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HAYDN: String Quartet in G major, Op. 77, No. 1
FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN
Born Rohrau, Lower Austria, March 31, 1732; died Vienna, May 31, 1809
String Quartet in G major, Op. 77, No. 1
Composed in 1799; 23 minutes
Haydn’s reputation as the “father” of the string quartet reflects not only his extraordinary productivity—he wrote no fewer than 68 quartets, as well as a number of quartet arrangements—but also his pivotal place in music history. In 1732, the year Haydn was born, Bach and Vivaldi were still in their prime. By the time he died 77 years later, Beethoven was hard at work ushering in the Romantic Era. Spanning nearly half a century, Haydn’s quartets offer a capsule overview of his artistic development. The earliest quartets, dating from the mid- to late-1750s, are closely related to the popular string sonatas, sinfonias and divertimenti of the time. In these works, the cello was still largely confined to continuo-style harmonic accompaniment, but in Haydn’s hands both the bass line and the two inner voices became increasingly independent. Over the years, he gradually worked out a style in which all four instruments were equal partners, thus laying the foundation for the quartets of Mozart and Beethoven.
The two Op. 77 Quartets were Haydn’s swan song in the genre. (Two movements of a later, unfinished quartet testify to his waning powers at a time when he was increasingly preoccupied with oratorios.) Composed in 1799, they were commissioned by Prince Joseph Lobkowitz, Vienna’s leading patron of the arts. One year later, Beethoven, Haydn’s former pupil, would dedicate his first set of string quartets to the prince, neatly signaling the passing of the baton to the younger generation. Although Haydn’s health had begun to decline, his creative juices continued to flow as freely as ever; as the historian Charles Burney said of his great Op. 76 Quartets, the G-major Quartet is “full of invention, fire, good taste and new effects.”
The mood of the opening Allegro moderato is relaxed and lighthearted. The first violin introduces a mincing, three-note figure in dotted rhythm—now chastely unadorned, now embellished with stinging grace notes—that releases its latent energy in a cascade of triplets. Meanwhile, the cello takes up the original theme and engages the first violin in a genial colloquy while the inner voices keep up a running patter in the background. The second violin soon adds a flowing countermelody to the mix, and Haydn combines these simple ingredients into a marvelously sophisticated confection with the undemonstrative virtuosity of a master chef.
Each of the ensuing three movements opens with a unison passage, as if to emphasize the egalitarian nature of the quartet. The broad E-flat-major theme of the Adagio is shared by all four instruments, but Haydn shows a decided partiality for the first violin, whose part becomes increasingly soloistic (and will be even more so in the vivacious Finale). The tempo marking Presto in the Menuet serves notice that the third movement will be more like a scherzo than a social dance, and indeed there is a hint of gypsy music in the jaunty, propulsive rhythms of the central Trio section. The Finale is notable for its catchy, eight-bar theme and playfully imitative textures.
© 2012 Harry Haskell
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KODÁLY: String Quartet No. 2, Op. 10
Born Kecsckemét, Hungary, December 16, 1882; died Budapest, March 6, 1967
String Quartet No. 2, Op. 10
Composed in 1916-18; 18 minutes
Kodály and Bartók are often bracketed together as Hungarian nationalists whose scholarly studies of folk music, beginning in the first decade of the 20th century, enriched their own notably cosmopolitan musical languages. But while Bartók’s strikingly innovative approach to harmony, rhythm, sonority and musical structure made him a leading figure in the modernist movement, Kodály followed a more traditional path. As Bartók observed in 1921, Kodály’s music “is not of the kind described nowadays as modern. It has nothing to do with the new atonal, bitonal and polytonal music—everything in it is based on the principle of tonal balance. His idiom is nevertheless new: he says things that have never been uttered before and demonstrates thereby that the tonal principle has not lost its raison d’être yet.”
Although the 27-year-old Kodály presented a successful concert of his music in Budapest in 1910, the Hungarian public was slower to embrace him than audiences abroad. Undiscouraged, he concentrated his energy on the pioneering anthology of folk music that he was co-editing with Bartók, while turning out a stream of small-scale chamber works on the side, such as the Duo for Violin and Cello and the Sonata for Solo Cello. No more of Kodály’s music was heard in his native country until the final months of World War I; the premiere of the Second String Quartet took place in Budapest on May 7, 1918. The performers were the celebrated Waldbauer-Kerpely Quartet (later known as the Hungarian Quartet), who had introduced Kodály’s First Quartet in 1910. They were also closely associated with Bartók and gave the premieres of his first four quartets.
In both of his quartets, Kodály combined elements of eastern European folk music with a range of influences from the classical tradition—notably the music of Debussy, which he had first encountered on a trip to Paris and Berlin in 1906. The free-floating harmonies of the Second Quartet owe a debt to the French composer; much of the music centers around D, the first sustained note the cello plays, but the work’s tonality is slippery at best. Kodály, like Debussy, often seems more concerned with textures, colors, and sonorities than with harmonic architecture in the traditional sense. Like Bartók, he eschews conventional thematic development in favor of a tightly woven fabric of terse rhythmic and melodic motives.
