Sunday, August 24, 2008

A Major Base Camp on Mount Beethoven

My systematic traversal of the Brilliant Classics Gesamtwerk collection of the works of Ludwig van Beethoven has now taken me to the string quartets (in recordings by the Guarneri Quartet at a time when listening to them was still exciting). In many ways the complete cycle of these quartets, like the complete cycle of the piano sonatas, provides a map of the development of Beethoven's approach to composition. (Yes, as a matter of personal opinion, I do not feel that such a map can be found strictly through orchestral writing. Instead, the ways in which we listen to the symphonies and concertos is more likely to be informed by our experiences in listening to the piano sonatas and string quartets.) Chronologically, the piano sonatas get an earlier start: The work on Opus 2 began in 1794 after Beethoven had moved to Vienna; and, as I have previously suggested, his studies with Joseph Haydn are acknowledged by far more than Haydn's name on the dedication page. On the other hand Beethoven began work on the Opus 18 quartets in 1798, by which time he was already building up a healthy portfolio of accomplishments, although the influence of Haydn can still be felt in this first collection of six quartets. At the other end of the scale, however, the piano sonata cycle ends much earlier than the quartet cycle. Work on the final sonatas, Opera 109, 110, and 111, took place in 1821, while the quartet cycle was completed in 1825 with Opera 132 and 135. There is a tendency to attach more importance to Beethoven's envelope-pushing in his late quartets; but this would distract from his equally important experiments, particularly with fugue and highly extended variation, that form the core of the final piano sonatas. The fact is that neither of the two cycles can be ignored by anyone seriously interested in listening to Beethoven; and it probably would have made for an interesting experience had the promoters of András Schiff's performance of the full cycle of sonatas arranged for a string quartet to cover their respective cycle in a parallel series of recitals. This would have been far more than an academic exercise. It would have been an opportunity to experience the rich connectedness of the music listening experience in ways that mere words could never convey.

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