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November 25, 2015

Best String Quartets, Part 2 (ca 1850-1900)

Here is the second installment of Best String Quartets, basically containing quartets from the second half of the 19th century. As in my other music posts, I mix immortal masterworks with unknown pieces by forgotten composers which are of interest to connoisseurs.

1. Franz Lachner, String Quartet No 1 in B Minor Op 75 (1843)
Franz Lachner (1803-90) was born in Rain am Lech in southern Germany and trained in Munich. Through winning a competition, in 1823 he became organist in Vienna, where he met Beethoven and became close friends with Schubert, who was only slightly older. In 1834 he left Vienna to become Conductor of the Royal Bavarian Orchestra and Professor at the Conservatory in Munich. His diligent work as conductor turned the Bavarian capital, which had been a musical backwater, into an important European music center. Lachner was a fine composer, in a style that reminds one of Schubert – but while Schubert died in 1828, Lachner lived a full life until 1890. Lachner composed in all genres – his symphonies and orchestral suites were admired by Mendelssohn and Schumann and very popular in the 19th century (until he became one of the victims of the New German School) – and he also wrote fine chamber music, including seven string quartets (an early unpublished one, three quartets published in 1843 and three published in 1849), written for his private quartet group - Lachner himself was a cellist. By the way, he came from a very musical family, and also his brother Ignaz was famous as a musician and composer. The First String Quartet was written in the late 1830's and published in 1843. The Allegro moderato opening movement is monothematic (that is to say, as often is the case with Haydn as well, although in sonata form, there is no second contrasting theme) and opens with a lyrical melody steeped in a hue of sadness; it is a variant of this theme that serves as s sort of second theme and Lachner also uses masterful counterpoint to enhance the melody. The movement is a mirror image of the Romantic soul in torment and asks high technical skill and expressiveness of the performers. The Adagio quasi andante begins with an ethereal introduction, partly achieved because the cello keeps silent. The lovely main theme has a song-like, even Schubertian quality. The Scherzo employs a driving rhythm with a steady pulse in the cello, storming breathtakingly ahead; the Trio is a stately dance. The Allegro agitato finale is characterized by an urgent and pleading theme, sounding as if in perpetual motion. The restless storm continues until the very end. This is a very attractive and sophisticated quartet in the style of classic romanticism.
Recording listened to: Rodin-Quartett on Amati (with Quartet Op 77).

2. Anton Rubinstein, String Quartet No 2 in C Minor, Op 17 No 2 (1852)
Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894) was one of the great virtuoso pianists of the 19th century, a rival of Liszt. He was also active as a conductor and composer (in all genres, including the symphony, chamber music, ballet and opera). In 1862 he founded the St. Petersburg Conservatory, setting strict standards for musical education. As a composer, Rubinstein was strongly influenced by Mendelssohn (without being an epigone - Mendelssohn exerted a tremendous influence on music in the middle of the 19th century, as far away as Denmark, England and the Netherlands), one of the reasons why his music was forgotten after his death. For in Germany, it was blasted as "conservative" by the New German School, and in Russia it was vilified because it had no "Russian flavor" (Rubinstein was an international composer rather than merely a national one). Rubinstein wrote a total of ten quartets; the first two were already composed when he was only in his early twenties. The Second Quartet indeed reminds one of Mendelssohn. The Moderato opening movement starts with a fugue which is based on the dramatic main theme of the movement. The busy Scherzo has a strong forward drive; the Trio features some comic relief with its "exclamations" by cello and violin. The most interesting movement is the Molto lento, played with mutes – it has been compared to “music of the spheres.” Although it bears resemblance to Mendelssohn's "Lieder ohne Worte," it also is the only movement that has a Russian flavor, although not as strong as with Borodin c.s. The final Moderato is filled with the sort of noble passion characteristic for Mendelssohn's music in a minor key.
Recording listened to: The Royal String Quartet Copenhagen on Etcetera (with First Quartet).

3. Carl (Karoly) Goldmark, String Quartet in B Flat Major Op 8 (1860)
Carl Goldmark (1830-1915) was born in the Hungarian part of Austria-Hungary and – as so many in the empire – came to Vienna to make name, in his case as violinist and composer. In that last capacity he was largely self-taught, undertaking an intense study of counterpoint and works by Bach and Beethoven. Around the year 1860, when he was thirty, he finally managed to attract public attention as a composer with his string quartet Op. 8. Still later, he earned European fame with his opera The Queen of Sheba; other popular works (which are still occasionally heard today) were his Violin Concerto and the Rustic Wedding Symphony (he also wrote an interesting String Quintet). Goldmark's music shows the influence of Mendelssohn and Schumann, often seasoned with idioms from the folk music of his youth. After a plaintively yearning introduction, the opening movement (Allegro moderato) of Goldmark's sole String Quartet is characterized by two contrasting themes, one rather restless, the other a lyrical song. With its dramatic confrontations and piquant harmonies, most of the movement has a bittersweet flavor. The pensive and melancholic Andante sostenuto leaves no doubt about its Hungarian roots. Sorrow intensifies into despair before sinking back to a hushed and dolorous close. This is followed by a short and fleet Scherzo, unashamedly Mendelssohnian, that restores some good humor although there are also darker undercurrents. The dramatically impassioned Allegro molto finale has again a strong Hungarian flavor but also a fugal sequence at its heart. The brilliant movement works towards a triumphantly rousing peroration.
Recording listened to: Fourth Dimension String Quartet on ASV (with string quintet).

4. Eduard Franck, String Quartet No 3 in C Minor Op 55 (about 1870, pub. 1899)
Eduard Franck (1817-1893) was born in Breslau (then part of Prussia, now Wroclaw in Poland) in a cultivated banker's family. He studied with Mendelssohn as a private student. As a talented pianist, he enjoyed a dual career as a concert artist and music pedagogue for more than four decades. Due to his modesty, he never achieved lasting public recognition as a composer - he continually delayed releasing his works until they were polished to his demanding standards. That is also true for his Third String Quartet (of a total of three), which was probably composed around 1870, but only published after Franck's death by his son Richard in 1899. The Allegro starts with a striking and powerful opening, in which an archaically pounding bass in the cello prepares the ground for the descending subject in the violin, a sort of theme of destiny, which determines the minor mode character of the work. The second subject, first stated by the cello singing in its high register, opens up a large-scale vista of a contrasting lyrical world. The calm second movement is an Allegretto with a pastoral flavor and a naively simple main theme. In the Scherzo Franck adopts a Hungarian tone in swirling triple time, which he contrasts with an innocent ländler in the Trio. The lively finale, a sonata-form Allegro, appears as a breathless sequence of quickly changing moods, eventually leading to a rousing conclusion. Franck also wrote symphonic music, such as two symphonies and several concerts for piano and violin, but his chamber music is considered as his finest achievement. The present attractive quartet shows that Franck had a lively imagination and great mastery of form and does not deserve the neglect with which he has been treated.
Recording listened to: Edinger Quartett on Audite (with Quartet Op. 54).

5. Giuseppe Verdi, String Quartet in E Minor (1873, publ. 1876)
The opera composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) needs no further introduction. Although his whole oeuvre consists of operas and a several religious vocal works, there is also that single string quartet as a true rara avis. Verdi wrote it in Naples in March 1873, while waiting for a new staging of Aida to begin, and seems to have been surprised himself at his sole excursion into chamber music. He spoke very modestly, even disparaging, about it, but when he was persuaded to have it published a few years later, it met with immediate success and recognition. In classical formal terms it is an expertly composed quartet, respecting the style and sensibilities of its own time. The opening Allegro is a sonata movement, but without development and a varied recapitulation. The second movement, Andantino, is a refined mazurka with a coquettish main theme. This short movement has a rondo structure. The Prestissimo third movement is a scherzo with echoes from the opening chorus of Il Trovatore. The quartet ends with a movement entitled "Scherzo fuga" and is indeed the culmination of a work already strongly characterized by counterpoint also in its earlier movements. But this is not a dry academic exercise, Verdi knew well how to exploit the basically dramatic character of this strictest of musical forms.
Recording listened to: Hagen Quartett on Deutsche Grammophon (with transcription for string quartet of Luisa Miller and Chrisantemi by Puccini).

6. Johannes Brahms, String Quartet No 3 in B Flat Major Op 67 (1875)
Brahms wrote three string quartets: two, in C Minor and A Minor, in 1859, and the third - in contrast very sunny - one in 1875. It is indeed an easygoing and cheerful work, of almost divertimento-like playfulness. The dancing first movement (Vivace) starts with a hunting call and Brahms may well have had Mozart’s Hunt Quartet K458 at the back of his mind. The graceful slow movement (Andante) is harmonically rich in the manner of Brahms' earlier quartet slow movements and has a dramatic middle section with a symphonic character. The third movement (Agitato - Allegretto non troppo) is not a scherzo but an interlude containing expressively troubled material - it features a viola solo which all the more stands out as the other players use mutes throughout. The last movement is a set of variations (Poco allegretto con variazioni) that gradually works its way around to recapturing the lively hunting theme of the opening movement, the same procedure as in Brahms' own Clarinet Quintet. A beautiful quartet built on a minimum of musical material that coalesces and expands into ever widening arcs.
Recording listened to: Mandelring Quartet on Audite (with Quartet in C Minor by Herzogenberg).

7. Bedrich Smetana, String Quartet No 1 in E Minor "From my Life" (1876)
Bedrich Smetana (1824-84) was an unorthodox composer who shied away from the symphony, and in his operas and symphonic poems offered an alternative sound world based on his own Bohemian idiom. He was later to be honored as one of the foremost Czech national composers. Smetana's First Quartet was written at a time that the fifty-two year-old composer suffered from severe health problems (Smetana was totally deaf and could work no more than an hour at a time, due to a loud high-pitched sound in his ears) and this seems to have motivated him to attach an autobiographical program note to the music. This is in line with his symphonic poems which also have outside stories, but happily, the quartet can musically also stand on its own, more abstract legs. The first movement is bounded by questing music in E Minor (a sort of "call of Fate to take up life's struggle") and between these calls the composer's "romantic feelings in music, love and life in general" find expression. The second movement is a double polka, a peasant type contrasted with a ballroom type, standing not surprisingly for the "joyful days of youth." The tune given here to the viola has to be played "like a trumpet." The richly interwoven Largo, too, hardly needs the composer's statement that here he recalls "the happiness of first love." Also evident without program is that the rustic dance finale conveys Smetana's enthusiastic nationalism. But at one point the music abruptly breaks off, followed by a low tremolo above which the violin plays a long and high piercing note - the whining E that racked the composer's inner ear during his approaching deafness. The movement then ends with a repeat of the main themes of the first movement and the finale, heard as if in recollection, after which the work ends uneasily.
Recording listened to: The Medici String Quartet on Nimbus Records (with Second Quartet).

8. Joseph Rheinberger, String Quartet No 1 in C Minor Op 89 (1876)
Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger (1839-1901) was born in Liechtenstein and studied at the Royal Conservatory in Munich with Franz Lachner, one of Schubert’s close friends and an important composer in his own right (see No 1 above). Rheinberger became a teacher at his alma mater himself and among his students were Humperdinck, Wolf-Ferrari, Chadwick (see No 20 below) and Furtwangler. He is still somewhat known for his organ compositions today, but in fact in his own time was a highly regarded all-round composer – I am especially impressed by his romantically melodious chamber music. Rheinberger wrote two string quartets, Op 89 discussed here, dating from 1876, and Op 147 in F Major written ten years later. The Allegro non troppo first movement of the First Quartet starts with a dramatic question and answer, but the second theme is purely lyrical. The whole movement is dominated by the rhythm of the main subject with its upbeat, pulsating component parts. This is followed by a dolorous but hymn-like Adagio espressivo. The earthy Scherzo non troppo begins in unisono and bounces along happily; the Trio is  a more muscular affair. The closing Allegretto starts with a motoric restless theme introduced by the viola and keeps rhythmically moving forward until the end. This expert quartet was written when Rheinberger was at the height of his powers and was becoming known internationally - the quartet was in fact premiered in Amersfoort in the Netherlands.
Recording listened to: Camerata Quartet on Thorofon (with Second String Quartet).

9. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, String Quartet No 3 in E Flat Minor Op 30 (1876)
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) surely needs no introduction, although his chamber music is relatively unknown. He wrote three string quartets, all early in his career, between 1871 and 1876. The First Quartet is well-known for its famous "Andante cantabile" second movement, but is also rather sentimental and I prefer the darker Third Quartet (the Second Quartet is rather academic). At the time Tchaikovsky started writing this quartet, he had just finished his Third Symphony and the Swan Lake ballet. The quartet is dedicated to the memory of the violinist Ferdinand Laub, who was not only Tchaikovsky's friend, but also a fellow professor at the Moscow Conservatory and the leader of the string quartet which had premiered his first two quartets. Besides this loss, Tchaikovsky was struggling with depressions and financial problems. The order of the movements is interesting: slow-fast-slow-fast. The first movement ("Andante Sostenuto") begins in a strident manner. There is little sunshine in this melancholy music. Tchaikovsky's concentrated use of musical material calls Schumann to mind. The second movement ("Allegro vivo e scherzando") is an intermezzo, and there is still no light in this least burdened of all four movements. The slow movement ("Andante funebre e doloroso ma con moto"), which explicitly commemorates Laub, is of special depth and individual character. Played muted, the first subject creates a kind of sobbing effect with its use of chords. The first violin is given a lengthy passionate declamatory passage. The mournful movement twice quotes the Russian Orthodox Requiem. Free from any overt folkloristics, this is music which is Russian to the core. The finale ("Allegro risoluto") has a rondo structure. Although this is more vigorous music, the busy activity along its course is not enough to remove the dominating veil of melancholy. A tragic insertion before the conclusion returns us to the beginning of the quartet.
Recording listened to: Koeckert-Quartett on Calig (with First String Quartet).

10. Edvard Grieg, String Quartet in G Minor Op 27 (1878)
The Norwegian composer and pianist Edvard Grieg was born in Bergen, and studied at the Leipzig Conservatoire. Although he started the nationalist movement in Norwegian music, he was cosmopolitan in his own life, and traveled widely in Europe, meeting Liszt in Rome, Gade in Copenhagen, Tchaikovsky in Leipzig, Grainger in London and Roentgen in Amsterdam. Although Grieg wrote a famous piano concerto, and several sonatas (for piano, violin and cello), he is perhaps best known for his miniatures, both for orchestra and the piano. Grieg three times tried his hand at a string quartet, but the first quartet, a student composition, was lost, and the third quartet remained unfinished at his death, so we only have the Quartet in G Minor as his completed work in this genre. As Grieg himself mentioned, it "strives towards breadth, soaring flight and above all resonance for the instruments for which it is written." Grieg reused the melody of one of his songs, Der Spielmann Op 26 No 1 (on words by Ibsen), for the characteristic motto theme that is first heard in the slow introduction to the quartet and then transformed as the second theme in the ensuing Allegro molto ed agitato. This motif recurs throughout the whole quartet, ensuring cyclic unity. The serene second movement, Romance Andantino, is interrupted by this motif and the next Intermezzo (Allegro molto marcato), which is in fact a scherzo, starts with it. The motto theme also appears in the Lento introduction to the Finale, after which it is followed by a rapid dance (Presto al Saltarello), which ends the quartet on an optimistic note. Grieg's quartet style is characterized by parts with a very thick texture, with double, triple and even quadruple stops simultaneously in all instruments. Grieg's first publisher therefore refused the work, deeming that it should be rewritten for strings and piano. But this unique quartet sound is typical for Grieg, who scores thick sections of unison sounds but also juxtaposes them with other textures including skillful counterpoint and a fluid exchange of voices across all four instruments. Like later composers as Debussy, Grieg has in fact re-imagined the way how to use a string quartet and written a fresh work of great originality and musical delight.
Recording listened to: Koeckert-Quartett on Calig (with Quartet in E Minor by Saint-Saens).

11. Alexander Borodin, String Quartet No 2 in D Major (1881)
Borodin (1833-1887) was a doctor and chemist, Professor in Chemistry at the Imperial Medical-Surgical Academy in St. Petersburg. Although music was a secondary vocation for him (he studied with Balakirev, and was a cellist), he is quite well-known for his symphonies, his two string quartets, In the Steppes of Central Asia and his opera Prince Igor. His music is noted for its passionate lyricism and unusual harmonies; as a member of "The Five" it exudes also an undeniably Russian flavor. The Second String Quartet is a good example. Borodin dedicated the quartet to his wife Ekaterina (a pianist) as an evocation of when they fell in love in Heidelberg 20 years earlier. The whole quartet is therefore imbued with a blissful atmosphere. The first movement (Allegro moderato) starts with a sweet, sighing melody, whereby the cello represents Borodin and the first violin Ekaterina. The movement is rounded off by a luminous coda. After a graceful Scherzo - with a waltz-like second theme - , follows the Nocturne, with its somewhat oriental tune the most famous movement of the quartet (it was also adapted for string orchestra). The cello introduces a tender and ardent melody which is woven through the Nocturne like a silvery thread. In the Finale, Borodin displays his contrapuntal mastery. After a dramatic opening Andante, an energetic Vivace forms a joyous conclusion to the whole work. Where Borodin often left works unfinished or spent a long time over them, this quartet was written in just a few weeks, in one spurt of inspiration. It is deservedly a much-beloved work.
Recording listened to: Borodin String Quartet on EMI (with First Quartet).

12. Hugo Wolf, String Quartet in D Minor (1878-84)
Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) was an Austrian composer of Slovene origin, strongly influenced by Wagner and the New German School, and particularly noted for his art songs, his Lieder, to which he brought a greatly concentrated, expressive intensity. Wolf suffered from bouts of depression and illness, and wrote little else besides those Lieder. He worked for most of his life as critic and music teacher in Vienna. His sole String Quartet, written when Wolf was not yet twenty, has an autobiographical feel and remained for 20 years in the drawer (after having taken five years to complete) - it was only performed shortly before Wolf's early death. The first movement, a Grave introduction followed by "leidenschaftlich bewegt," bears the motto "You should do without, do without" ("Entbehren sollst du, sollst entbehren" from Goethe's Faust) and not surprisingly, is imbued with a sense of desperation, besides rather explosive dramatics. From the very first measure on, a high emotional temperature is set. The richly expressive slow second movement ("Langsam") is huge, lasting about 20 minutes and it ranges widely. This is followed by a grimly determined Scherzo, "Resolut." The finale "Sehr lebhaft" is in a different vein - it was written later to replace the original finale which did not satisfy Wolf. It is bright and lively, like Wolf's Italian Serenade, as if signalling that finally renunciation has been achieved. An interesting quartet in which an absence of complete compositional mastery (it was after all a sort of juvenalia) is paired with a character of passionate confession.
Recording listened to: Auryn Quartett on CPO (with Italian serenade and Intermezzo).

13. Eugen d'Albert, String Quartet No 1 in A Minor Op 7 (1886)
Eugen (originally Eugène) d'Albert (1864-1932) was born in Glasgow to an English mother and a French father. He studied at the Royal College of Music in London with Arthur Sullivan. Soon after that, he had a chance to study with Liszt in Vienna, developing into one of the greatest pianists of his time. After completing his studies, d'Albert embarked on a successful concert career, for example playing Brahms' two piano concertos under the baton of the composer. d'Albert felt himself drawn to Germany and Austria and eventually settled in Germany. In 1907, he became director of the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin; he also held the post of Kapellmeister to the Court of Weimar. d'Albert focused increasingly on composition, producing 21 operas (such as Tiefland) and a considerable number of piano, vocal, chamber and orchestral works (a symphony, two piano concertos and a cello concerto). He also wrote two string quartets, both early in his career. The First String Quartet was written shortly after the death of his mentor Franz Liszt. The tempo indication of the opening movement, "Leidenschaftlich bewegt" (Passionately agitated), accurately describes the mood of the main theme and the writing exhibits considerable chromaticism. A fugue brings the movement to close. The large second movement, "Langsam mit Ausdruck" (Slow with expression), is elegiac. This is followed by a fine scherzo ("Mäßig Bewegt," in moderate tempo), which is in fact a quick waltz. The finale "In maßiger, ruhiger Bewegung - Thema mit Variationen" (Moderate and peaceful, theme and variations) is the longest of the four movements and begins with a charming but simple melody which is varied twelve times. d'Albert develops delightful structures, amazing in their variety. Although some influence of Brahms and Liszt can be felt, d'Albert develops his own language and gives numerous examples of his stylistic ability.
Recording listened to: Sarastro Quartet on Pan Classics (with Second Quartet).

14. Théodore Gouvy, String Quartet in G Major (1888)
My other posts about chamber music have shown that I am an admirer of the chamber works of the French composer Théodore Gouvy (1819-1898), who mostly worked in Germany and paired French esprit to German form (see his Piano Trio, Piano Quintet and String Quintet). His music is always a joy to hear and that is also the case with his unpublished last quartet in G Major, one of the best he wrote (among eleven: four early unnumbered ones 1848-50, five numbered ones, 1858-74, and again two late unnumbered ones, one in G Minor and on in G Major, both written in 1888). The last quartet in G is a big-boned work. The first movement starts with an introductory Andante, where the strings echo through the air, before the Allegro moderato follows with its charm and evocation. It is in free sonata form and without any excess or overdone effects it creates a delicious atmosphere with some bucolic accents. The Larghetto is in variation form and takes its inspiration from a passacaglia with its basso ostinato. The Scherzo is extremely fast and voluble, a long serpent of a movement. The final Allegro non troppo is in rondo form, with a recurring main theme that reminds one of a gentle classical dance. This is graceful, well-balanced, poetical and, ultimately, happy music. Unfortunately, since the demise of the label K617, Gouvy's chamber music is almost unavailable today - when will for example CPO (which has recorded the symphonies) start paying attention to it?
Recording listened to: Quatuor Denis Clavier on K617 (with String Quintet Op 55).

15. César Franck, String Quartet in D Major (1889-90)
The string quartet by César Franck (1822-90) is one of his last works - like Fauré, he hesitated long before he found the courage to put his hand to this supreme musical form. As early as the 1870s, when the Société Nationale de Musique, which Franck joined as one of the founding members, was set up to promote French chamber music, Franck had already contemplated a quartet, but came no further than making some sketches. These sketches were again taken up in the late 1880s, after undertaking an intense study of the late works of Beethoven. The String Quartet was finally composed in 1889, the year before Franck's death. The richly scored work consists of four movements, which are tightly united by cyclic form. The nobility of the thematic material is given expression in the radiant key of D Major. The first movement, which gave Franck a lot of trouble, begins with a long introduction. Against a harmonic accompaniment by the other strings, the first violin plays the main theme of the introduction, which is also the first cyclic theme. The Allegro that follows is in sonata form, but leads to a development in the form of a fugue, introduced by the viola. The second movement, Scherzo vivace, is colored by Mendelssohnian lightness and the strings are muted here. The lyrical, even languorous Larghetto is in ternary form and features an extended melody for the first violin . The Finale revisits the major themes of the previous movements (the slow movement and the scherzo), before deriving its own theme from the introductory material to the first movement, thus uniting the whole work. Franck need not have hesitated: this quartet forms a crowning achievement to his whole oeuvre.
Recording listened to: Ensemble César Franck on Koch Schwann.

