Violin Sonata No.4 in A-, Op.23 (1800)
Beethoven originally intended this to be published as a contrasting companion piece to his "Spring" Sonata - the "Spring" Sonata is bright and sometimes humorous, but its A-minor companion is comparatively ascetic. In the outer movements, the piano is often reduced to spare, two-part writing, and all three movements, despite expending remarkable energy along the way, end pianissimo.
The opening Presto remains in the minor mode throughout, except for eight bars of tranquil F major in the development. It all begins with a grim, thrusting theme that contrasts with a spare little melody that spirals upward. Both subjects are propelled by a tarantella-like rhythm, which almost never relents through the course of the movement. In fact, it ultimately wrenches the second subject into what seems like a new theme halfway through the development. The drastically condensed recapitulation simply sputters out.
The middle movement's odd marking, Andante scherzoso più allegretto, reveals a combination scherzo and slow movement. The opening theme tiptoes through symmetrical halves before daring a delicate fugato variation on itself. A full-fledged second theme finally appears as a trilling figure first in the piano, then the violin. Beethoven subjects all this material to a measured development, never indulging in the boisterous display that would mark his later scherzos. He is much more subtle and complex here. Beethoven goes so far as to bring back the fugato's staccato counter subject as the accompaniment to the trilled theme, teasingly suggesting that he may be launching a new fugue. Instead, he merely offers a concise restatement of the movement's themes.
The rondo finale, Allegro molto, is woven from an agitated minor-mode theme that hardly changes in its several reappearances. The first contrasting section, in A major, would offer welcome relief if it were not for Beethoven throwing the violin and piano out of synch with each other-a device he would use to more comic effect in the "Spring" Sonata. The second and third contrasting sections are more relaxed, major-mode episodes, now free of trickery, but they are each soon interrupted by the bleak, unsettled primary motif, which winds down with a curt, gloomy gesture.
Andreas Staier: pianoforte
Daniel Sepec: Beethoven's violin
Recording: October 2005, Beethoven-Haus, Bonn (20 min)
String Quartet 4 Op. 18 No.4 in C minor
The only quartet from Beethoven's Opus 18 set to be cast in a minor key, this was also, despite its number, the last of the six to be completed...he invests his C minor music with a special emotional depth, particularly in the sonata form Allegro ma non tanto. This opening movement immediately spins forth a worried violin theme over agitated accompaniment, interrupted by a series of jagged chords. The violins continue with lyrical, minor mode material, still with a restless accompaniment in the viola and cello. The exposition continues through several brief episodes in the same vein, ending with an odd sequence of quiet chords, a soft allusion to the jagged chords heard earlier. In the development section, Beethoven heightens the anxiety through key modulations while essentially repeating the structure of the exposition; apparently he felt little need to wrench the thematic components apart and recombine their fragments. By the time the recapitulation arrives, the thematic pattern has been clarified.
The scherzo is not the raucous joke Beethoven would favor in his symphonies. It feels more like a traditional minuet, with a fairly capricious character (the key is now C major). The structure could be considered a sonata form, with the central section being a largely polyphonic development of the themes Beethoven has already introduced.
The minuet proper, Allegretto, returns to C minor. If the scherzo seemed more like a minuet, this minuet has the character of a scherzo, fairly quick and unsettled. The trio features a jittery eighth note figure in the first violin, under which the second violin trades two-bar phrases with the viola and cello.
The concluding C minor Allegro is a rondo that begins with an impassioned theme dominated by the first violin. The second section is more placid, and the next contrasting episode features humorous triplets rising from the cello up through the ensemble. The third contrasting episode picks up more of the agitation of the rondo theme, so when the latter returns one last time it can make its full effect only if played, as Beethoven indicates, as quickly as possible.
2 Interpretations (48 min):
Pt 1-4: The Arcadia Quartet performs a rugged and fiery version (a bit of Vivaldi in the intro bit).
Pt 5-7: The Amadeus Quartet performs a more idiomatic and nuanced version.