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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Concert Preview: The Men Who Invented Fire

The Emerson String Quartet is Passing the Torch at Lincoln Center.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
This German card from 1932 depicts Beethoven (left) taking music lessons with Haydn.
The caption reads: "Beethoven and his master, Haydn." © 1932 Homann Factory.
The string quartet has enjoyed over 300 years as one of the sturdiest and most perfect vehicles for musical expression. Quartets can be bold and heroic, as four players join forces to conquer the Everest-like works of Beethoven, or anguished like Schubert's Death and the Maiden. In the 20th century, Shostakovich famously used his late quartets as a kind of intimate diary, inserting hidden codes into the music, and Mozart wrote both joy and heartbreak into the fabric of his mature quartets.

This week, the Emerson String Quartet embarks on a three-concert series at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, exploring the connection between six late quartets of Franz Josef Haydn and the first six string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven. Haydn is credited as the inventor of the string quartet in the 1750s. He also spent two stormy years (1792-4) as Beethoven's teacher. Eventually, Beethoven would shatter the classical mold and show listeners the infinite possibilities inherent in the complex form of the string quartet.

The first string quartets date from the 1750s. They were most likely written at Esterhazy, the vast estate in Hungary that employed Haydn as its court composer. It was Haydn hit upon the idea of combining two violins with a viola and a 'cello and having them play a standard four-movement sonata form along the lines of the classical symphony--itself also a relatively new development. The string quartet rapidly became popular with professional and amateur musicians.

Haydn wrote his quartets (and operas, symphonies and chamber pieces) at a rapid pace to satisfy his boss, the music-loving Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy. In toto, he wrote 67 string quartets, an astonishing cycle that allows the listener to trace the creation and development of the form over half a century. The cycle culminated in the six quartets of Op. 76, which feature the composer's trademark warmth and humor along with ceaseless melodic invention that never fails to charm the ear. They are not Haydn's last quartets, but they are among his finest.

The six Beethoven quartets on this program were written just two years after the Haydn works were published. Numbered Op. 18, they mark the young composer's first essays in the form that he would one day make his own. The influence of Haydn and Mozart is apparent here but the colors are brighter, bolder and richer, and the harmonic writing much more daring. This is Beethoven the young classicist, in full command of his powers and demonstrating effortless technical mastery of this most difficult musical form.

With cellist Paul Watkins firmly in place, the Emerson String Quartet has survived the loss of its original cellist and retained its place atop the pyramid of major American chamber ensembles. In this series, the Emerson players will explore the mentor-student relationship between Haydn and Beethoven, and bring the listener back to this crucial time when the string quartet was still a new-fangled invention and Beethoven and Haydn had the music world at their feet.

Concert programs and details are listed below, courtesy Lincoln Center

Thursday, April 7, 2016 at 7:30 PM
Lincoln Center, Alice Tully Hall
HAYDN: Quartet in G Major, Op. 76 No. 1
BEETHOVEN: Quartet in D Major, Op. 18 No. 3
HAYDN:  Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 76 No. 4 “Sunrise”
BEETHOVEN: Quartet in C Minor, Op. 18 No. 4

Sunday, April 17, 2016 at 5 PM
Lincoln Center, Alice Tully Hall
HAYDN:  Quartet in D Minor, Op. 76 No. 2 “Quinten”
BEETHOVEN:  Quartet in A Major, Op. 18 No. 5
BEETHOVEN:  Quartet F Major, Op. 18 No. 1
HAYDN:  Quartet in D Major, Op. 76 No. 5

Friday, May 12, 2016 at 7:30 PM
Lincoln Center, Alice Tully Hall
HAYDN:  Quartet in C Major, Op. 76 No. 3 “Emperor”
BEETHOVEN:  Quartet in G Major, Op. 18 No. 2
HAYDN:  Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 76 No. 6
BEETHOVEN:  Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 18 No. 6 

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.