16. Claude Debussy, String Quartet in G Minor (1893)
Debussy's (1862-1918) sole string quartet is a stunning work, a watershed in the history of chamber music. It stands at the threshold of Debussy's career and also at the threshold of the new music that the new century was to bring - where Franck and Fauré hesitated until their final years before addressing this exacting genre, Debussy confidently wrote his String Quartet when he was just thirty. The quartet is already fully characteristic of Debussy's typical musical language, with its use of modal and whole-tone scales, subtle harmonies and clarity of form. The four movements are thematically related, a way of bringing greater unity to multi-part symphonic and chamber music that had been devised by César Franck (see No 15). The first movement is off to a stormy start with a strong opening statement, that will also punctuate the movement later on. This opening phrase returns in varied form in the scherzo (first playfully and then more smoothly) and again, more drastically altered, in the slow movement; and finally as the lyrical subsidiary theme of the finale. The transformations are so subtly achieved, that the music sounds completely seamless, and the kaleidoscopic effect of the new contexts in which the familiar motif is placed prevents any danger of monotony. The Scherzo is dominated by the viola theme with which it opens. The sensuous slow movement has been said to prefigure the Symbolist world of Pelléas et Mélisande. The final movement opens in contrapuntally angular fashion, and quotes several themes from previous movements, before ending on a grand chord.
Recording listened to: Orlando Quartet on Philips (with String Quartet by Ravel).

17. Louis Vierne, String Quartet in D Minor Op 12 (1894)
Louis Vierne (1870-1937) was a celebrated organist and organ and chamber music composer. Born almost blind, he later lost his sight completely. He studied with Widor and Franck, both whose influence was decisive on his own compositions; we already came across his Piano Quintet written in dramatic circumstances. His String Quartet shows a lighter side. It was written at the time that Vierne was still in Widor's class and received the first prize for organ. The quartet is dedicated to Widor. Although an early work, Vierne's art blossoms forth in rich harmonies and the quartet already bears the stamp of his distinctive style. After a dramatic introduction, the ensuing Allegro agitato is essentially based on syncopation, with two motifs following the same melodic curve. The Intermezzo has been called "one of the most delicious movements in all French chamber music," in the spirit of Berlioz's "Queen Mab Scherzo." The first half, using mutes, is bouncing, the second half more lyrical. The Andante quasi adagio contains two contrasting ideas, the first one subtly chromatic, the second one more nervous, disturbing the serenity of the movement. The Allegro vivace finale features a gently lulling theme in moto perpetuo style, but before the conclusion, in Bach-like spirit, a strict fugue opens out.
Recording listened to: Quatuor Athenaeum Enesco on Disques Pierre Verany (with piano quintet).

18. Antonín Dvořák, String Quartet No 14 in A Flat Major Op 105 B193 (1895)
Antonín Dvořák wrote 14 string quartets, but the only one that is regularly programmed seems to be the 12th, the "American," as if listeners always want to hear the same music. But his two last quartets, 13 and 14, are much more interesting, and among the earlier quartets are also some jewels, such as No 10. The String Quartet No 14 in A-flat major was the last quartet completed by Dvořák, even though it was published before his Thirteenth Quartet (which appeared with the higher opus number 106). Dvořák finished it in 1895, when he had returned to Bohemia after his visit to America. It was his last "abstract" chamber work, as from now on he would focus on symphonic poems and operas. The quartet starts with a mysterious introduction, played on the cello, before the other instruments join in. The first violin then continues with the limpid main theme (Allegro appassionato). The second subject features a distinctive rhythm constructed around a succession of triplets. The music boasts a wealth of ideas, which undergo various modifications even in the exposition. The middle section of the first movement evokes a serenade, followed by a march. The second movement, Molto vivace, is in scherzo form. The Trio is a poetic romance. The lyrical Lento e molto cantabile begins as a gently fervent chorale. This movement represents a wonderful arc of tranquility and contentment, with  a very rich sound. The final Allegro non tanto begins with somber and oppressed phrases from the cello before evolving quickly into a completely contrasting joyful Czech folk dance (in polka style). Dvorak gradually enhances the joyous tone of the movement, so that the work ends in dazzlingly euphoric tones. In this final quartet Dvorak gave his very best, demonstrating his great artistry in chamber music.
Recording listened to: Le Quatuor Talich on Calliope (with quartet No 13).

19. Anton Stepanovich Arensky, String Quartet No 2 in A Minor Op 35 (1895)
Anton Arensky (1861-1906) was born in Novgorod but grew up and studied at the Conservatory in St. Petersburg. Among his principal teachers was Rimsky-Korsakov. Immediately after graduation, he himself became Professor at the Moscow Conservatory where he befriended and was influenced by Tchaikovsky and Taneyev. Among his pupils were Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and Gliere. In 1895, Arensky returned to St. Petersburg to become director of the Imperial Chapel, before retiring six years later to devote himself to composition. Unfortunately, he died at the young age of 45. Arensky was a fluent composer who excelled in singing melodic lines and had a keen sense of instrumental color. He wrote two symphonies, concertos for violin and for piano, three operas, and chamber and piano music. His Second Quartet was composed in 1895 to the memory of Tchaikovsky, who had died two years earlier. For extra dark sonority, the original version is for violin, viola and two cellos, but Arensky also made a version for normal string quartet. The first movement (Moderato) opens and closes with the muted theme of a Russian Orthodox psalm. This theme is both tender and passionate and is elaborated in the course of the movement; its funereal atmosphere exploits the deep sonority offered by the unusual scoring. The second movement is a theme and (seven) variations, based on the song "Legend" from Tchaikovsky's Children's Songs Op 54, as a personal tribute to his friend and mentor. This large and skillfully written movement is the center of gravity of the quartet. The variations wander through several modes, also lighter ones, but end again on a somber plaint. The Finale is quite unusual: it opens with the somber theme from a Russian funeral Mass, which however soon gives way to a celebratory anthem associated with the coronation and majesty of the Tsar and previously used by Mussorgsky in Boris Godounov. This is the highest tribute to Tchaikovsky, crowning his heritage for posterity. The central movement, arranged for string orchestra, also has an independent life as the Variations on a theme of Tchaikovsky.
Recording listened to: Lajtha Quartet on Marco Polo (with First String Quartet and Piano Quintet).

20. George Whitefield Chadwick, String Quartet No 4 in E Minor (1895-96)
George Chadwick (1854-1931) has been called "the Dean of American Composers." He studied at the Leipzig Conservatory with Carl Reinecke and Salomon Jadassohn, and also took private lessons with Joseph Rheinberger in Munich. After his return to Boston in 1880, began his long career as a composer, conductor and teacher (of such important American composers as William Grant Still and Horatio Parker). Chadwick served for 33 years as director of the New England Conservatory. His Brahmsian blend of formal classicism with romantic melodism never could wholly conceal an unmistakably Yankee sense of humor. As the present quartet (the fourth of in total five, and his most popular chamber music work) shows, his music sounds very "American," although he never literally quotes any folk or other traditional tunes. The work opens with a calm ballade-like introduction, Andante moderato, that quickly gives way to an Allegro with a snappy first theme and a graceful, songful hymn-influenced second one. The slow movement is a serene Andantino semplice, at once simple, as the title suggests, but with great lyric beauty. The zestful Scherzo features a bubblingly cheerful first theme, while the Trio is more earnest in tone. The ballade-like Finale Allegro molto risoluto opens with a powerful unisono theme but also includes more poetic and retrospective passages, before winding up with an exhilarating fugato and a brilliant Presto con brio.
Recording listened to: The Kohon Quartet on Vox ("The Early String Quartet in the U.S.A.," two CDs with string quartet music by Loeffler, Mason, Hadley, Foote etc.).

21. Charles Ives, String Quartet No 1 "From the Salvation Army" (1896)
Charles Ives wrote his First Quartet when he was 21 and a student at Yale and it is interesting to compare this to Chadwick's contemporaneous quartet (No 20 above). It is a tonal quartet based on church hymns, written in what is called Ives' "national Romantic style." The first movement (Andante con moto) is a stately fugue based on Missionary Hymn ("From Greenland's Icy Mountains"), while the counter-subject is drawn from Coronation ("All hail the powers of Jesus' name"). This piece is also found as the third movement of Ives' Fourth Symphony, arranged for full orchestra. It is somewhat different in tone from the rest of the quartet. The remaining movements are all in modified ternary form. In the cheerful second movement (Allegro) the first theme is based on the hymn Beulah Land, and that of the contrasting middle section on Shining Shore - two hymns that look forward to the afterlife. Although both songs have been so completely reworked as to be almost unrecognizable, they possess a strong American and hymn-like character. The theme of the meditative third movement (Adagio cantabile) is based on the hymn Nettleton ("Come thou fount of every blessing"). The middle section draws themes from all three hymns. The spirited opening theme of the finale (Allegro marziale) blends motives from Coronation and Webb ("Stand up, stand up for Jesus"). In this movement, we find one of Ives' first uses of poly-meter: 3/4 over 4/4 time. In the coda we hear a complete statement of Webb in the cello. The recurrence in later movements of earlier material gives unity to the quartet, and the appearance of a complete hymn at the end after fragments and paraphrases provides a satisfying conclusion. A work of individuality and charm. In 1913 Ives finished his very different Second Quartet, in which he in a sense spoofs the Haydn quartet form, by not having "four gentlemen in conversation," but "four men who argue and fight," and finally "walk up the mountain."
Recording listened to: Emerson String Quartet on Deutsche Grammophon (with Second Quartet by Ives and String Quartet by Barber)

22. Alexander Glazunov, String Quartet No 5 in D Minor Op 70 (1898)
Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936) was born in St. Petersburg, the son of a wealthy book publisher, who also played the violin; his mother was a pianist. Glazunov studied under Rimsky-Korsakov and Balakirev and wrote his First Symphony when only 16 years old. Between 1895 and 1914, Glazunov was regarded as Russia's greatest living composer. He is best known today for his nine symphonies (the last one unfinished), a violin concerto, and the ballet Raymonda. Glazunov also earned a high reputation as teacher/director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory - his most famous pupil was Shostakovich. Glazunov wrote seven string quartets, plus the melodious Five Novelettes. The Fifth Quartet is generally considered as one of Glazunov's masterpieces of chamber music. The first movement's doleful, fugal introduction (Andante), initiated by the viola, immediately establishes the quartet's emotional depth. The movement proceeds in sonata form (Allegro), with the fugal subject from the introduction now serving as the first theme. The second subject, marked dolce, is initially entrusted to the first violin. The movement ends in a magnificent stretto. The Scherzo (Allegretto) is jaunty, but draws on quite complex textures. The movement's Trio section is memorable for its lilting melody over a pizzicato accompaniment. The profound third movement returns to the serious mood of the first; it contains a characteristic "sighing" motif. After a distinctive opening, the Finale (Allegro) proceeds with a moto perpetuo first theme. This bright and even playful movement is again in sonata form. Despite its occasional counterpoint, it also contains a hint of folksiness.
Recording listened to: St. Petersburg String Quartet on Delos (with Five Novelettes).

23. Max D'Ollone, String Quartet in D Major (1898)
The French composer Max d'Ollone (1875-1959) entered the Paris Conservatiore at age 6 when he already started composing with the encouragement of his teachers Gounod, Saint-Saëns, Massenet, Thomas and Delibes. He won the Prix de Rome in 1897. He would have a career as professor at the Paris Conservatoire and director of the Opéra-Comique. As composer, he was in the first place known for his operas, but also for a ballet and symphonic works. Songs also formed an important part of his output. His three chamber works stand at strategic spots in his career: the String Quartet at the beginning, the String Trio in the middle and the Piano Quartet at the end of his catalog. The String Quartet was composed in 1898 during Max d'Ollone's stay in Rome. Written in the bright key of D Major, the first and last movements present themes full of joyfulness, while the chromatic Andante is imbued with tender melancholy. The Scherzo, the second movement, is in the form of a moto perpetuo. This is a beautiful quartet in which d'Ollone demonstrates gracefulness and naturalness along the lines of Massenet and Saint-Saëns.
Recording listened to: Quatuor Atheneaum Enesco on Disques Pierre Verany (with String Trio and Piano Quartet).

