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Beethoven, Brahms: The Endellion String Quartet. Wigmore Hall. 3.03.11 (GD)

Beethoven: Arrangement for String Quartet of Piano Sonata Op.14 No.1

Brahms: String Quartet in A minor, Op.51 No.2

Beethoven: String Quartet in E flat Major, Op. 127

It seems that Beethoven found the process of transcribing his works for other instrumental arrangements tiresome. He made very few such arrangements. But he was also worried that his works would be transcribed by mere imitators and ruined in the process. Obviously there was then a market for all kinds of arrangements, for domestic use, etc. The arrangement heard tonight of his Op. 14 No.1 Piano Sonata for string quartet was made by Beethoven to protect the quality of both the work transcribed, and the arrangement itself, and also to deter imitators. It is quite a straightforward affair, the only substantial change being the transposition of the original sonata from E major to F, a tonal register more suited to a string quartet arrangement. The Endellion played this relative rarity in a suitably straightforward manner, emphasising the tonal and rhythmic contrasts of the three movements. It was interesting to hear left-hand piano appeggios given over to string tremolandos and also the newly syncopated inner parts of the final rondo theme. But this is ultimately no more than a piece of interesting compositional diversion so I shall stick to the original piano sonata version.

Much of Brahms' chamber music, and especially the two quartets Op.51, deserve to be played more often than they are. They are both superbly rich and diverse works, making one wish Brahms had gone on to write more string quartets. The Endellion emphasised the more classical side of the A minor quartet, with fairly brisk tempi for the opening Allego non troppo, and indeed throughout the whole work. The development section's rhythmically charged cross-rhythms and rich viola sonorities were all allowed to speak, as it were, but always within an integrated classical frame. This brisk directness certainly paid off in the andante moderato slow movement - not really a slow movement at all! The canonic recitative between violin and cello in the mid-section, so admired by Tovey, gained in terms of clarity, although I did miss something the movement's mood of sustained opulence within a Bach-like canonic register. The scherzo third movement, with its 'slow minuet' style, and polyphonic trio in duple time was refreshingly delivered, although, at times I would have welcomed slightly more contrast between trio and the minuet tempo. The finale's lively rondo theme came off splendidly, its mood of exhilaration, tempered by minor key excursions, convincingly sustained right up to the terse, but affirmative, coda.

Op. 127, as the first in the series of 'Late Quartets', initiates the very advanced and wonderful tonal/structural unity - sometimes unity out of apparent disunity, which was developed through these late works. From the opening Maestoso unison chords in the tonic E flat the Endellion projected very resolutely the tonal/harmonic contour of the whole movement; the point being, of course, that this bold E flat statement, as in the opening E flat of the earlier 'Eroica' Symphony, initiates a structural unity; transposed into the mediant of G major. It appears at the development in C major; the parallel of E flat's relative minor; it marks the beginning of the recapitulation, and so on up to the G minor initiated by the cello which leads to the home tonic of the brief, absolutely punctual, but quiet, coda. All this was convincingly realised tonight, with some suitably robust accenting in the jagged and alternating cross-rhythms of the development section. The great A flat Adagio, with its set of variations, was securely sustained- not in a rigid manner, but one which adapted tempo variation to each episode without losing any sense of coherence. Actually, and contrary to many standard commentaries, it is more correct to speak not of variations but of five development sections, in which the theme is not so much 'worked-out' according to Classical principles but transformed, while retaining its essential form. The absolute tonal unity, mentioned above as a feature of the opening movement, applies with equal mastery here; A flat moving to E flat modulations, and eventually to a haunting C sharp minor episode, before the coda in the home tonic. All this was traversed and integrated with the mastery which comes only from years of total immersion in all of Beethoven's Quartets, and, with the Endellion, almost all of the string quartet fragments Beethoven left. My only criticism here was a need for more Sotto voce, particularly in the haunting and sublime C sharp minor fifth variation.

The amazingly agile Scherzando vivace, with its bizarre changes of tempo, and the rondo finale, depart from the the preceding tone of reflection and pathos,taking us into a world of high spirits - what Beethoven described as La gaieté. The Endellion relished the quirky shifts and rhythmic turns of the Scherzando, and the brief light-footed trio with its folk-like dance rounds was given a totally idiomatic peasant dance inflection. The carnivalesque rondo finale, with its gypsy-like rhythms, was similarly inflected with joyous zeal. The march-like second subject with its sharp discordant tonal clashes sounded more trenchant and even more strident than usual producing a stark contrast. But the general tone of exuberance and rough humour won out in the coda with C major trills and a return to the rondo lyricism of the movement's opening.

Despite a few criticisms regarding an inadequate Sotto voce, mentioned above, and an occasional lack of finesse in tuning and delineation, this was a thoroughly engaging and idiomatic performance of an endlessly protean and fascinating masterpiece.


Geoff Diggines.


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