String Quartet in C Major, K. 465, “Dissonance” Mozart
The C major quartet earns its nickname from the opening Adagio introduction to the first movement. The cello repeats a low C, a natural choice for a piece ostensibly in C major, but then the viola enters with an A-flat, the second violin with an E-flat, and then the first violin with an A-natural. Such notes do not belong in a C major chord, and as they change by half steps in the opening bars, there are near-misses with some decidedly un-classical clashes between the voices. The introduction comes to an unsettled, gloomy close, giving no hint that one of Mozart’s sunniest and most optimistic quartet movement is about to follow. In sonata form, the Allegro portion of the first movement is perfection in music. Not a single note is out of place, and Mozart’s compositional economy is sublime in its natural sense of ease and elegance. The following Andante is a sonatina movement, in that it is lacking the development section that would make it in sonata form. Perfect balance between the four voices, elegantly spun melodies and precisely balanced phrases make up one of Mozart’s most perfect “happy” slow movements. The third movement clearly shows Haydn’s influence, with its more peasant, rustic style. It also hints at Haydn’s sly sense of musical humor with its slithering chromatic beginning to the opening theme.
The finale, a crackling Allegro molto, takes (as is common with many Mozart finales) a stultifyingly simple (even simplistic) theme and turns it into a joyful, energetic, and witty dance. The energy simply builds and builds until one of Mozart’s most joyful quartets comes to its ecstatic conclusion.
String Quartet No. 1 Schulhoff
Schulhoff composed his 1924 String Quartet No. 1 when he was 30. Relatively brief at about seventeen minutes, it is a colorful, unique work that strongly reflects his Czech heritage as well as some of the experimental styles and trends of the period between the two world wars. The opening Presto con fuoco is an amalgam of lively Czech dance and the motoric, muscular rhythms so prevalent in music of that time. The husky drive is especially reinforced by predominantly unison textures. The second movement is as curious as its title suggests: Allegretto con moto e con maliconia grotesca. Somewhat whimsical if not ironic, a mock sentimentality features the lower voices – viola and cello – along with some wonderfully colorful sonorities through special effects including pizzicato, glissando and ponticello. The third Allegro giocoso might well be considered the highlight of the quartet. Marked “alla Slovacca”, it merges the rhythmic drive of the first movement with a full battery of sonic effects for a truly exotic musical experience with folk dance at its surprise: mood, tempo and even style seem to radically change to a different side of Schulhoff’s musical imagination. Slow, ponderous, and full of unresolved tension, the movement reflects his familiarity with the second Viennese school of Schoenberg and Webern. Late romantic and expressionistic elements create an eerie atmosphere in which the first violin implores with an emphatic recitative that dissolves into suspenseful ticking and then a cryptic hush.
String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131 Beethoven
In line with long evolving experiments in his works, Beethoven cast Opus 131 in seven sections played without pause. However. these seven sections are basically the four conventional movements with a fugal introduction and two connecting interludes. Despite a minor mode, shifting chromaticism, and contrapuntal intensity the Adagio opening is more contemplative than sorrowing, and it ends with an ascending C-sharp octave leap, which is bumped up a half-step to launch the ensuing fleeting Allegro molto vivace. This sunny and rhythmically lively section has the tempo and extroverted character of a typical first movement, but none of the tension or drama. The third section is a brief ensemble recitative that sets up the slow movement, a ravishingly expressive set of variations – in different meters and tempos – on the sequentially yearning theme presented by the violins in tandem. The whirlwind Presto that follows (jump started in a seeming “mistake” by the cello) is in effect the work’s scherzo, a superficially blithe movement that is constantly on the edge of technical disaster, via odd “molto poco adagio” disjunctions and a coda that begins with a glassy sul ponticello whistling. The brooding Adagio sixth section introduces the furious finale, the only full sonata form in the Quartet. The second theme is derived from the subject of the opening fugue, the latent anger and energy of which now explodes. Wagner wrote: “This is the fury of the world’s dance – fierce pleasure, agony, ecstasy of love, joy, anger, passion, and suffering; lightning flashes and thunder rolls; and above the tumult the indomitable fiddler whirls us on to the abyss”.