24. Camille Saint-Saëns , String Quartet Nr 1 in E Minor Op 112 (1899)
The French composer, organist, pianist and conductor Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) had very broad interests, both inside and outside music (he was for example interested in archaeology, geometry, and Latin and ancient Greek). This led him to be active in all musical genres, from piano music to symphonies, from operas to religious vocal works, from concertante works to chamber music. His best-known works include the Second Piano Concerto (1868), the First Cello Concerto (1872), Danse macabre (1874), the opera Samson and Delilah (1877), the Third Violin Concerto (1880), the Third ("Organ") Symphony (1886) and The Carnival of the Animals (1887). But I prefer his chamber music, such as the piano trios, piano quintets, violin sonatas, cello sonatas and string quartets. In that last genre, Saint-Saëns didn’t attempt his first quartet until 1899, at the ripe old age of 64 (he wrote his Second Quartet in 1918 when he was 83!). Saint-Saëns' music is imbued with a French spirit and feeling for form, but is also very classical - not in the sense of Beethoven, but going back all the way to Bach. Some movements have a Baroque feel, that seems to prefigure the post-WWI trend of Neo-Classical music. The opening movement (Allegro) begins with muted sustained notes before the first violin states the principal theme (the first violin dominates in this quartet, not for nothing was it dedicated to the famous violinist Eugen Ysaye, whose quartet premiered it). This dissolves into more nervous music, from which suddenly the cello comes up with a wonderful lyrical melody. The second movement, Molto allegro quasi presto, starts with a syncopated melody in the first violin, accompanied by the plucked notes of the other instruments. It is then repeated at the same tempo but with shorter notes, so that it sounds twice as fast. The Trio section contains a fugue, started by the cello. Also the slow movement (Molto Adagio) gives prominence to the first violin, playing a long-lined, wistful melody. The finale, Allegro non troppo, offers further scope for virtuosity, but its use of varied rhythms also creates an underlying sense of restlessness.
Recording listened to: Koeckert-Quartett on Calig (with String Quartet by Grieg).

[Incorporates some information from the CD sleeve notes, Wikipedia, etc. Special mention should be made of the interesting study The String Quartet, A History by Paul Griffiths (Thames and Hudson: Bath, 1985). All images linked from Wikipedia. Some of the recommended CDs may not be available anymore (or the names of the labels may have changed)]
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November 17, 2015

Best String Quartets, Part 1

As a genre like the string quartet continually evolves, it is hard to search for its origin in a single work or composer. It gradually achieves its identity and may be "invented" independently in several different places. But, on the other hand, there will usually be one composer who wrote the first masterworks in that genre and who is therefore seen as the "father" - in the case of the string quartet that was of course Joseph Haydn (while in the case of the string trio that was Mozart, in the case of the string quintet both Mozart and Boccherini, in the case of the piano trio and the piano quartet again Mozart, and in the case of the piano quintet Boccherini). The string quartet originated in the trio sonata, by dropping the harpsichord - and the harpsichord was discarded when, in the mid 18th c., music was played outside as entertainment, as divertimentos and serenades. Haydn wrote his first quartets (called divertimentos) in 1759; but others also wrote early string quartets around that time, notably Boccherini, Gassmann, Albrechtsberger, Dussek, Abel, Vanhal, Gossec, etc.

The string quartet is the most popular form of chamber music, perhaps because the use of four voices is natural to Western music (although Mozart, Boccherini and Brahms felt more at home in the more amply sounding five-voiced string quintet). By treating all voices as equal one gets the "ideal conversation between four persons."  

Another important aspect of the string quartet (and other chamber music for strings or for strings and piano) is that this is abstract music. It is music that only exists for itself, not to accompany a song or set words to music, or to accompany a dance. The structure therefore can't be based on anything external (i.e. a story) but has to be found in another abstract way of giving shape and form to music: the sonata form. I regard abstract music (to which of course also belongs the symphony) as the highest form of music.  

The string quartet already saw triumphs in the 18th century in the hands of the Viennese Classics. In the 19th century it sometimes had difficult periods, due to the attention for virtuoso music, the predilection for greater forces to better reflect the romantic imagination, or the interest in extra-musical inspiration, such as in the New German School. But there were always important advocates (although Beethoven's masterful quartets proved a psychological hurdle for some composers). And in the 20th century the genre again was at the forefront of music making, with important quartet series by Bartok, Shostakovitch and many others. It remains an important genre even today.

In this post I discuss string quartets from the 18th and first half of the 19th century, both immortal masterworks and quartets by lesser masters or forgotten composers whose music is interesting for connoisseurs. In a second post I will look at the second half of the 19th and early 20th century and in a third post I hope to reach the end of the 20th century.

1. Christian Ernst Graf, String Quartet (without opus) No. 4 in D Major (1760s-1770s)
Kapellmeister and composer Christian Ernst Graf (1723-1804) was of German origin (he was born in Rudolstadt in Thuringia) but he worked most of his life as court musician at the court of William V, Prince of Orange, in The Hague, the Netherlands (see my post about Classical Music in the Netherlands, Part 1). Little is know about the life of Graf - he has left us some symphonies, chamber music and a cantata, and also wrote a textbook on harmony. Mozart used his song "Laat ons juichen Batavieren" for his variations KV 24. CPO has brought out a charming disc with five string quartets by Graf, which can't be dated exactly, but are thought to stem from the 1760s and 1770s. They are all transitional works, as some still use a harpsichord in addition to the string quartet. That is not the case in the one I have selected here, although the cello still misses its own voice. While Haydn in 1759 wrote five movement works in divertimento style, Graf opts for three movements, but without a fixed order - some quartets (like the present one) start with an Adagio; the second movement then is usually a fast one, and the last movement something in Allegretto style (here called Gratioso). Graf spins delicious melodies and skillfully varies his material, and his music has a tasteful warmth.
Recording listened to: Via Nova Quartett on CPO (five quartets by Graf; period instruments).

2. Pietro Nardini, String Quartet No 6 in E Flat Major (1770s or earlier, pub. 1782)
I discovered Pietro Nardini (1722-1793) thanks to the present disc brought out by Brilliant Classics. Nardini was born in Livorno (Tuscany) and was a pupil on the violin of Giuseppe Tartini. He developed into one of the greatest violinists of his time and travelled across Europe as a performing virtuoso, before becoming music director of the chapel of the court of Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany. In April 1770 Nardini was visited by Leopold and Wolfgang Mozart, and the virtuoso and the young prodigy played together. The six string quartets on the present disc were printed in Florence in 1782, but seem to have been written earlier, probably the 1770s, but possible even the second half of the 1760s. These quartets are in two movements, something which may point at quartets written for amateurs, in a lighter style (as in the two movement works among Boccherini's quartets). No 6 starts with an Allegro and then concludes with a Comodo. The cello has a solo episode in the Allegro. It is fresh and expressive music, skillfully written.
Recording listened to: Quartetto Eleusi on Brilliant Classics (complete string quartets by Nardini; period instruments).

3. Joseph Martin Kraus, String Quartet in B Major Op 1 No 2 (1784)
The German composer Joseph Martin Kraus (1756-92) was of exactly the same age as Mozart and almost as short-lived. From age 21 he worked for the King of Sweden, who also allowed him to travel. In this way he met Gluck, Albrechtsberger, Mozart and Haydn, all of whom were impressed by his music. Kraus’s oeuvre as a composer ran to some 208 works, including 17 sacred works, 4 operas, 21 symphonies, 5 concertos, and lots of chamber music. Kraus' music is highly individual - there is sense of drama, a fondness for suggestive pauses and for unpredictable changes of direction. Kraus was forgotten after his death, but has in recent years been "rediscovered," especially his symphonies. Kraus wrote about 10 string quartets, of which six in a set as "Opus 1" which was published by J. J. Hummel in Berlin and Amsterdam (Hummel had recently also published Haydn’s Six Quartets Opus 33 of 1782). The Second Quartet is in three movements. It starts with a warm-colored and tuneful Allegro moderato, which is followed by the highlight of this quartet (and in fact, also the other quartets on this disk): a beautiful Largo with a solo viola. This an impressive movement of aria-like beauty. The quartet concludes with a brief Scherzando Allegretto, which in the end just peters out - a deadpan closure that is typical of Kraus. Kraus' quartets are not as enthralling as his symphonies, but they are unusual within the context of their time and therefore deserve to be heard.
Recording listened to: Joseph Martin Kraus-Quartett on Cavalli Records (with other quartets by Kraus).

4. Karl Dittersdorf, String Quartet No 5 in E Flat major (1788)
Karl Dittersdorf (1739-1799) was born in Vienna and well acquainted with Haydn and Mozart. He bequeathed a rich collection of compositions to posterity, including more than 120 symphonies, 40 solo concertos, numerous oratorios, operas and chamber music. His music combines formal refinement with a versatile wit. Instrumental color and catchy melodies make for a strong impression. Besides string trios and string quintets, Dittersdorf wrote six string quartets, all first rate compositions, dating from the same period as Mozart's "Haydn quartets" and "Prussian quartets" and Haydn's Op 50, 54 and 55 quartets. The quartets consist of three movements with a minuet in central position. Quartet no 5 in E Flat has a variably structured first movement Allegro that contains some bold harmonic progressions. The dance-like virtuoso minuet forms a clear contrast and the work closes with a fast, quasi-Hungarian rondo finale. A well-crafted and pleasant piece, full of melodic ideas.
Recording listened to: Franz Schubert Quartet on CPO (six quartets and two quintets by Dittersdorf on 2 CDs).

5. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, String Quartet in F Major K590 (1790)
Mozart wrote 23 string quartets, of which the first 13 are more or less youthful works; the last 10 quartets are all mature masterworks. The first six of these last ten form a set written in response to Haydn's quartets Op. 33 and dedicated to him (K387, K421, K428, K458, K464 and K465). They are therefore called the "Haydn Quartets;" the whole set was published together in 1785. While quartet No 20 stands alone as the "Hoffmeister Quartet" (K499, 1786), the last three again form a set - they were to be dedicated to the Prussian King, Friedrich Willem II (a dedication which never happened; Mozart also didn't complete the planned set of six, but with the proposed dedicatee in mind, he gave special attention to the virtuosity of the cello parts), and have therefore been nicknamed "King of Prussia Quartets" (K475, K489 and K490, 1789-1790). Any of Mozart's ten mature quartets would have done as his "best"; I have here selected the very last one, in F, as I have done with Haydn and Beethoven who by coincidence also wrote their last quartets in F (according to Christian Schubart the key of "complaisance and calm"). Mozart wrote this quartet in 1790. The opening is simply an ascending arpeggio followed by a descending scale - but these simple elements are immediately subjected to various kinds of interesting transformations, all in a very operatic way. The second theme is started by the cello, which comes rumbling up from its lowest note over two octaves to the new lyrical melody. Note the coda of this movement, which ends in a delightfully witty manner. The next Andante (also called Allegretto) has been called a "mixture of bliss and sorrow" (by musicologist Alfred Einstein); it is based on a plain rhythmic figure played at the outset by the entire quartet. The Minuetto - and even more, the trio - is rich in the use of ornamental appoggiaturas (quick ornamental notes that are played just before main notes). The finale is a high-speed frolic in sonata rondo-form; it has been packed with interesting devices, such as unexpected silences, intricate contrapuntal sections and harmonic surprises. Note the brief imitation of a bagpipe-like drone in the last bars.
Recording listened to: The Salomon String Quartet on Hyperion (with Quartet K475, period instruments)

6. Joseph Haydn, String Quartet in F Major Op 77 No 2 (1799)
Between 1762 and 1799 Haydn wrote 67 string quartets (plus an uncompleted one, No. 68, as well as The Seven Last Words of Christ, Op. 51, which was a transcription of a work for orchestra), often in sets of six, of which the last 44, from Op. 20 on, form a fundamental part of the repertoire - Haydn is the composer who more than anyone else has shaped the early history of the string quartet. Haydn's last set of quartets was to be dedicated to the young Austrian aristocrat Prince Lobkowitz, an enthusiastic amateur musician who later was to support Beethoven (and who employed Anton Wranitzky, see below), but as in Mozart's case, also Haydn didn't complete his last set of string quartets. We only have two quartets completed in 1799, plus the two middle movements of a third one published separately in 1803 when it had become clear Haydn wouldn't complete the set. It has been suggested that this had to do with the appearance of a new rival, Beethoven, whose Op 18 set of six string quartets (also dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz), was just being played among connoisseurs in Vienna when Haydn was working on his Op 77 quartets. Whether it is true that Haydn gracefully bowed out, leaving the field to Beethoven, or not, Op 77 No 2 became his last completed quartet. Characteristically, the quartet is in the mode that Haydn had virtually invented: a continuous use of a semi-contrapuntal, democratic interplay between the four instruments, like a conversation between four persons. The F Major Quartet starts with a first subject that has been said to have affinities with Leporello's catalogue aria in Mozart's Don Giovanni. The fast Minuet stands in second position - it has scherzo-like qualities, although in contrast the Trio is rather subdued in tone. This is followed by a weighty and pensive Andante, where the first violin accompanied by the cello starts with a slow march-like theme that then is taken over by the whole quartet. The ebullient finale starts with an energetic opening figure, but also has its share of counterpoint. The movement calls wild eastern-European dance music to mind.
Recording listened to: Kuijken String Quartet on Denon (with Quartets Op 77 No 1 and 103 fragment; period instruments). 

