As our journey through all the Beethoven quartets reaches its middle point, we are tackling perhaps the most demanding and the greatest of all the string quartets written to this day - the monumental op.131. Playing it is a particularly thrilling experience for us, which is why I chose to focus on this work alone today. Certainly for some of us in the Belcea Quartet it was hearing this piece early on in our lives that marked us with our passion for playing string quartets...

Performing the op. 131 is an exceptional  challenge for any quartet. Forty five minutes of music unfolding continuously without the slightest break - a veritable musical odyssey.  

The quartet is set in the very unusual key of c sharp minor. It has a rather acerbic tone colour resulting from the way our instruments ring in this key. There is also a certain tension to it resulting perhaps from the very difficulty of playing in it and this tension seems to be written into the tone quality of the opening slow fugue marked by Beethoven  Adagio non troppo e molto espressivo. Added to it there is a fragility in this opening movement, which demands from all four of us a special type of quiet intensity. The sound we make needs to unfold like a very fine thread. This is never easy and even less so at the beginning of a performance...Towards the end of the fugue the music builds to a shattering climax. As it recedes we are left with a series of c sharp octave leaps, like a dying-down ripple effect.

What happens next is in a microcosm the key to this monumental work. 

There is no modulation to the next movement - the music just lifts up a semi-tone to a d octave leap - the sounds lightens as if the ground shifted beneath us. The new key of D major has a much more mellow colour to it. As if by some miracle the world of inner struggle is replaced by a vision of lightness and happiness - the second movement marked Allegro molto vivace. Thus the journey begins in earnest. We will not return to the opening key of c sharp minor until the final movement of this quartet. The journey which will take us there is at the core of this quartet. In this way the op. 131 is the Classical predecessor of a "road movie"...

The third movement, the shortest of all is the missing link between the first two: a modulation. It is a recitative which interrupts the previous scene in an operatic style. Everything happens with great speed and before we manage to catch our breaths we are launching the fourth movement Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile: the longest of all  - an exquisite theme and variations. The choice of key is important to our journey. We are in A major - gently climbing up the circle of fifths. This is a wonderful moment for us - the four instruments are like characters in an opera buffa, full of humour, at times playful, at times serene, and with plenty opportunity to sing - not one dark corner in sight.

What follows is another sudden shift. The cello abruptly interrupts the lyrical mood with a sharp gesture and all instruments swiftly follow its cue into a mad joyful dance. This movement is extremely difficult technically. Moreover, we are asked to be "inside" this incredibly demanding music from the very first note with not a moment of preparation. Precision and rhythmic and dynamic accuracy are of utmost importance here.  The key we reach now is E major (another step up the circle of fifths) resulting in brightness of sound that is almost "celestial". This is heightened by Beethoven even further towards the end of the movement, when he makes us play quietly on the bridge (sul ponticello). The effect is definitely a lot closer to Surrealism than Classicism. This mercurial movement draws to a close with another octave leap gesture - this time triumphant in character (apart from the music itself there is a sense of triumph to be drawn here from the very fact of us actually getting through it). The same octave leap is suddenly transposed to g sharp and the character of this gesture abruptly changes to tragic. Another breathtaking shift! 

The sixth movement is again very short and this time of heart-breaking beauty. It feels like an ardent prayer. The sound returns to the bitter sweetness of the opening of the piece. A brief look at the map of our journey: G sharp minor is the next step up the circle of fifths and at the same time the note g sharp itself is the dominant to the home key of c sharp - we know we are on our way home...

The homecoming - the seventh movement - is heralded by a demonic gesture played by all four instruments. A devilish dance is unleashed - a veritable Totentanz. By this stage our physical exhaustion is so intense that it becomes an integral part of the music. It seems that Beethoven foresaw our human limitations and in spite of them composed a movement that would force us to fight to overcome them. We are back to the struggle - and this time it is titanic! Finally, the closing bars of the piece are a heroic fanfare in C sharp MAJOR - a key which has so many sharps in it that it sounds and feels "extra-terrestrial"!!

 

Krzysztof Chorzelski

 

 

 

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