Ludwig van Beethoven [1770-1827] composed 16 string quartets. The last five are known as the ‘Late Quartets’ and are generally regarded as the pinnacle of his work. I previously discussed Nos. 15 and 12 in May and September 2016, respectively. I now intend to discuss No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Opus 131.
This quartet was reputed to be Beethoven’s favourite composition. He also implied that it was made up of a collection of musical ‘scraps’ that he had worked on in the past. Don’t let that put you off – genius has no limits. Beethoven was well known to have used many ideas from the early sketches of his symphonies in other pieces.
The work is in seven movements, to be played without pauses. I have chosen an historical version by the Busch Quartet from 1951 to review.
The first movement is a stunning, slow fugue. Soon we are lost in the overlaying of the voices as they examine the theme subject and relate to each other. This is an achingly beautiful mood, so rarified. The movement develops slowly, and, at around the halfway point there is a recapitulation and the development continues. For the last time, this is heavenly music. The end comes with a few lonely notes from the cello.
The next movement is quite short and is at a moderate tempo. A breezy opening gives way to a set of variations, never too far from the opening theme. This piece is very precious. It develops ever so slowly in volume. There is a brief pause and the opening returns; such joy! Towards the end, there is some playful conversation as the voices rework the themes. It ends on two quiet notes.
These two notes are picked up at volume for the opening of the third movement. This is so short, at 46 seconds, that it functions purely as an interlude. It’s practically over before it starts.
The fourth movement is by far the longest of the work. It starts with a genteel grace that harks back to Mozart and Haydn. A most attractive theme is introduced and is picked up by the violin and cello. The mood is developed and a slow fugal interlude ensues … more heavenly music. The delicate nature is sublime and the influence of the previous mentioned masters is ever present. There is a slight rise in intensity before the former theme is reintroduced and the bliss continues. The cello and violin support this melody as they examine it from various angles. A mood change brings with it a solo violin, soon to be supported by the other voices. The solo violin is present in an excited state until it moves to the conclusion.
Many people believe that this quartet is the greatest work in Western music, and the scintillating writing in this movement certainly lends weight to that proposition. The question is, how do you follow such a movement?
Beethoven’s answer is with an up tempo movement, again of great Classical beauty. Marvellous melodies abound in this romp. There is some wonderful thematic material here and the first violin works furiously navigating the material, sometimes with very little accompaniment. The movement ends with a flourish.
The sixth movement is again quite short and is a lament of long tones and an elegant melody. It is all over very quickly and it segues straight into the final movement, which opens very rhythmically but keeps dropping into slow melodic interludes. Beethoven works the rhythmic motif over several times between these interludes. There are some fine melodies to be found here as he alternates with the motif. Somehow the music seems endless, but the end does finally come with a moderate flourish.
This quartet is a musical journey to be savoured. It runs for 39 minutes in the Busch version. It did not gain its lofty reputation by accident. Like all of Beethoven’s Late Quartets, it contains several transcendent, heavenly moments. It is an incredible composition.
Regarding availability, I shall basically reiterate what I wrote for the two previous late quartets. Amazon has hundreds of fine recorded performances 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. Lately I have been investigating The Endellion Quartet and they seem to bring a great sense of purity to these works. This is the kind of music of which you can have several sets. They all have something different to say about these wonderful pieces.
Listenability: A must have string quartet.