The Quartet That Changed It All

I’d have given one big chaw of tobacco to have been present when Beethoven’s Rasumovsky Quartets got their first hearing.

I’d have given one big chaw of tobacco to have been present when Beethoven’s Rasumovsky Quartets got their first hearing. A contemporary reviewer described them thusly: “The composition is profound [and] the construction excellent, but they are not easily comprehended.” Compared to the puzzled reactions many of Beethoven’s works elicited when first performed, this was a pretty fair take. The reviewer knew he was in the presence of something new and important, but a little beyond his fathoming. It would not be an inappropriate response even today, some two centuries later.

I don’t know whether the Rasumovskys were originally performed in order, with the Opus 59, No. 1 going first, but, even having listened to it all my life, it is still a work that—you’ll excuse the colloquialism, but it’s the only description that truly fits—blows my mind. Beethoven had published his first six quartets, which with the First Symphony were the culminating works of his twenties, in 1801. They would have been challenging to contemporary listeners, but they could at least have been seen as extending the work of Haydn and Mozart. The Rasumovskys were all composed in 1806, a year that also saw the composition of the Fourth Symphony and the Violin Concerto, and the completion of the Fourth Piano Concerto and, probably, the Appassionata Sonata. All of these compositions, with the exception of the Symphony, so far extended all previous works in their respective forms that they might well be considered an explosion in the art of music, and the year that brought them forth the most revolutionary in musical history.

Each of the Op. 59, No. 1’s four movements, the concluding and climactic work presented in the Jerusalem Quartet’s excellent recital at the Perelman Theater, represents a rethinking of the possibilities of the sonata form. The first movement, for example, plays with tonal ambiguity before settling on its home key of F major, features a fugato in its development, and withholds its recapitulation to build emotional tension—a device Beethoven would employ in subsequent works. What is completely unprecedented, however, is the depth of the material and the facets its development reveals—as that early reviewer put it, “the composition is profound,” and the profundity is like none ever realized in music before. This is in no way to scant the genius of Haydn and Mozart, two giants whose work, each on its own terms, represented a perfected achievement. With the first Rasumovsky, though, an element of personality was introduced into the quartet form—and into music generally—that could not have been extrapolated from any predecessor, or envisioned except by the man who expressed it. This is particularly true of the Adagio, which achieves an inwardness that not only anticipates Beethoven’s late quartets but is fully of a piece with them.

In the accepted practice of the genre, a slow movement of weight and solemnity would have been followed by a full pause, and a lively if not jovial finale that would have provided contrast, and, with it, balance and harmony for the composition as a whole. Beethoven does not pause, however, but moves via a bridge passage directly into his concluding Allegro, which keeps the music on the highest plane even as it introduces new material and brisker tempos. It’s an astonishing gambit that introduces a wholly new purpose and unity into the genre. The Jerusalem Quartet’s approach is not showy; it favors understatement if anything, with a particularly delicate way of finishing off cadences. At the same time, it shows no lack of power and authority. First violinist Alexander Pavlovsky’s tone is not as rich as that of some, but it is fluid, agile, and eloquent. Cellist Kyril Zlotnikov is simply a remarkable musician who draws a subtlety of expression out of every stroke of his bow; I found myself straining not to miss a note.

The program began with Haydn’s lovely Lark Quartet, the favorite of his Op. 64 series, with Pavlovsky’s fine cantilena leading the way. Haydn conceived the quartet form as conversation, just as Beethoven would turn it into soliloquy. One needn’t choose between these conceptions, even if Beethoven’s is the more ultimately challenging one. It is wonderful to have them both, and to enjoy both on the same program.

The middle work of the recital was Prokofiev’s Quartet in B Minor. Prokofiev was nearly forty before he essayed the form of the quartet, having already proved himself as a master of the orchestral and dramatic genres—symphony, concerto, opera, and ballet. He would write only one more quartet, in the straitened circumstances of World War II when orchestral performances were hard to bring off for lack of resources. The First Quartet shows Prokofiev in full command of the medium, and of the literature. It has, or had, the reputation of a knotty work, but at this vantage its classical elements are to the fore. By the time Prokofiev wrote it, Bartok had already produced his own recasting of the form in his Third and Fourth Quartets, but Prokofiev is, despite his wide chromatic range, fully satisfied with sonata form—a form that gave him, as he once remarked, everything he needed for his expressive purposes. Prokofiev’s vigor and robustness does sometimes put one in mind of Beethoven, just as his melodic fecundity does of someone not normally associated with him, Schubert. Prokofiev is indeed a master melodist, with few if any peers in twentieth century music, and his lyricism is on full display in the First Quartet. The work’s three movements, which conclude with an Andante, are as well balanced as anything by Haydn, even if they reach into corners the Viennese master would no doubt have found startling. Here, too, the Jerusalem’s performance was searching if not overemphatic. It’s a fine group indeed.

About Robert Zaller 56 Articles
Dr. Robert Zaller is an American author, playwright, and professor of history at Drexel University. An authority on British political history and constitutional thought, he writes extensively on politics, modern literature, film, music and art. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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