7. Franz Krommer, String Quartet Op 18 No 1 in D Major (1800)
Franz Krommer (1759-1831) was born as František Vincenc Kramář in a part of the Habsburg Austrian Empire that today is Kamenice in the Czech Republic. But as Krommer was active in Vienna for all his life from 1785 on, he himself used the Germanized version of his name. Krommer was one of the most successful composers around the year 1800. He was also seen as a leading composer of string quartets, almost on a par with Haydn. He wrote close to 80 string quartets and was himself a violinist of considerable ability. He finally became Court Composer to the imperial court of Franz I (an enthusiastic quartet player). Most of his quartets were written in the concertante style then common - but not only the first violin, all instruments get a chance to shine in soloist passages. The present quartet is the first one of a set of three written in the 1790s and published in 1800 by Artaria in Vienna and Richault in Paris. The work starts with a lively Allegro vivace, which is followed by a Haydnesque Minuetto. The Adagio is a deeply felt, lyrical movement, and the quartet concludes with a bubbling Allegro.
Recording listened to: Quartetto di Milano on Tudor (with Op 18 Nos 2 and 3).

8. Antonin Vranicky (Wranitzky), String Quartet No 5 in F Major (1800)
Like Krommer, Anton Wranitzky (1761-1820) and his elder brother Paul were musicians and composers from the Czech lands within the Habsburg Empire, and like their compatriot, they were very successful in Vienna. Anton Wranitzky arrived in the early 1780s and studied with Mozart, Haydn and Albrechtsberger. In 1790 he entered the service of the great patron of the arts, Prince Lobkowicz, and was gradually put in charge of all musical events at the Lobkowicz residences as well as the house orchestra. In later life, he also served as manager of the Vienna Court Theater and the Theater an der Wien. Wranitzky was a fruitful composer and most of his music rests in manuscript in the Lobkowicz archives. That is also true for the present quartet, part of a set of six called "Concertante Quartets." Again as with Krommer, the "concertante" element holds true for all instruments, not only for the violin as was later the case with composers as Viotti or Paganini. The F major quartet is one of two which has four movements. The first movement is a classical sonata form with a relatively short development section; the slow movement has a tripartite scheme; the minuetto stands in third position and is followed by a finale in rondo form. The quartet (as are the others) is characterized by fresh invention and quick and witty themes. The flawless instrumentation also shows that a lot of care has been lavished on this quartet.
Recording listened to: Martinu Quartet on Matous (World Premiere Recording)

9. Luigi Boccherini, String Quartet in F major Op. 64/1 G.248 (1804)
With about 90 original string quartets (and about ten adaptations), Luigi Boccherini had an even higher string quartet production than Haydn, over the years 1761 to 1804 - although Boccherini really left his mark on another genre, that of the string quintet. Like Haydn, he didn't complete his last set, Op. 64, as he died when writing his 91st quartet (Op. 64 No 2) of which only the first movement was finished. Op. 64 No 1 is the last quartet Boccherini completed, and - like the last completed quartets by Haydn and Mozart, it happens to be in F Major. It is dedicated to Boccherini's patron Lucien Bonaparte (the younger brother of Napoleon), who at that time was French ambassador in Madrid. The quartet is in three movements, perhaps because of its French destination. In the first movement, just before the recapitulation, Boccherini briefly quotes the well-known fandango from his cello quintet from 1788 (which was also arranged for a quintet of guitar and strings in 1798). The rocking Adagio non tanto has a romantic character, and the finale is in a vivid, dance-like mode.
Recording listened to: Quartetto d'Archi di Venezia on Dynamic (with other quartets by Boccherini).

10. Luigi Cherubini, String Quartet No 1 in E flat Major (1814, pub. 1836)
Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842) was born in Florence and studied at the conservatories in Bologna and Milan. In 1788 he moved to Paris and from that time he spent his life in France. He served as director of the Paris Conservatory from 1822 until his death and was regarded as one of France's leading musicians. His most significant compositions are operas and sacred music, although he also wrote a symphony and six string quartets. Those quartets were mostly written near the end of his life, between 1829 and 1837, but the First Quartet dates already from 1814. It is a work of complete mastery. In the heroic key of E Flat major, it begins with a serious adagio introduction, after which it exhibits three thematic groups, a thorough grasp of sonata form and a real dramatic quality. The second theme seems to anticipate the idée fixe from Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique. The second movement draws on the variation form. With its striking dotting the theme of this movement refers back to the introduction to the first movement. It is followed by four variations. The impassioned third movement is characterized by "Spanish flair" (the trio is a stylized fandango). It is very different from the scherzo movements written by, for example, Beethoven. The fourth movement Finale again harks back to themes from the first movement, but now in a more carefree manner. Like some quartets by Mozart, this work by Cherubini has decided operatic overtones, but at the same time, it remains "classical" in the sense that it is not a "quatuor brilliant" (a virtuoso quartet with the emphasis on the first violin, almost like a small violin concerto), as written by contemporaries as Spohr, Viotti and Paganini.
Recording listened to: Hausmusik London on CPO (with Sixth Quartet; period instruments).

11. Ludwig van Beethoven, String Quartet No. 16 in F Major Op 135 (1826)
Beethoven wrote 16 string quartets (17, if we include the Grosse Fuge as a separate quartet) between 1799 and 1826, and his quartets are regarded as the "ultimate" in string quartet writing, as the highest benchmark. As all Beethoven's quartets (including the early ones) are masterworks, it is difficult to choose - as I have selected "last quartets" by Mozart and Haydn, I will do the same with Beethoven - and coincidentally, also Beethoven's last Quartet No 16 Op 135 is in F Major. It is one of the so-called "late quartets" (quartets 12 to 16, written in 1825 and 1826) which are so advanced that contemporaries called them "undecipherable horrors" (Spohr), but Beethoven wrote for posterity - and after his death these quartets would be considered as the greatest ever written. Among the five, the last quartet stands out for its conciseness and humor. The first movement is an Allegretto, and its playful nature is emphasized by abrupt melodic and harmonic shifts and frequent interruptions in mid-phrase.  The second movement is a Scherzo, in which this unpredictability is continued: the movement abounds in rhythmical asymmetry, sudden modulations and comical "gagging" of the melodies. The slow movement, Lento assai cantante e tranquillo, is a theme with four variations, serene music that only briefly slips into a dark mood in the second variation (in C sharp minor). The finale was called by Beethoven "The difficult decision" but this apparently doesn't concern a big life question: according to the composer himself, it is tongue-in-cheek about the return of a loan (or is it?). In this same vein, in the introduction the cello and viola seem to ask the ominous question "Muss es sein?" (Must it be?), which is next answered when the Allegro proper starts in F Major with "Es muss sein!" (It must be!). It is a high-spirited, but also whimsical movement.
Recording listened to: Alban Berg Quartet on EMI Digital (with Quartet Op 127).

12. Franz Schubert, String Quartet No 15 in G Major D887 (1826)
Franz Schubert wrote 15 quartets, but only the last three (in A Minor, 1824, in D Minor, also 1824, nicknamed "Death and the Maiden," and the present one) are mature masterpieces. Interestingly, Schubert wrote his last quartet, in G, in the same year that Beethoven wrote his last quartets, both working in the same city of Vienna. Schubert amplified the quartet in a different way from Beethoven: like in his great C Major symphony, he opts for a vastness of scope and lyricism that is almost Brucknerian. The present quartet has an orchestral breath and wide sweep, making it one of the most difficult to perform. It begins interestingly with a soft chord of G Major that then while it swells in volume turns into G Minor. The ensuing thematic material shows a dramatic interplay of light and shade, all the time permeated by this major / minor shift. In the elegiac Andante the main theme is given to the cello; it has been said to foreshadow the sadness of the wanderer in Winterreise. The music is punctuated by violent outbursts and march-like unison sections, before ending in resignation. With its repeated notes, the light-textured Scherzo brings some emotional relief, before the dramatic mood of the first movement returns in the ambiguous finale - the bustling surface can't hide the shadows and uncertainties which remain to the end. This is truly astonishing music.
Recording listened to: Alban Berg Quartet on EMI.

13. Johann Wenzel Kalliwoda, String Quartet No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 61 (pub. 1835)
Johann Wenzel Kalliwoda (1801-1866) was born in Prague where he studied the violin at the Conservatory. In 1822, he became Kapellmeister in Donaueschingen, in the Black Forest, where he was in charge of all the court's music, including the local choir. Kalliwoda was a prolific composer, of operas, symphonies, concert overtures, piano concertos, church music, etc. In recent years, his music, which is full of melodic appeal and rhythmic energy, has been rehabilitated and his symphonies and other works have been recorded. He has been called the "missing link" between Beethoven and Schumann. Kalliwoda wrote three string quartets, at the request of the music publisher Peters in Leipzig. In a period that the quartet brilliant was dominant (he wrote these works contemporaneous with quartets from Cherubini, Donizetti, Spohr and Mendelssohn), the publisher gave the express instruction that these quartets should be "non-concertant for the first violin, with the music neatly divided up among the instruments." The result is a set of light quartets that were suitable as house music. The first quartet starts with a classical sonata form Allegro moderato that begins with all instruments in unisono, playing a characteristic rising leap during a descending passage. The development section is opened by a Mazurka theme. The lyrical Adagio has been called reminiscent of the Andante cantabile in Mozart's Dissonance Quartet (K465). The stunning Scherzo is played almost entirely pizzicato, making this the first quartet to use this technique so extensively. The spirit of Czech folk music hovers over the trio, with its drone bass effects. The final Vivace is built around a lively dance-like melody, which appears in various guises.
Recording listened to: Talich Quartet on Harmonia Mundi (with Quartets No 2 and 3)

14. Gaetano Donizetti, String Quartet No 18 in E Minor (1836)
Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) was a leading Italian composer of the bel canto opera style during the first half of the nineteenth century. He wrote 75 operas, but he also wrote music in a number of other forms, including 16 symphonies, 18 string quartets, 193 songs, 3 oratorios, 28 cantatas, sonatas, some string quintets, piano trios, and an octet for winds and strings. And these non-opera compositions were no youthful sins: the present quartet, Donizetti's last one, was composed in 1836, when the composer was 39, and his style had completely matured. Like Donizetti's other quartets, the work in question is written in an operatic and dramatic style, but one which is not unsuited for the medium. The first movement is an exciting Allegro that Donizetti re-used as overture to his later opera Linda di Chamounix. A military beat repeated throughout is a sort of "force of destiny" sign. The religiously-sounding Adagio may have been influenced by the fact that the composer's parents had died only recently. This is followed by a lively Minuetto with  a trio section including a violin solo that resembles a bravura aria. The captivating Finale is an energetic polacca. The quartet may have been written with Donizetti's wife Virginia in mind, who was a fine violinist.
Recording listened to: The Revolutionary Drawing Room on CPO (with Quartets No 16 and 17; period instruments).

