While the Op. 29 String Quintet is the true companion or perhaps even the successor to the Op. 18 Quartets, pointing the way forward towards Beethoven's middle-period, it remains a strangely unknown and neglected work. This is probably because whereas Mozart crowned his achievement in chamber music with string quintets, for Beethoven the quartet remained supreme. Like Mozart but unlike Schubert, Beethoven enriched the quartet ensemble here with the addition of a second viola rather than a second cello.
Beethoven dedicated the Quintet to Count Moritz von Fries, who was later to receive the dedication of the Seventh Symphony. Unfortunately, shortly after the Quintet’s completion in 1801, there were contractual disagreements between the two publishing houses of Breitkopf und Härtel
, and these hindered the music’s progress and circulation. It did not help that the composer favoured one publisher (Breitkopf) and the dedicatee the other. To this day the music continues to suffer as the result of this confusion.
However, there is no question that the Quintet finds Beethoven at the top of his form, with music at once bold and imaginative. The first movement, for example, has some striking modulations, including a second subject in A major. The atmospheric second movement Adagio
also adopts sonata form, while the scherzo has striking characteristics of rhythm and phrasing. But it is the finale that exudes the strongest personality, to the extent that in Germany it has gained the Quintet the nickname ‘The Storm’. At tempo Presto
and with an abundance of short note-values, this movement is a particular challenge to the players.
It is a challenge that the Fine Arts Quartet with Gil Sharon meet with confidence and aplomb. The sensitivity of the recorded sound also plays its part, since the resonance of the ensemble sonorities is matched by the details of the part writing. In other words the listener is granted the best of both worlds.
There are some other good performances of the Quintet, for example by the Tokyo Quartet with Pinchas Zukerman (RCA) and the Quatuor Ysaÿe with Shuli Waterman (BIS), but with the added benefit of the advantageous Naxos price this new issue makes a compelling case for itself.
Another attraction of this Naxos issue is the imaginative nature of the couplings. At first glance it might seem that later in his life Beethoven returned to the quintet medium and published another new work as his Op. 104, at the time that he was completing his later piano sonatas; the great Hammerklavier
Sonata is Op. 106, for example. This was around 1818, following that fallow period when he had become obsessed with the custody of his nephew Karl.
In fact the Op. 104 Quintet is a reworking of a much earlier composition, the Piano Trio Op. 1 No. 3, dating from more than twenty years before. As such it makes for intriguing listening, particularly for those who know the original version and can make comparisons. Even so, the music is decidedly not what it seems at face value, a major work composed afresh in 1818. Once again the Fine Arts ensemble perform with distinction, as they do also in the little Fugue in D major, which Anthony Short’s excellent programme note tells us originated as a proofing exercise undertaken for the publisher Tobias Haslinger.