Sunday, 20 January 2013

Friends Reunited

"Storace gave a quartet party to his friends. The players were tolerable; not one of them excelled on the instrument he played, but there was a little science among them, which I dare say will be acknowledged when I name them:
    First Violin: Haydn
    Second Violin: Baron Dittersdorf
    Violoncello: Vanhal
    Viola: Mozart.
I was there, and a greater treat, or a more remarkable one, cannot be imagined."

So reminisced the Irish actor and singer, Michael Kelly. His image of four of the most famous composers of the late 18th Century playing string quartets together (not perfectly!) is one of the most engaging in music. 

I thought it might be fun to present you with a concert of string quartets by all four of these composers. 

Let's start with the first violinist, Haydn, and his String Quartet in D major, Op.20/4 - one of the Sun Quartets. Its beautiful opening theme is, if I may use an extended simile, rather like a busy quarry, with the composer continuing to dig away at it and carry its material to construction sites across the opening Allegro. The most obvious elements of this theme are the repeating note figure (always four in number, the last longer than the preceding three notes) and a little turning figure. The former in particular plays a major role, underpinning and driving the action in passage after passage. Haydn doesn't overpower us with it however, and its presence can be discreet at times. Drama, lyricism and occasional flashes of brilliance are the hallmarks of this first-rate movement. The development section is especially fiery at times and contains a classic Haydn false reprise. The following Adagio is a theme and variations in D minor on a long, grave melody. The first variation syncopates the tune, the second gives the cello an opportunity to sing expressively, the third allows some elaborate violin figuration to decorate its bare bones while the fourth re-sings the grave melody much as before though with an intensified climax of considerable power that flows into a lovely coda. The Minuet is marked 'alla zingarese' ('in gypsy style') and is spry, folk-like, full of cross rhythms and utterly delightful. The cello decorates the trio section's simple dance tune in a way that doesn't sound very simple to play! This excellent quartet ends with an entertaining Finale marked 'Presto e scherzando', which continues the Minuet's gypsy-style brilliance and folk-like material but places them in a sonata-form structure and gives them extra vim. It may have a sense of driving purpose at times but it's essentially light-hearted, giddy even.

Let's now hear from the second violinist, Baron Carl Ditters von Ditters von Dittersdorf...erm, no...make that Baron Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf. (I got carried away). His string quartets are, unlike Haydn's and (most of) Mozart's, in just three movements. I've chosen the String Quartet No.2 in B flat major. The opening Moderato, especially if heard immediately after the wonderful Haydn work, makes it very clear from the start that the level of mastery, inspiration and genius has dropped considerably since the preceding piece. Dittersdorf, after all, is no Haydn. We already knew that though, didn't we? And once we accept that his tunes are necessarily going to be blander, his transitions more pedestrian and over-reliant on sequences, his working-out less intellectually satisfying and his harmonic architecture less purposeful, we can sit back in our chairs and enjoy the easy-going flow of the baron's agreeable music. (Unfair comparisons can be so invidious - says he, having just made one!) A relaxed and charming Andante follows (my favourite movement) and there's a leisurely and charming theme and variations Finale to follow. 

After the audience have finished chatting to each other about how nice that piece by the baron was, the players reconvene and are about to perform a quartet by their cellist - the Bohemian composer Johann Baptist Vanhal. We're lifting the tonality here, as it's his String Quartet No.2 in F major that we're about to hear. Now this is also a leap back up the ladder of inspiration. The opening Allegro has purpose, makes some unexpected harmonic moves and has attractive themes (with a flavour of folk music to the continuation of the main subject). The connoisseurs in the audience have pricked there ears up by this stage. "By the Emperor, this is jolly good!", they think. And they're right. They are also pleased at the following Andante, with its intriguing first violin melody (lots of plunges by a tenth - though they are artfully concealed) and its unhurried character, though this is lighter stuff. The concluding Presto is a lively sonata form movement, with a strong dip into the minor during the development section. Vanhal earns an appreciate round of applause for himself here. Yes, he's no Haydn either, but he's a fine composer nonetheless.

Now it's time for our final work in the concert and it's by our violist Mozart. We returning tonally to where we began with the String Quartet in D major, K499 (nicknamed the 'Hoffmeister' after Baywatch legend David a friend called Hoffmeister). This is an immensely likeable piece. It may not touch the emotional depths that some of his quartets do (that's for sure!), but its optimism and sheer craftsmanship more than make up for that. The opening Allegretto is deliciously tuneful, with more than a flavour of folk music about the main tune and an equally glorious (though more urbane) second subject. What sets this movement apart is the way the folk-like main theme is worked in the development - urgent thematic and harmonic working that owes much to the example of Haydn. The tip-back into the recapitulation is masterful. It's my favourite movement. The swinging Minuet has a courtly air, with a winning main melody and nothing of the countryside about it. The trio section, with its busy triplets, strikes a bright and lively note. The canonic exchanges in each section add a degree of classical chamber music depth. The Adagio isn't one of those succulent pro-Romantic ones which send Mozart-lovers swooning but a cooler, more Haydn-like affair. The violin sings it like an elaborate aria. The closing pages are especially lovely. The final Rondo has something of the light-hearted numbers from The Magic Flute about it (not that the opera was yet written at the time of the Hoffmeister) and gives this genial quartet a particularly cheerful ending. I must tell you that the cognoscenti (of our day) don't seem to rank the piece as highly as the quartets which precede it (the 'Haydn Quartets'). The work's relative simplicity appears to put them off.

As the audience mingled afterwards, out of ear-shot of the four performers, everyone agreed how delightful the concert had been. As often happens the conversation then turned to the relative qualities of the pieces we'd heard and to which composer the laurels should be awarded. In a loud (some might say deafening) voice I stepped forward and declared the winner to be Haydn. Obviously. Others disagreed and a ridiculously heated argument ensued, more suited to the modern internet than a Viennese salon. A Dittersdorf supporter actually threatened to block or even ban a Vanhal enthusiast from saying another word after the latter called him 'a troll', saying he'd find out his IP number. As this was 1785, no one had a clue what either of them were talking about. As, hopefully, neither will you.

No comments:

Post a Comment