15. Robert Schumann, String Quartet Op. 41 No 2 in F Major (1842)
1842 was Schumann's "chamber music year," in which among other works he wrote his great Piano Quintet Op. 44.  This year the composer also executed his long-held plan to write a series of string quartets, after making a deep study of scores by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. This resulted in the three quartets Op. 41, in A Minor, F Major and A Major. The last one is by far the most popular (and indeed has a beautifully melancholy first movement); but as the second one suffers from being the Cinderella among the three, we will discuss that one here. The opening Allegro vivace is in watertight sonata form, but also fuses optimism with tenderness. The feathery music just floats along. Then comes an F Minor slow movement intriguingly worked as variations on an impalpable, shifting theme, with an appropriate hint of sadness. The dance-like C Minor Scherzo is quite effective and features a fresh-sounding Trio. The finale shows Schumann in an exuberant mood, with light and sunny music.
Recording listened to: Eroica Quartet on Harmonia Mundi (period instruments)

16. Felix Mendelssohn, String Quartet in F minor Op 80 (1847)
Mendelssohn published six string quartets, of which the last four are the best. I opt for the last one, his elegy for his composer-sister, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, a statement of deep grief, rare for such a fundamentally happy man as Mendelssohn seems to have been. But Mendelssohn had been very close to his sister and her sudden death gave him a blow from which he never fully recovered - he himself would be dead only a year later, at age 38. The first movement is a weird combination of Sturm-und-Drang and Schubertian lyricism. Passages of almost frightening dramatic intensity follow on sections of idyllic calm, demonstrating a disturbed state of mind. The following Allegro assai also is not a Midsummer Night's Dream-like scherzo, but rather an angry outburst unlike anything Mendelssohn wrote. Vicious and dark, it is inspired by a true sense of terror. The deeply felt Adagio, finally, brings some repose, in the form of melancholic acceptance, but is again far removed from the composer's Lieder ohne Worte (which usually inform his slow movements). The Finale continues with more stormy passions where the opening movement left off. The agony of raw and painful despair ends in a distraught coda, without any light, like angry fist-shaking. Mendelssohn  had always been a master of agitated music, but in this final quartet he reaches an abstract quality, almost removed from melodic inspiration. No wonder that one seldom hears this shocking work.
Recording listened to: The Coull String Quartet on Hyperion (with quartets in E Flat Major and E Minor).

17. Carl Czerny, String Quartet in A Minor (early 1850s)
Carl Czerny (1791-1857) was born in Vienna of Bohemian parents and at age ten became a pupil of Beethoven. At age fifteen, Czerny became a piano teacher and educator himself, and that is how he is still known today, thanks to the many solo exercises and textbooks he wrote for piano students. His most famous pupil was Franz Liszt. His pedagogic work was not unprofitable, either, and it is possible that Czerny didn't want to harm his "profile" by publishing other works of which he didn't know how his contemporaries would react to them. For as in recent time has been discovered, in his later years Czerny wrote various symphonies, string quartets and sacred works apparently "for the drawer" - another explanation is, of course, that he may have been preparing to publish them, but was prevented doing so by his death. However it may have been, we have between 20 and 40 string quartets by Czerny (the number is not yet certain, as research into Czerny's manuscripts is still continuing). Two quartets were performed in 2002 at the first Czerny Music Festival; the Sheridan Quartet has recorded those two plus two more. All four quartets are of solid high quality, showing a natural command of the genre. I have here selected the A Minor Quartet, which starts with a strangely foreboding first movement reminiscent of Mendelssohn. The second movement is a warmly romantic Adagio espressivo. The Scherzo features a charming Trio that is evocative of Schubert's Viennese idiom. As also the Finale shows, this masterful quartet can effortlessly coexist with the famous quartet literature of the era.
Recording listened to: Sheridan Ensemble on Capriccio (with String Quartets in A Minor, D Minor and E Minor).

18. Joseph Joachim Raff, String Quartet No 1 Op 77 in D Minor (1855)
Swiss-born Raff (1822-1882) was basically self-taught. He wanted to study with Mendelssohn, but after the sudden death of that composer, ended up working as amanuensis for Liszt - Raff orchestrated several of Liszt's symphonic poems. Just around the time the present quartet was written Raff went his own way. He took a neutral position in the German musical world which in his time was divided into the New German School of Liszt and Wagner, and the classicists around Brahms (going back to Mendelssohn and Schumann), which meant - as it goes in this world - that he was vilified by both. Unfortunately, he was not a virtuoso and neither did he have a secure teaching position, so he had to live from his pen as a composer, which meant he had to write lots of salon pieces - and for that, he was vilified by later generations, who unjustly branded all his music as trivial. Raff wrote eight string quartets. The First Quartet is usually considered as his best, written when he was only 33. It is a passionate and dramatic piece, as if forecasting the quartets of Brahms. The first movement is dark and brooding, with a strongly flowing melody. The Scherzo floats along joyfully and breathlessly. The slow movement again has a strongly brooding character, it is sometimes even compared to Wolf or the Schoenberg of Verklärte Nacht. It also has orchestral dimensions. The overall impression is one of desperate sadness and loneliness. The finale scurries along amid kaleidoscopic contrapuntal passages, although after the great third movement there is something forced about its exuberance and frenetic pace. But this quartet is a tour de force all the same.
Recording listened to: Quartetto di Milano on Tudor (with quartet No 7).
[Incorporates some information from the CD sleeve notes, Wikipedia, etc. Special mention should be made of the interesting study The String Quartet, A History by Paul Griffiths (Thames and Hudson: Bath, 1985). All images linked from Wikipedia. Some of the recommended CDs may not be available anymore (or the names of the labels may have changed)]
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October 29, 2015

Best String Trios

The string trio which like the string quartet grew out of the Baroque trio sonata by dropping the harpsichord, was one of the most popular media of the divertimento as entertainment music in the middle of the 18th c., initially often scored for two violins and cello, but later for violin, viola and cello. In his early period (until about 1765) Haydn wrote more than thirty works for string trio, with one exception all in the instrumentation with two violins. In Italy, Boccherini wrote his first string trios in 1761, for the same combination. He would later also write for the combination with viola, and his oeuvre includes about the same number of string trios as Haydn's. While in Haydn's trios the thematic writing is shared between the two violins and the bass just accompanies, Boccherini liberated the cello and gave it also soloistic capacities.

The early string trios were pure entertainment music, and popular among composers as Dittersdorf, Wagenseil, Albrechtsberger, Reichardt, Pichl and Pleyel, but Mozart wrote the first "serious" string trio in 1788 (although still called "divertimento"). In this work Mozart revealed the true potentiality of the form - of course in the combination with viola, as adding a middle voice gave more color to the trio. Not only does the work sound pure and complete, its textures are also full and wide-ranging (even without the second violin that would be added in a string quartet), and its character is full of nobility and grandeur.

The string trio is a difficult and exacting genre. After all, the backbone of the classical style is four-part harmony, which is why the string quartet became the chamber-music medium of choice. To create a similar balance and fullness of sound with only three instruments was a special challenge, which every composer had to meet in his own way. Because the string trio can sound a bit thin, also for listeners it can sometimes be an acquired taste. I think it is one of the most pure forms of chamber music.

The string trio was popular in the Classical period, from Haydn to the early Beethoven, who wrote five (early) works in this genre. It fell out of favor in the Romantic period - there are very few string trios in the 19th c., probably because the Romantic imagination needed larger forces. In contrast to other forms of chamber music, we have no string trios by Mendelssohn, Schumann, or Brahms. But the string trio made a strong comeback in the 20th c., among other reasons thanks to the neo-Classical trend of that period. The greatest string trios of all time are in the general opinion those by Mozart and Schoenberg (and I would add Schnittke).

Here is my list of best string trios (as usual in historical order):

1. Karl Dittersdorf, Divertimento for Violin, Viola and Cello in D (mid 1770s)
Vienna-born Karl Dittersdorf (1739-1799) spent the first half of his life as a touring violin virtuoso, and the second half as composer and music director at various aristocratic courts. He is one of the main representatives of the Vienna Classical era, and knew Haydn and Mozart personally; hearing their compositions greatly changed his own, initially Italianate style. His string trio, called "divertimento" as was then often the case, is in three movements and demonstrates effortless mastery of the form. The violin part is of impressive virtuosity. The Allegro is characterized by uncomplicated sprightliness. The Minuet trio stylizes the popular Ländler as a courtly dance. The Rondo features some unusual syncopations that lead to sparkling virtuosity. A trio full of lighthearted excitement and a good example of the numerous trios written in the 18th c. as entertainment music.
Recording listened to: Wiener Streichtrio on Calig (with trios by Possinger, Pleyel and Hummel).

[Evening gathering with the Spanish Infante and his wife,
the sort of occasion for which Boccherini wrote the present trio;
painting by Goya]

2. Luigi Boccherini, Trio Op 34 No 2 in G Major (G102) for 2 violins and cello (1781)
Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) was born in Lucca, in Tuscany. He studied in Rome and afterwards gave concerts as virtuoso cellist in northern Italy, Vienna (3 long visits - he was temporary cellist in the court orchestra) and Paris, before settling down in Spain from 1768 on. His first compositions - strings trios and string quartets - were published in 1861. In Paris, he made lasting contacts with music publishers and from then on, his music would normally be published in Paris. In 1868 Boccherini gave up a plan to go to London, and instead at the invitation of the Spanish Ambassador in France, traveled to Madrid with his colleague Sammartini. Boccherini would stay in this city until his death in 1805. In Madrid, it still took almost ten years of freelancing before Boccherini received royal patronage (in 1778) and was employed by the Infante Luis Antonio, the younger brother of King Charles III. After the death of the Infante in 1785, Boccherini received the sponsorship of the Prussian King Frederick William II (an avid cellist), who gave him an annual salary in compensation for which he had to periodically compose chamber music for the king. This agreement lasted until the death of the king in 1797. Boccherini was one of the greatest innovators and experimenters in 18th c. music. He wrote about 30 string trios, both for the traditional combination of two violins and cello, and the more modern one of violin, viola and cello. One of his last trios (later in life, Boccherini would concentrate on the string quintet) is Op. 34/2, written in 1781, a period in which Boccherini had had to leave Madrid and accompany the Infante, who had lost royal favor due to his marriage to a commoner, into a sort of genteel internal exile in Arenas de San Pedro (140 kilometers west of Madrid). The trio, with two violins, was written for the familial evening gatherings of the Infante in Las Arenas. It opens with an Allegretto comodo assai of enchanting peacefulness, like true night music. This is followed by a Minuet in which the cello plays a special role (of course played by Boccherini himself). Next comes a dreamy Adagio and finally a virtuoso Rondo abounding in references to rhythms of Spain. This refined trio has a wonderful grandeur that far exceeds the means at hand of only three instruments.
Recording listened to: La Real Camara on Glossa Music (with other trios by Boccherini).

