Sunday, March 3, 2013

This "Russian theme" used by Beethoven should be familiar

The Alban Berg Quartet (Günther Pichler and Gerhard Schulz, violins; Thomas Kakuska, viola; Valentin Erben, cello) plays one of Beethoven's most beautiful creations, the Molto adagio from Op. 59, No. 2, in June 1989.
SUNDAY AFTERNON NOTE: At the moment the audio clips aren't loading right. You may get lucky, or have your patience rewarded. Otherwise, I can only ask you to try again later. Sorry! (Sigh.)
UPDATE: seems to have had some sort of system crash -- ohboy!
SUNDAY EVENING UPDATE: All seems to be OK now!
by Ken

Here's Beethoven's version of what he noted as a "Thème russe":

The theme should sound familiar. Just last week we heard this version:


It's at 2:17 of this video clip.

And the Mussorgsky version is at 1:49 of the video clip atop last week's post.]


We have the full version of the performance we heard above, from the Beethoven quartet cycle by the Borodin Quartet, reinvigorated by the advent of first violinist Ruben Aharonian (which I wrote about so enthusiastically in July 2006), and also a very different performance by the Juilliard Quartet (Op. 59, No. 2 was in fact the first quartet recorded in what became the Juilliard's first recorded Beethoven quartet cycle -- soon followed by the remaining Op. 59 quartets).

BEETHOVEN: String Quartet No. 8 in E minor, Op. 59, No. 2 (Rasumovsky No. 2): iii. Allegretto

Borodin Quartet (Ruben Aharonian and Andrei Abramenkov, violins; Igor Naidin, viola; Valentin Berlinksy, cello). Chandos, recorded in Moscow, March 2003

Juilliard Quartet (Robert Mann and Isidore Cohen, violins; Raphael Hillyer, viola; Claus Adam, cello). Epic-CBS-Sony, recorded in New York City, May 4-6, 1964

MUSSORGSKY: Boris Godunov: Prologue, Scene 2 (Coronation Scene)
The people are gathered on their knees in a square in the Kremlin between the Cathedral of the Assumption and the Cathedral of the Archangel. A procession of boyars et al. emerges headed toward the Cathedral of the Assumption. PRINCE SHUISKY is carrying the crown of Monomakh on a cushion.

PRINCE SHUISKY: Long live Tsar Boris Feodorovich!
THE PEOPLE: Long live the Tsar, our father!

The crowd assembled at the Kremlin responds to Prince Shuisky's admonition to praise the new Tsar, who emerges from the Cathedral of the Assumption.

BORIS [from the porch of the Cathedral of the Assumption]:
My soul is sad.
Some sort of involuntary fear
has gripped my heart
with a sense of evil foreboding.
O Righteous One! O sovereign Father of mine!
Look down from heaven on the tears of your faithful servants,
and send me a blessing for my rule.
Let me be good and righteous as you are;
may I rule my people in glory.
Now let us pay our respects
to the past rulers of Russia now deceased.
[Pause -- then grandly]
And now I invite the people to a feast,
all, from boyar to blind beggar.
Entrance is free to all.
Welcome, dear guests!
[He goes toward the Cathedral of the Archangel.]
THE PEOPLE: Glory! Glory! Glory! Long live and prosper, our father the Tsar!

Andrei Sokolov (t), Prince Shuisky; Alexander Vedernikov (bs), Boris Godunov; USSR TV and Radio Large Chorus and Large Symphony Orchestra, Vladimir Fedoseyev, cond. Melodiya-Philips, recorded 1978-83

[in English, ed. Rathaus] Charles Kullman (t), Prince Shuisky; Giorgio Tozzi (bs), Boris Godunov; Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Dimitri Mitropoulos, cond. Metropolitan Opera Record Club-RCA, recorded 1956


Here's Wikipedia:
The three "Rasumovsky" (or "Razumovsky") string quartets, op. 59 [as a matter of fact, in the Dover edition of the scores, the composer's dedications have it spelled "Rasoumoffsky" -- Ed.], are the quartets Ludwig van Beethoven wrote in 1806, as a result of a commission by the Russian ambassador in Vienna, Count Andreas Razumovsky:

They are the first three of what are usually known as the "Middle Period" string quartets, or simply the "Middle Quartets." The other two are opus 74 and opus 95. Many quartets record all five as a set.

Beethoven uses a characteristically "Russian" theme in the first two quartets in honor of the prince who gave him the commission. In Op. 59 No. 1, the "Thème russe" is the principal theme of the last movement. In Op. 59 No. 2, the "Thème russe" is in the B section of the third movement, the scherzo, this theme being based on a Russian folk song which was also utilized by Modest Mussorgsky in his opera Boris Godunov and by Igor Stravinsky in his ballet The Firebird. In the quartet Op. 59 No. 3, there is no "Thème russe" explicitly named in the score, but many commentators have heard a "Russian" character in the subject of the Andantino movement.

All three quartets were published as a set in 1808 in Vienna.
If not for Count Rasumovsky, who knows how long it would have been before Beethoven composed another string quartet? He hadn't written one since 1800, when he completed the monumental labor of the Op. 18 set of six -- one of the more quietly revolutionary bodies of music we have. With the Op. 18 quartets Beethoven had an even more extreme version of the experience Mozart did when he composed a set of six quartets for dedication to their common master, the inventor of the modern string quartet, Franz Joseph Haydn. We know how overwhelmed Haydn was by this homage.

