Sunday, 11 December 2011

Raising a Storm

Surely no one can complain that Beethoven's string quartets are neglected. All sixteen of them (from Op.18 to Op.135) get very regular airings. Not so his one and only string quintet, the neglect of which is truly baffling - so baffling that I had to get this particular bee out of my bonnet almost as soon as I began blogging here! Isn't it strange that even the world's most famous classical composer still has 'Cinderella pieces' lurking in his output? Even stranger, given that the String Quintet in C major, Op.29 (1801) is such a beautiful, loveable work. It's among my five favourite Beethoven works (though what the other four are, I can't quite say!)

This work is a "viola quintet" (conventional string quartet, plus an extra viola), unlike Schubert's (which is a "cello quintet").

The opening Allegro is both lyrical and full of strength. Its lovely main theme moves like heads of wheat in a gentle wind. If you listen carefully you'll hear that it's accompanied (on cello) by its own mirror image. After this warm opening, the transition to the second subject passes through three distinct ideas. The second subject itself, with its graceful descending sequences, is just as lovely and lyrical as the main theme. Some listeners complain that Beethoven's music generally lacks tunes, but those listeners need not worry here. This new tune has a Viennese grace to it. The exposition codetta, when it eventually comes, dwells on the waving heads of wheat again, as does the development section (though it also spends some time on one of the transitional ideas), engaging them in some rich contrapuntal writing. For the sake of mere delight, Beethoven adds some cheeky tweets (high and low) as a counter-melody to the main theme - gratuitous perhaps but pure genius nonetheless. The coda manages to screw up quite a bit of tension which a light-hearted cadenza then releases. A happy ending (with a slight folk flavouring) follows.

The slow movement (Andante) is marked "molto expressivo", very expressive, and so it is. It's an aria-like movement with another lyrical main theme of much beauty. There is a deeply plaintive middle section but most of the movement is given over to this heart-easing melody, which Beethoven decorates lovingly and accompanies with some particularly rich harmonies. Another special feature of the Andante is its use of string colour, with one highlight of the movement being the unexpected pizzicato counter-melody which Beethoven adds in its latter half. There are a couple more surprises near the end.

The Scherzo is also first-rate - rhythmically exciting, catchy and wonderfully scored. It always gets my toes tapping. Its Trio section is charming and well-contrasted, its geniality generating a surprising amount of heat at times.

Is the Finale going to be a weak link? Not a bit of it! The thrill of late Schubert is anticipated in the stormy tremolos which run through the movement like an electric charge (the work as a whole is sometimes given the nickname 'The Storm') and in some of the more remarkable harmonies. The first theme calls forth lightning from the first violin and the second subject dances in the rain. The development section takes the main theme and combines in with other motifs in a gripping display of vigorous counterpoint. Then comes a surprise (which I will now spoil) - a pause leads not to the recapitulation but to a joky minuet. After a few bars of this, the recapitulation begins but, once completed, leads into a coda which begins with...yes, the joky minuet. The storm returns though and brings this exciting movement - and the work as a whole - to a close.

Now, if the idea of an unfamiliar, tuneful, beautiful, sometimes exciting, consummately-crafted Beethoven masterpiece interests you, please give this Quintet a spin. Cinderella shall go to the ball, or at least she damn well should do.

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