The quartet’s two-movement structure is similarly idiosyncratic. The opening Allegro is essentially monothematic: the swooping triple-time figure presented at the outset by the first violin—a chain of fourths and fifths—recurs in various guises throughout the movement, often contrasted with music of a more chromatic character. (The latter is foreshadowed by the half-step grace notes in the opening measures of all four parts.) The second movement begins with a meditative Andante in free recitative style. Kodály abruptly switches gears and launches into a lively folk dance, accompanied by bagpipe-like drones. Motoric rhythms, exotic-sounding scales and special tonal effects add to the sense of strangeness and excitement as the Allegro giocoso builds to its concluding affirmation of the “tonal principle” with a pair of emphatic D-major chords.
© 2012 Harry Haskell
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BARTÓK: String Quartet No. 5
Born Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary, March 25, 1881; died New York, September 26, 1945
String Quartet No. 5
Composed in 1934; 31 minutes
On first hearing, the spiky modernism of Bartók’s Fifth String Quartet may seem far removed from the genial classicism of Haydn’s quartets. Yet the Hungarian, keenly aware and respectful of tradition, was no less concerned than Haydn with formal symmetry and coherence. The Fifth Quartet’s five movements are constructed like an arch, with the central Scherzo bridging a pair of somberly spectral slow movements, which in turn rest on two thematically related outer movements of a predominantly urgent and somewhat frenetic character. (Bartók had used a similar arch form in his Fourth Quartet, but there the slow movements frame the fast ones.
Composed in 1934 at the behest of the venturesome American patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, the Fifth Quartet received its premiere in Washington the following year on a program with Beethoven’s B-flat major Quartet, Op. 130, and Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite of 1926. Bartók’s music has much in common with Beethoven’s late-period string quartets, not least its intricate contrapuntal texture and searing emotional introspection. At the same time, it is deeply infused with the restless, tormented spirit of the 20th-century “age of anxiety.” Like Berg, Bartók was a modernist with deep-seated conservative tendencies; for all its angularity and dissonance, his penultimate string quartet is neither especially obscure nor difficult to listen to.
Perhaps the Fifth Quartet’s most immediately striking and accessible feature is its rhythmic vitality. Bartók’s inventiveness in the rhythmic sphere was matched in the 20th century, only by a small number of composers such as Stravinsky and the great jazz masters. Indeed, the shifting, irregular metrical patterns of the folk-influenced “Bulgarian-style” Scherzo (made up of units of four plus two plus three beats) have an almost jazzy swing Similarly, the overpowering intensity of the first and last movements arises largely from the insistently propulsive rhythms and the characteristically Bartókian repetition of small metric cells that spill over one another in a relentless torrent of notes.
Another defining element of Bartók’s captivating sound-world are his special tonal effects; in this case they include swooping glissandos, ghostly muted passages and tinny tremolos played with the wood of the bow touching the string. Bartók’s palette of timbres and textures is almost as inexhaustible as his rhythmic invention. Now and then a snatch of diatonic melody breaks through the music’s bustling chromatic surface. Just before the end of the quartet, the inner voices break into what sounds like a simple nursery tune. But this half-remembered song of innocence fades quickly, and the music resumes its helter-skelter course toward its unforeseen goal: a startling unison B-flat.
© 2012 Harry Haskell
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Tokyo String Quartet
Now entering its 43rd and final season and its ninth season as string quartet in residence at 92Y, the Tokyo String Quartet is regarded as one of the supreme chamber ensembles of the world. The Quartet— Martin Beaver and Kikuei Ikeda (violins), Kazuhide Isomura (viola) and Clive Greensmith (cello)— has collaborated with a remarkable array of artists and composers, built a comprehensive catalogue of critically acclaimed recordings, and established a distinguished teaching record. At the end of the 2012-13 season, it will cease performances and bid farewell.
This summer, the Quartet is making its annual appearances at the Pacific Music Festival in Japan and the Norfolk (CT) Chamber Music Festival, followed by a concert at Ravinia. Deeply committed to coaching young string quartets, the Quartet has devoted much of each summer to Norfolk, having served on the faculty of the Yale School of Music as quartet in residence since 1976. The Quartet’s 2011/12 season included performances in Toronto, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, DC and four European tours.
The Tokyo String Quartet has released more than 40 landmark recordings and has earned such honors as the Grand Prix du Disque Montreux, “Best Chamber Music Recording of the Year" awards from both Stereo Review and Gramophone magazines and seven Grammy Award nominations. Now an exclusive Harmonia Mundi artist, the Quartet's recent Beethoven cycle has garnered accolades, including the French critics' "Diapason d’Or." Its newest entry is the Schubert String Quintet in C major with cellist David Watkin.
Officially formed in 1969 at The Juilliard School of Music, the Tokyo String Quartet traces its origins to the Toho School of Music in Tokyo, where the founding members were profoundly influenced by Professor Hideo Saito. Its website is tokyoquartet.com
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