LUDWIG van BEETHOVEN – String Quartet No. 12

Ludwig van Beethoven was a German composer, probably the most famous in western classical music history. He wrote 16 string quartets. These works are highly regarded, especially the ‘Late’ Quartets, Nos. 12 to 16. I previously discussed No. 15 in May, 2016.

SQ No. 12 is quite orchestral in conception, especially the first movement. Beethoven uses the same three major chords that can be found in ‘three-chord songs’ to fashion a stunning introduction to the piece. The chords are played sustained, in an orchestral fashion, with powerful voicings, and their occurrences are interspersed with many lilting melodies. The first melodic section starts slowly but develops quite a rhythm. Following another round of chords the first melodic section is repeated. These sections are played in and out of tempo and can sound quite melancholy until they lift themselves up. A return to the opening chordal passage occurs twice and each time it proceeds into some wistful melodies, together with some strong rhythmic dynamics. There is a recapitulation of the first melody several times. From there it leads into some new melodic material. Melodies recur, to be reshaped and reharmonised. The ending comes gently. There is some beautiful writing to be found here.

The next movement, which is an adagio, forms the emotional heart of the whole quartet. My review version runs for 16 minutes. It opens ever so quietly and moves into a longing melody. This mood is sustained for around four minutes. It is then developed into a new passage, while still remaining restrained. The mood moves very slowly into a walking tempo and comes to life. Playful melodies abound, sometimes with a hint of darker material. It is a process of constant development. Now the tempo pauses and we are transported back into a longing passage. This is splendid melancholic music. A key change introduces a new, optimistic mood with a rhythmic accompaniment from the viola and cello. An ascending motif is established and the music slowly becomes louder. Now the feeling drops back into a sparse melodic section. It is quietly majestic for a while and then proceeds to a slightly measured joyful passage. There is a brief pause and the peace returns with a gentle cello motif to support the violins as they lead the music to a quiet conclusion. I think this is one of the finest movements of the Late Quartets. It is very touching, filled with both drama and beauty.

The third movement begins in an upbeat manner, with a skittish theme. An underlying cello theme lays down the mood. The violins are playful, with joyous exchanges and it is dynamically very vibrant. The extended melody is wonderful, constantly turning back on itself to repeat critical moments. A change to a minor key leads into a whole new feeling. New melodies are formed and developed. Now the opening returns for a time before the cello commences a conversation. Another minor key change leads into a hurried ending. This is very positive music.

The final movement opens with a strangely vague feeling, before eventually settling into a jaunty passage. A new section emerges, very rhythmic, beginning strongly but retreating a little as it progresses. Now another melodic theme is presented and appropriate variations are developed. A further rhythmic passage restates some of the earlier material, sometimes in different ways. Things begin to get a bit excited as the violins dominate proceedings. A flurry of notes following some punctuating chords lead to the conclusion. All in all, a wonderful melodic journey can be found here.

Regarding availability, I shall basically reiterate what I wrote for SQ No. 15. Amazon has hundreds of many fine recorded performances, both of the SQ No. 12 on one CD, or for the more adventurous, a 3-CD set of all of the Late Quartets. I have two complete sets, the Vegh SQ and my perennial favourites, the Quartetto Italiano. I can also recommend the Amadeus and the Tokyo SQs. This is the kind of music of which you can have several sets. They all have something different to say about these wonderful works.

There is a plethora of versions of this quartet on Spotify, YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: A stunning Romantic work.


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