geeks out there! https://fountayneeditions.com/product/bach-johann-sebastian-sonatas-bwv10011003-1005-arranged-for-string-quartet/ The recording we made of the set will be available soon on our usual label, Chandos.
In the meantime he has published a memoir and completed a sequel which draws a colourful picture of quartet life over the last 40 years. The first book is available to order https://www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop/autobiography/get-beethoven/
Watch this space for the follow-up.
Now I couldn’t let the quartet story be told by a newcomer – Paul joined in 1982 so he missed a whole ten years of our history! I therefore got to work writing my memoir of growing up in Middlesbrough and forming this quartet out of the rich musical heritage that we had there back in the seventies. I finished it in the summer but I’m still editing and looking for a publisher. Any offers happily welcomed!
So… apart from all the forward planning with our wonderful manager Sarah for when performing life returns, this is just some of the activity that’s been keeping us busy.
Oh, and Ian now has a fabulous vegetable garden!
RECOMMENDED RECORDINGS – R Waud
Beethoven: Both these Beethoven Quartets, performed by the Brodsky Quartet, can be found on a well-recorded 3CD Chandos set at budget price, containing the last 7 Beethoven Quartets. The performances are excellent on CHAN 20114(3). For around the same price you can buy the complete set of Beethoven String Quartets, with superb performances from the Gewandhaus Quartet on Documents 600569.
Mendelssohn: This very short piece is well served by the Aurora String Quartet on Naxos 8.550861 (medium price). The CD is completed by Mendelssohn’s String Quartets Nos.3 and 8, plus the Capriccio in c minor.