What neither Mozart nor Beethoven seemed to master, or try to, was the extraordinary feat Haydn performed regularly: creating (usually) six works that are all individually satisfying yet at the same time function -- in both contrast and harmony -- as a single super-entity. With the Op. 59 quartets commissioned by Count Rasumovsky, Beethoven made one last attempt at producing a half-set of three works.

Today I thought we'd listen through Op. 59, No. 2, guided by Cleveland Quartet cellist Paul Katz, who wrote liner notes for the ensemble's first recording of the Beethoven quartets, for RCA, with the original first violinist, Donald Weilerstein. We're going to hear the Cleveland in its later and, I think, better configuration, with William Preucil as first violinist, play the scherzo. Katz was especially attentive to problems and challenges for the modern player. I'm not including the music examples that accompanied Katz's text.

BEETHOVEN: String Quartet No. 8 in E minor,
Op. 59, No. 2 (Rasumovsky No. 2)

i. Allegro

Powerful, intensely dramatic, explosive describes the opening movement. There is, moreover, an underlying yearning, an expressive sadness or suffering that the interpreter must fuse with the tautness and agitation. The intricately doveteailed sixteenth-note motion is an interpretive challenge that goes beyond virtuoso display, for they move continuously, expressing a wide range of feeling: brooding pathos, for example, turns uninterrupted into violence, and then dissolves into a more relaxed, graceful second theme in major. In such instances, the 20th-century performer most likely strives for more tempo cohesion than was 19th-century practice, using other means of interpretive expression, such as changes in vibrato, subtle dynamic inflection, rubato within the tempo, and switching the number of audible impulses from one beat to two beats to a bar.
-- Paul Katz

Végh Quartet (Sándor Végh and Sándor Zöldy, violins; Georges Janzer, viola; Paul Szabo, cello). Valois, recorded in Paris, December 1972

Alban Berg Quartet (Günther Pichler and Gerhard Schulz, violins; Hatto Beyerle, viola; Valentin Erben, cello). EMI, recorded c1978

ii. Molto adagio
Pianist Carl Czerny, intimate friend of the composer, relates that Beethoven wrote the second movement "contemplating the starry sky and thinking of the music of the spheres." In contrast to the suffering turmoil of the first movement, this Adagio uplifts us as only the music of Beethoven can; there is a timeless quality, a sense of inner peace and strength. In this movement we find an example of a passage precisely notated yet ambiguous for the interpreter; the many ways Beethoven notates the dotted-eighth-sixteenth-note rhythm are important to the shifting of mood, yet one wishes he could ask the composer how he intended the differences to be executed.
-- Paul Katz

Budapest Quartet (Joseph Roisman and Alexander Schneider, violins; Boris Kroyt, viola; Mischa Schneider, cello). Columbia-CBS-Sony, recorded in New York City, 1959

Fine Arts Quartet (Leonard Sorkin and Abram Loft, violins; Gerald Stanick, viola; George Sopkin, cello). ConcertDisc-Everest, recorded in the 1960s

iii. Allegretto
What an imaginative, magical scherzo the third movement is! The opening paradoxically expresses poignancy and restlessness, expectancy and resignation ("broken-winged gaiety," Sullivan calls it). The metronome indication (dotted half note = 69) is the most problematic of all the middle quartets and is usually ignored, as it is seemingly much faster than the Allegretto marking would imply. This metronome marking suggests to us that the movement should be felt one to a bar and that Beethoven imagined it closer in temperament to the first movement than to the traditional three-to-a-bar, minuetlike approach, which is expressive but minimizes the underlying breathlessness. The thème russe is found in the maggiore trio section of the movement, accompanied by rapid, graceful triplet passages. This tune, "Slava Bogu ne nebe! Slava!" ("Glory to God in heaven! Glory!"), which receives a more majestic, slower treatment by Mussorgsky in the Coronation Scene of Boris Godunov, is here used canonically almost as comic relief, with a playful quality suggesting a good-time nursery-school round.
-- Paul Katz

Suske Quartet (Karl Suske and Klaus Peters, violins; Karl-Heinz Dommus, viola; Matthias Pfaender, cello). Berlin Classics, recorded in Dresden, 1967-68

Cleveland Quartet (William Preucil and Peter Salaff, violins; James Dunham, viola; Paul Katz, cello). Telarc, recorded in New York City, July 25-30, 1991

iv. Finale: Presto; Più presto
The finale, Presto, has a straightforward, galloping rondo theme full of Beethovenian demonic drive and fury, typical of the middle period; the lyrical second theme is another expression of this quartet's unifying aesthetic of expressive restlessness. This is the only quartet of the 16 to end in the minor mode; the false C major opening leads one to expect another triumphant Beethoven finale typical of the minor-mode works of the middle period. It is surprising to find instead a movement in E minor driving relentlessly to a dark, frenzied conclusion.
-- Paul Katz

New Budapest Quartet (András Kiss and Ferenc Balogh, violins; László Bársony, viola; Károly Botvay, cello). Hyperion, recorded July 3-6, 1990

Amadeus Quartet (Norbert Brainin and Siegmund Nissel, violins; Peter Schidlof, viola; Martin Lovett, cello). DG, recorded in Hannover, Apr.-May 1959


BEETHOVEN: String Quartet No. 8 in E minor, Op. 59, No. 2 (Rasumovsky No. 2):
i. Allegro

ii. Molto adagio
iii. Allegretto
iv. Finale: Presto; Più presto

Pascal Quartet (Jacques Dumont and Maurice Crut, violins; Léon Pascal, viola; Robert Salles, cello). Concert Hall, recorded in Paris, 1952 (digital transfer by F. Reeder; note that Mr. Reeder has done digital transfers of the whole of the Pascal Beethoven quartet cycle)

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