Last night I saw the young Vega String Quartet perform Beethoven’s String Quartet in E Minor, op. 59, No. 2 – or the Razumovsky quartet – at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts on the Emory campus.
This was an 1805 commissioned work by Count Razumovsky, a Russian ambassador in Vienna, who was also one of Beethoven’s earliest supporters and a patron of the arts. A good article about the initial reception to the work – not enthusiastic – can be found on the Takacs String Quartet’s site.
No video of the sparkling Emory based quartet could be found, but here’s a clip of the great Toyko String Quartet performing the 4th movement. Good news for Atlanta music lovers; the Vega Quartet has received a grant from the Abraham J. and Phyllis Katz Foundation for a five year residency at Emory. Their newest first violinist, Domenic Salerni, sounds like a young Itzhak Perlman, profiled here on Charlie Rose.
Even the poison ivy creeping up both my forearms didn’t distract from the beauty and complexity of Beethoven. Like Perlman says, it’s all about a response to the music.
NPR’s Ted Libbey and Fred Childs focus on all of Beethoven’s String Quartets in this post, with the Emerson Quartet’s interpretations:
By the time Ludwig van Beethoven appeared on the scene, the string quartet had become an established, refined genre, the only one whose expressive flexibility and tonal perfection could rival that of the human voice. Whereas in his orchestral and piano works Beethoven often fought against the limitations of the medium, his writing for string quartet is almost always idiomatic. He was drawn to the sound of the genre, and from the start he treated sound as a component of form, stretching out textures until they took on a value of their own. But the fact that Beethoven wrote idiomatically does not mean he was always graceful.
Beethoven composed the six quartets of Opus 18 before he reached his 30th year. Considering their place in history – following close on the heels of the supreme achievements of Haydn and Mozart – and their place in Beethoven’s output, they are works of tremendous accomplishment.
The Razumovsky quartets were commissioned toward the end of 1805 and completed within a year. It is hard to imagine that their initial reception could have been so discouraging, yet the compositions provoked consternation and ridicule, even among Beethoven’s musically literate friends. At least one perceptive critic reported of these works that “the conception is profound and the construction excellent, but they are not easily comprehended – with the possible exception of the third in C major, which cannot but appeal to intelligent lovers of music because of its originality, melody and harmonic power.”
During his later years, Beethoven’s need to pose new challenges to his creativity was as great as it had been at any point in his life. He felt obliged, as the musicologist Maynard Solomon has put it, “to test his powers against the restraints of the Classic model.” What Beethoven found in the process was a new means to communicate feeling and thought. This communicativeness is at the heart of Beethoven’s late works for string quartet.
Emory university’s events and lectures on music, theater and the visual arts are often free of charge and open to the public.