3. Mozart, Divertimento for String Trio in E Flat K.563 (1788)
Mozart's E flat Divertimento K.563 is arguably the greatest work ever composed for string trio. At the peak of his powers (that summer Mozart also wrote his three final symphonies), but beset by money problems, Mozart composed it for his friend, fellow-mason and creditor Johann Michael Puchberg. While labelled "Divertimento," this masterful six-movement work (with two slow movements and two minuets between the fast outer movements) is one of Mozart's greatest works and far from "just" entertainment. The first movement opens in an understated way, with the three instruments playing a simple descending triad in unison, sotto voce. Written in sonata form, this is a most sonorous and masterful example of chamber music. The beautiful and lyrical Adagio is in contrast based on an ascending triad, unfolding across a wide melodic range. The rest of the trio is somewhat lighter in tone. The third movement, a lively Minuet is in the style of a Ländler, an Austrian peasant dance. Next follows a song-like Andante, a set of variations on a simple, folk-like theme. As the variations progress, Mozart removes himself further and further from the original theme. The fifth movement is another Minuet, simpler in tone than the first one, but this time paired with two trios. The last movement is a Rondo, marked Allegro; its ingratiating theme is closely related to Mozart's song “Komm, lieber Mai” as well as to the last movement of the Piano Concerto K.595 (Mozart's last piano concerto). The trio ends with hornlike fanfares. The trio was probably first performed in the house of Puchberg, with Mozart himself playing the viola.
Recording listened to: Gidon Kremer, violin, Kim Kashkashian, viola and Yo-yo Ma, cello, on CBS Masterworks (now Sony Classical).

4. Paul Wranitzky, String Trio in G Op 3 No 3 (1794-95)
Moravia-born Paul Wranitzky (1756-1808; also spelled Vranicky) was an exact contemporary of Mozart. He studied with Haydn and was a leading figure in the musical life of Vienna. Himself a violinist, he composed theater music, symphonies (45 in all) and a large body of chamber music, such as 40 string quartets, 18 string quintets and 30 string trios. His music was well-regarded in his day. He wrote in the period style on which Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven based their individuality. The Trio Op 3 No 3 is in four movements. An unexpected element in this trio is that the opening theme of the first movement is given to the viola instead of the violin; the poignant Adagio almost sounds like a movement from a cello concerto and also contains opera-like melodies. This is very fresh msuic which I include because Wranitzky deserves to be better known. For his brother Anton Wranitzky, also a composer, see my post on Best String Quintets.
Recording listened to: Ensemble Cordia on Brilliant Classics (with String Trios Op 17 No 2 and Op 3 No 1; first recordings).

5. Ludwig van Beethoven, Serenade (String Trio) in D Major Op. 8 (1796-97)
Beethoven wrote 5 string trios between 1792 and 1798, all before he was 28 years of age. The first one, Op. 3, was qua form consciously modeled on the Mozart Divertimento discussed above, as if Beethoven was studying Mozart's composition. The last three form a set under Op. 9 and are difficult to play, serious works, that display a high concentration of stylistic features typical for Beethoven at this stage of his development. The delightful Serenade Op. 8, however, is my favorite, a bright and confident work. There are no less than seven movements and Beethoven himself must have thought highly of it, for he not only had it published soon after its completion, he also authorized an arrangement for violin and piano by his friend the composer and publisher Hoffmeister. The work belongs in spirit to the great 18th c. serenade tradition and begins (and ends) as works of that genre often did, with a march. The second movement is a deeply restful Adagio; the first Minuet has nice pizzicati effects. The fourth movement is more substantial, an Adagio of somber brooding, starting with a duet between violin and viola, which is twice interrupted by a Scherzo (one of Beethoven's innovations, already in his Piano Trios Op. 1). Also the fifth movement is characteristic, a spirited and lively Allegretto alla Polacca, one of the few real polonaises to be written before the time of Chopin. The next Andante quasi allegretto features a theme and six variations, a movement in which all instruments, including the viola (the string instrument of choice for Beethoven, just like Mozart and Haydn), show off their possibilities. The Marcia then returns to conclude the serenade.
Recording listened to: L'Archibudelli (Vera Beths, Jurgen Kussmaul and Anner Bylsma) on Sony Classical (with String Trio Op. 3).

6. Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Grand Trio in E Flat Major No. 3 (1799)
Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) was born in Pressburg (Bratislava) and received his musical training in the first place from Mozart, but also from Albrechtsberger, Dussek and Haydn. He was the last representative of the Viennese Classical School, and the link to the new Romantic period. Hummel's string trio is in the "heroic" key of E Flat Major and is in four movements. The first movement Allegro con brio seems to pay tribute to Haydn. It starts with a formal short introduction, a sort of call to attention. The Adagio cantabile possesses a classical clarity. At a certain moment, the two high voices play strikingly over the cello pizzicato. The third movement, although marked as Menuetto, is in fact a scherzo. A sprightly Allegro vivace in rondo-form concludes this lively work.
Recording listened to: Wiener Streichtrio on Calig (with trios by Possinger, Pleyel and Dittersdorf).

7. Franz Schubert, String Trio in B Flat Major D581 (1817)
Schubert wrote only one string trio (besides leaving an unfinished one). There has been much speculation why he would opt for a genre that by that time had fallen out of favor as it belonged more to the Classical, than to the Romantic age. But in Schubert's circle of friends and performers, the baryton trios by Haydn were for a time popular, and these could well have formed the inspiration. The string trio was written in 1817, before Schubert's true maturity, but it already contains elements of Schubert as we know him, especially in the harmonics of the first movement. The slow second movement has a siciliano-like main theme and a mysterious minor-mode episode at its center. In the trio of the Minuet, the viola is allowed to take center stage. The Rondo finale with a typical "trotting" main theme is good fun, with playful dramatic fortes, bravura triplets and mysterious pianissimo sixteenth notes. Despite its being a rarity in Schubert's oeuvre, this string trio has an undeniable charm all of its own.
Recording listened to: L'Archibudelli (Vera Beths, Jurgen Kussmaul and Anner Bylsma) on Sony Classical (with String Quartet D87 etc.).

8. Heinrich von Herzogenberg, String Trio Op 27/2 in F Major (1879)
The Austrian composer Heinrich von Herzogenberg (1843-1900) was a great admirer of Brahms, as is also clear from his many chamber works, which are usually first rate. Herzogenberg wrote two string trios, one after another, in 1879. They are both powerful works and it is all the more surprising that "Brahmsian" Herzogenberg opted for this "lean" genre: almost no major composer since Beethoven had composed string trios, also not chamber specialist Brahms himself. So it is not surprising that Herzogenberg looked to Beethoven as his model. The first movement begins unhurriedly, with the cello introducing the theme pizzicato; when the viola and then violin enter, it becomes clear this is a fugue. The romantic second theme is darkly chromatic. The Andantino is a "lied" which has a barcarole accompaniment. The Minuet is based on a deliberately old-fashioned, 18th c. melody; the trio is particularly lovely. In the Finale the music bustles along with proper animation. The second theme sounds a bit oriental. Brahms was especially pleased with Herzogenberg's twin trios and considered them as a high point in his oeuvre. They would call renewed attention to a genre that had been neglected in the 19th c., although true interest in the string trio among composers would still have to wait a few decades.
Recording listened to: Belcanto Strings on CPO (with Piano Quartet etc.)

9. Antonin Dvorak, Terzetto in C Major for 2 violins and viola, op. 74 (1887)
Dvorak wrote his Terzetto for the rare combination of two violins and viola, designing it for a chemistry student-violinist who lodged in the same house in Prague, as well as the violin teacher of that student, with the idea that he himself then could play along on the viola and make up a trio. So it was linked to a special occasion, the accidental availability of players of these three string instruments. In the event, the terzetto proved too difficult for the student and Dvorak then wrote another work for the same combination which was more aimed at amateurs. The Terzetto opens in a characteristically lyrical Bohemian mood, which is contrasted with a darker second theme. The Larghetto breathes a spirit of rural serenity, although the middle section with its leaping dotted rhythms, is more stormy. The Scherzo is a furiant, a Slavic dance, at first accompanied by the plucked strings of the viola. The final movement is a theme and variations, the theme rather funereal in character, and the variations suitably dramatic. The very effective trio (that almost makes one forget the absence of the cello) ends on a final C Minor.
Recording listened to: Vlach Quartet Prague on Naxos (with String Quartet Op 34).

10. Carl Reinecke, String trio in C Minor Op 249 (1898)
Carl Reinecke (1824-1910) was in his lifetime considered as one of Germany's foremost composers, besides being an important teacher at the Leipzig Conservatory. How unjustly it is that his music now has been forgotten (why are we only able to focus on such a tiny number of composers?), is demonstrated by the present string trio, a great late-Romantic work, written in an original and very contrapuntal style. It large scale is immediately clear from the dark and brooding Allegro moderato with which it starts. Reinecke often makes the three instruments sound like four. The Andante is a theme and variations based on a naive, quiet melody. This is followed by a brief Intermezzo, in fact a heavily syncopated scherzo. The big finale starts with a slow introduction, which has a certain valedictory quality. The ensuing Allegro un poco maestoso is brighter and constitutes a skillful blending of sonata and rondo forms. The movement is again densely scored, leading to a magnificent sound which belies the fact that we are only listening to three instruments. The trio concludes with a virtuoso fortissimo stretta. Reinecke has masterly followed in the footsteps of Herzogenberg.
Recording listened to: Belcanto Strings on MDG (with String Tro by Fuchs)

11. Ernö Dohnányi, Serenade in C Major for String Trio, Op 10 (1902)
Ernst von Dohnanyi (1877-1960; Ernö Dohnányi in Hungarian) was, with  Bartók and Kodály, Hungary's most versatile musician. He studied piano and composition in his native Pressburg (Bratislava) before entering the Budapest Academy. Dohnanyi was active as concert pianist, composer, conductor and teacher. He also wrote excellent chamber music - his First Piano Quintet was championed by Brahms. In his String Trio, he consciously took Beethoven's Op 8 Serenade for string trio as his model, as if he wanted to produce an updated version of the classical serenade for string trio. Dohnanyi's Serenade has five movements, and starts, like the one by Beethoven, with a short march. Dohnanyi introduces some Hungarian flavor in the counter melody. The second movement is a Romanza, based on a calm main theme with an evocative Hungarian character in the viola. Next comes a vigorous Scherzo, based on a playful, fugal main theme, with irregular rhythms. Dohnanyi skips both minuets that Beethoven inserted, also the second one with its polonaise character. Like Beethoven, he keeps the Andante with its Theme and Variations, in fact the most serious movement of his Serenade. The theme is elegiac and chorale-like in nature and in the variations Dohnanyi shows great craftsmanship. He again differs from Beethoven in the final movement. Instead of the return of the opening march, he uses a Rondo, but, as in the other movements, the theme is related to that of the initial march.
Recording listened to: The Schubert Ensemble of London on Hyperion (with the two piano quintets).

12. Max Reger, String Trio in A Minor Op 77b (1904)
Max Reger (1873-1916) was destined to become a school teacher like his father, but thanks to his interest in music and studies with the eminent musicologist Hugo Riemann, he became professor at the Leipzig Conservatory and one of the foremost conductors and organists of his time. In what was only a short life, he was able to compose a large oeuvre in which chamber music occupied an important part. After positioning himself early in the 20th c. as an extremely progressive composer, in 1904 he was ready for an aesthetic change. He turned back to the fluent and musicianly music of Mozart as an antidote to the technically overloaded compositions of his own time. That is for example clearly noticeable in the lyrical second theme of the opening movement of the 1904 String Trio. After the tense main theme, which literally explodes after a brief introduction and pushes tonality to its limits, this sunny second theme seems like a retreat into the safe haven of classical melody. The Larghetto has a deeply introspective quality, the Scherzo the quality of a German dance. In the Finale, Reger uses a theme from Mozart's opera Abduction from the Seraglio and dresses it in modern clothes. He ends with a jovial march, in true 18th c. serenade fashion. A trio full of surprises of meter, curious harmonies and interesting part writing, all under a neo-classical mask. In 1915 Reger wrote a second string trio (Op 141b) in his more spare late style.
Recording listened to: Mannheimer Streichquartett on MDG (with String Quartets Op 54)

13. Leó Weiner, String Trio in G Minor Op 6 (1908)
A native of Budapest, Leó Weiner (1885-1960) was one of the leading Hungarian music educators of the first half of the 20th c., and a composer in his own right. He was the teacher of such notable conductors as Fritz Reiner and Georg Solti, as well as the cellist János Starker. As a composer his idiom was conservatively romantic, in contrast to his contemporaries Bartók and Kodály. And although he added some Hungarian shadings to his harmonic language, folk music itself was not important to him. Weiner wrote much chamber music and the String Trio is one of his best works, with romantic and buoyant themes. The trio starts with an attractive Allegro con brio, in which the key is veiled by highly inventive harmonization. The second movement is a rhythmically interesting Scherzo with a strongly contrasting trio featuring some exotic harmonies. The third movement, Andantino, is a theme with three variations and a coda, based on a barcarole-like, rocking melody. The extremely fast and busily sounding sonata-form finale, Allegro con fuoco, is full of gaiety.
Recording listened to: Deutsches Streichtrio on Saphir (with string trios by Kodaly and Dohnanyi).

