Monday, January 25, 2010

Ludwig van Beethoven - String Quartet Op. 130

Where to start with my first fancy post? Well, why not here, with the greatest string quartet ever written? Too great a claim, I know - as soon as it's made half a dozen other candidates come to mind (and why make such useless distinctions anyway?) - but Beethoven's Op. 130 is special. Right from the start, it's searching for a place to settle: those opening chords grope around for a home key, and shortly after they develop into song they're interrupted by a rapid darting figure - there's an uncertainty over not just the key, but also the thematic material. "What should I write?" seems to be the question, and, for a composer, that's as big as it gets. As the movement goes on, ideas tumble over each other, keys and motifs pile up, dynamics lurch all over the map, and there are extraordinary moments: the throbbing that appears around the ten minute mark leaves everything but my ears seeming irrelevant, yet even this isn't allowed to stay for long.

What follows are not the usual three further movements, but five, as if the normal form had to expand to accommodate all the composer's ideas. First, three with something of the dance to them, all pleasant, but perhaps just a way to take our minds off the questions of the first movement. The fifth movement Cavatina is something else, eight minutes of intense hush which, like the first movement, includes a heart-freezing throbbing around the 5:20 mark. And then the finale, the Grosse Fuge, a massive double fugue with always-changing tempi and dynamics, rhthyms fighting against each other, enormous leaps in horizontal lines, always restless, a movement that could have been written a hundred years later and not be thought conservative. It's the probing of the first movement made more urgent. If there are going to be answers, this is where they'll come. I'm not sure if they do, but the search is thrilling enough.

As a seventh track, the disc includes the alternative finale that Beethoven wrote after complaints that the Grosse Fuge was too Grosse. It's a pleasant ten minutes of music, and would have served as a fine end to one of the Rasumovsky quartets that Beethoven had written twenty years earlier, but it lacks the intensity, and perhaps the touch of insanity, that the music before it demands. I'd suggest treating the first six tracks as a whole and the seventh as an appendix. The Lindsays' performance of all this isn't technically perfect, but it's full of feeling, and somehow seems to acknowledge that this piece is far beyond another Classical string quartet: it is a world. Listen.

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