14. Robert Fuchs, String Trio in A Major Op 94 (1910)
The Austrian composer Robert Fuchs (1847-1927) was one of the most revered teachers of the Vienna Conservatory, molding the minds of such highlights as Mahler, Sibelius and Zemlinsky, but who was also too modest to promote his own compositions (his most popular work was his Orchestral Serenade Op 9). Later in life, he turned exclusively to chamber music. The string trio was composed for a renowned "ladies quartet" of Vienna. Its main feature is its clear architectonic design. The opening Allegro has a fresh and attractive theme. The Andante espressivo consists of five variations on a Scottish folk-song "O cruel was my father" (also included by Beethoven in his 25 Scottish Songs Op 108). They form nice character pieces. The richly chromatic Minuetto has a trio with a folk-like theme. The finale starts with a slow introduction, after which follows a light and charming fugue concluding with a thrilling Allegro vivace.
Recording listened to: Belcanto Strings on MDG (with String Tro by Reinecke)

15. Julius Röntgen, String Trio No 13 in A Major (1925)
For many decades one of the leading figures in Dutch musical life, Julius Röntgen came from a distinguished musical family and counted Brahms, Grieg and Nielsen among his friends. Between 1915 and 1930, Julius Röntgen wrote 16 string trios, of which only the first appeared in print during the composer's lifetime. This was the fate of much of the music, especially the chamber music, Röntgen wrote: it was composed for domestic use with his sons and musician friends (Röntgen himself taking the viola part) and therefore languished in manuscripts, forgotten by the world. In recent decades this has changed and much of Röntgen's music is now being performed, or at least available in recorded form. The 13th string trio was written in the Villa Gaudeamus in Bilthoven, to which Röntgen had retired from his post as Director of the Amsterdam Conservatory in order to devote himself to composition. The building, which is outwardly modeled on the shape of a grand piano, was built by Röntgen's architect son Frants and today houses the Gaudeamus Foundation. The Thirteenth String Trio is an amiable work. After the serene, dance-like first movement (Con moto) follows a mellifluous Andantino, in which violin and viola soar above the cello rumbling on below. The third movement sounds like a quirky folk dance and the final Allegro opens with a sostenuto like a funeral march, which is followed by a long cello melody. The anguished development leads to a symphonic climax. A work showing great mastery and musical profundity.
Recording listened to: Offenburger String Trio on Naxos (with String Trios 14, 15 and 16; first recordings).

16. Jean Cras, String Trio (1926)
Jean Cras (1879-1932) was a seafaring officer in the French navy with the final rank of Rear-Admiral, who composed his music mostly on long journeys aboard ship, receiving his inspiration from impressions by the sea and foreign countries. He was born in the naval city of Brest where he received an excellent musical education; later Henri Duparc became his teacher of composition. The String Trio by Jean Cras has been highly praised for its perfectly balanced sound and abundance of expression. The opening movement (without tempo marking), begins with a theme characterized by the swinging oscillation between two neighboring notes, played over the pulsating notes of the cello. The gentle second subject is interrupted by a call from the viola. The unique second movement consists of a serious of unrelated episodes, ranging from the meditative to a peasant dance and a wailing violin solo recalling the exotic sounds of the Levant. The quick third movement, Animé, presents a panorama of exotic travel impressions, played by the higher voices above the guitar-like strumming of the lower strings. In the end, the tempo reaches a feverish pitch. The final movement begins with a wild fugato, a Bach-like etude which morphs into a Gaelic dance feast from Cras' native Brittany. This is a highly original trio with a sound world all its own.
Recording listened to: Offenburger String Trio on Antes Edition (with string trios by Roussel and Francaix).

17. E.J. Moeran, String Trio in G Major (1931)
Ernest John Moeran (1894-1950) was an English composer who studied under Charles Villiers Stanford and later John Ireland at the Royal College of Music. He was also active collecting and arranging folk music of Norfolk and Suffolk, and the influence of the landscapes of these areas is evident in his music. Moeran came late in the canon of British composers influenced by folk-song and by his time such a style was already seen as conservative. He therefore never made a real breakthrough as a composer, although he wrote large-scale works as a Symphony, Violin Concerto, Cello Concerto and Sinfonietta, and was also active in chamber music. In recent years, his music has been rediscovered by connoisseurs. Moeran's String Trio dates from 1931 and was - like the below trio by Françaix - dedicated to the well-known Pasquier Trio. The opening Allegretto is in the unusual time of 7/8 which creates a rather unique effect. The striking Adagio is full of emotion and shows great dynamic range. A ferocious Moto vivace takes the place of a scherzo. The finale begins with a charming Andante grazioso which leads into a muscular Presto.
Recording listened to: Maggini String Quartet on Naxos (with string quartets).

18. Jean Françaix, String Trio (1933)
Jean Françaix (1912-1997) was a French neo-classical composer, known for his prolific output and vibrant style, marked by lightness, wit and conciseness. Françaix studied composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. He was also influenced by Ravel and at an early time achieved his mature voice. Françaix wrote the String Trio in 1933, when he was only 21. The first movement is a light and brilliant perpetuum mobile. The scherzo is full of witticism, but with a touch of the ironic and grotesque. The Andante exudes a unique atmosphere of unsentimental sadness - Françaix's emotions are always reserved. The rondo finale is a wild whirl, which after a climax, unexpectedly disappears into silence. The accessible, witty character of Françaix's music has caused some to dismiss it as frivolous; I would rather say that his attractive style often led listeners and critics to ignore the depth and originality present in his music.
Recording listened to: Offenburger String Trio on Antes Edition (with string trios by Roussel and Cras).

19. László Lajtha, String Trio No 3 Op 41 "Soirs transylvains" (1945)
With 9 symphonies and 10 string quartets, László Lajtha (1892-1963) is regarded as one of Hungary's foremost symphonists. He was also active as ethno-musicologist (he joined Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály in their study of Hungarian folk song) and conductor. He studied in Budapest, Leipzig and in Paris with Vincent d'Indy, before himself becoming a teacher at the Budapest National Conservatory. Lajtha would always have a strong connection to France. While Lajtha's First String Trio was a Serenade in the style of Dohnányi (and Beethoven), his Third Trio is a massive work. Each of the four movements is connected with one of the seasons, as evocations of "nights in Transylvania" (supposedly during Lajtha's folk song gathering expeditions). In this way we have "Spring night or early moon and mountain meadow anemones," "Summer night or the melancholy of the endless," "Autumn night or shadows and barren trees" and "Winter night or sleigh-ride in fog." A feature common with a serenade is that all movements evoke a night mood. The first three movements are relatively slow and meditative, only the fourth one has a lively dance pulsation. Of course, Lajtha uses various folk song melodies in the work that with its often very high and airy, even brittle tones, has a definitely exotic character, It was premiered in 1954 in Vienna.
Recording listened to: Members of the Lajtha Quartet on Hungaroton (with String Trio Op 41).

20. Arnold Schoenberg, String Trio Op 45 (1946)
The Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was associated with the Expressionist movement in German culture, and leader of the "Second Viennese School." Because of the rise of the Nazi Party, which forbade his works since he was Jewish, Schoenberg moved to the United States in 1934. In the 1920s, he developed the twelve-tone technique, a compositional method of manipulating an ordered series of all twelve notes in the chromatic scale. Schoenberg was also an influential teacher and his students included Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Hanns Eisler, Egon Wellesz, and later John Cage and Lou Harrison. Because of his revolutionary ideas, Schoenberg can be called one of the most influential of 20th-century musical theorists and composers. Schoenberg's name would come to stand for "avant-garde music" and  "atonality," the most important feature of 20th-century art music. The twelve-tone String Trio was written in 1946 after Schoenberg suffered a nearly fatal heart attack. It unfolds as a single movement in three sections; the first of these functions as exposition, the second as development, and the last as a shortened recapitulation and coda. The harmonic and melodic material are derived from a single primary row and its permutations. Color and timbre are of the utmost importance - Schoenberg draws upon an extensive palette of playing techniques, including plucking the strings (pizzicato), striking them with the bow, playing close to the bridge of the instrument, using the wooden part of the bow, playing on more than one string simultaneously, sliding a finger along a string to change the pitch smoothly, lightly touching the strings to make them play very glassy pitches, etc. There are also extreme shifts of loudness and other contrasts. The trio lasts about twenty minutes before it fades away with a few beautiful tone rows.
Recording listened to: Corda Quartett on Stradivarius (with String Quartet in D etc).

21. William Alwyn, String Trio (1959)
William Alwyn (1905-1985) was an English composer and music teacher. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he later became professor of composition himself. Alwyn had a large compositional output including five symphonies, four operas, several concertos, 70 film scores and chamber music. He relished dissonance, and devised his own alternative to twelve-tone serialism. The String Trio was written in 1959, a period Alwyn experimented with short scale groups. The work is in four, relatively short movements. The first movement begins with a short and energetic passage, which is followed by a tranquil theme using the whole twelve notes. It is then developed in canon by all three instruments. The second movement is a Scherzo based on a five-note group derived from the twelve notes used in the first movement (and which returns in the trio of the Scherzo). The third movement is a song-like Cavatina in a quiet and reflective mood. The last movement plunges into a rhythmic finale; in the coda, an augmented version of the twelve-note theme brings the work to a tranquil close.
Recording listened to: Hermitage String Trio on Naxos (with other chamber works by Alwyn).

22. Alfred Schnittke, String Trio (1985)
Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) was a Soviet and Russian composer whose early music shows the influence of Dmitri Shostakovich. He later developed a polystylistic technique and often quotes other music in a decidedly post-modern and extroverted way. His last works have a more withdrawn, bleak mood. Schnittke wrote 10 symphonies, many concertante works (such as a beautiful viola concerto), but was also strong in chamber music. His String Trio solves the difficulty of the genre of having only three voices by exploiting the potential of every stringed instrument to suggest more than one voice. We seem to hear not just three but often six or seven voices at once, constantly being passed from one instrument to another. The work is in two long movements, Moderato and Adagio, which are related in subtle and unexpected ways. Music from the first movement reappears in the second, but in a transformed and developed form and from a different perspective (to make the "old" seem "new" has been called a fundamental principle in Schnittke's music). The String Trio was written in 1985 as a tribute to Alban Berg (for his 100th birthday), a composer whose music has played an important part in the development of Schnittke's own musical language. The String Trio was arranged for string orchestra by Yuri Bashmet under the new title "Trio Sonata."
Recording listened to: 1999 AFCM Ensemble on Naxos (with Piano Quintet). The version for string orchestra by Yuri Bashmet is available on RCA Victor played by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich (with Viola Concerto).
[Incorporates some information from the CD sleeve notes, Wikipedia, etc. All images linked from Wikipedia. Some of the recommended CDs may not be available anymore (or the names of the labels may have changed)]
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