29th April 2018 – Quatuor Arod – Programme notes by Chris Darwin

Josef Haydn (1732-1809) String Quartet in G (minor) Op 74/3, ‘Rider’ (1793)

Largo assai
Menuet and Trio
Finale: Allegro con brio

Haydn’s six Apponyi quartets (Ops 71 and 74) were written in 1792 & 1793 between his two extended visits to London. Prince Nicholas Esterházy, Haydn’s patron to whom he was devoted, had died in the autumn of 1790. His successor, Prince Anton, did not care for music and disbanded the Esterházy orchestra, for whom Haydn had composed for the previous 30 or so years. However, he did keep Haydn on, on full pay, with only nominal duties. Haydn was thus free to apply for leave to accept Johann Peter Salomon’s offer to spend a year in London (against Mozart’s advice, who thought the 58 year-old master too old for such jaunts). London’s crowded, vibrant musical scene challenged and exhilarated Haydn, and his six new London symphonies, written for a larger orchestra, hall and audience than at Esterházy, were a sensation. Haydn returned home in the summer of 1792, to a Vienna without Mozart, who had died in December just short of his 35th birthday.

The eponymous Apponyi, Count Anton Georg, was a relative of the Esterházys, and paid Haydn 100 ducats for the privilege of having the six quartets publicly dedicated to him. The quartets of the set have a power and brilliance that reflect Haydn’s experience with the London orchestras and his intention to take the quartets back to his London audience.

Hans Keller in ‘The Great Haydn Quartets highlights the many original features of the ‘Rider’ quartet. One of them relates to its key – G minor, so they say. But Keller makes the case for it being in both G minor and G major: it is ‘musical history’s first work centred on a home tonality rather than a home key. (Compare Beethoven’s use of E in his second Razumovsky quartet after the interval). Another novelty is its opening. All six Apponyi quartets have an introduction – mostly very short and attention gathering. But the Rider is different. Are the equestrian opening 8 bars an introduction or not? After them the music stops for almost 3 bars and then restarts with related but quite different material. That sounds like an introduction. But the openingHaydn Allegro (illustrated) gives seed material for much of the rest of the quartet, and is used explicitly in the development, so it could be regarded not as an introduction but as the exposition of the main subject: short but significant. As so often with Haydn’s structures, expect the unexpected.

At least three features of this opening recur in many guises: [1] the upbeat of two repeated notes, [2]Haydn restart the semitone from the grace note, and [3] the three notes of the minor chord that start the first three bars (G, Bb, D). For example, they all feature immediately on cello and viola at the restart after the ‘Introduction’ (illustrated). A more contrasting idea soon appears: a running triplet figure; but even this is introduced by the repeated upbeat [1], as is the dotted-rhythm second theme. The fact that different themes and episodes are built from the recombination of a few simple elements gives the work a satisfying integrity even when you are unaware of the mechanics of its construction. The key moves to G major for the last 30 bars of coda, ending with a G in the first violin. Its next note, the first of the slow movement is a shocking G sharp, a semitone higher; the key is now E major (illustrated).

As in the opening of the first movement,Haydn Largo assai Haydn again plays with the idea of a pause, holding the fourth note of the opening phrase to dominate the second bar. This deeply serious movement moves into E minor in the middle section with an upside-down version of the opening bar. Back to E major but now the serious mood is taunted by unsettling, bizarre episodes: the first violin plunging unexpectedly down a scale, all four instruments breaking into fluttering, pianissimo demi-semiquavers for 2 bars. But the fiends dissolve and the movement ends serenely.

The otherwise relatively straightforward third movement supports Hans Keller’s views about the quartet not really being in G minor: the Minuet is in G major and the Trio in G minor rather than the conventional other way round. The lively (and also equestrian) last movement rattles along initially in G minor with a theme that echoes the repeated upbeats of the first movement; Haydn plays with pauses again before switching to G major for the gallop to the finish.

Benjamin Attahir (b.1989) Al ‘Asr (2018)

Born in Toulouse in 1989, Benjamin Attahir initially learned the violin at the Toulouse conservatory but soon also became passionate about composition and conducting. He continued his studies at the CRR in Paris and then at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Paris. He is now well-known as a composer, a conductor and a concert violinist. His eclectic compositions combine Eastern and Western traditions, and bring new life to old forms, often with unusual combinations of instruments; they include operas and orchestral music as well as chamber music. For example, a residency at the Villa Medici (2016-2017) enabled him to explore the contemporary reworking of the continuo form in the composition of a chamber opera. With the tuba- and serpent-player Patrick Wibart, he founded the ÆNEA ensemble, which is dedicated to the rediscovery of the French romantic repertoire as well as the development of new works on historical instruments.

The term Al ‘Asr refers to the 103rd Sūrah (chapter) of the Qur’ān – one of the shortest and most revered. Its three verses reflect on the loss that the passage of time produces if it is not offset by faith, good deeds, patience and truthfulness with others. Al ‘Asr is also the afternoon prayer in the salâh, the daily cycle of Muslim prayer, and Attahir’s string quartet is the third work in a varied sequence based on this prayer cycle: Al Fajr for piano and large ensemble (Sept 2017); Adh dhouhr for serpent and orchestra (Jan 2018); Al ‘Asr for string quartet (2017-18); Al Maghrib for violin and orchestra (2019); Al ‘Icha for orchestra (2018). Within a Muslim framework Attahir has tried to integrate references to other monotheistic religions by means of Gregorian, Jewish Klezmer and Oriental elements.

The Quatuor Arod gave the world premier of Al ‘Asr at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris in October 2017; the work is gradually evolving with their successive performances.

Attahir says of it:

Al Asr is the afternoon prayer. I tried to transcribe musically the atmosphere of this specific moment of the day. Raw light, overwhelming heat, iridescence of the air in contact with the surface of the ground – so many images that accompanied me when writing this piece. But Al Asr is also the 103rd Sūrah of the Qur’ān, which deals with the passage of time and the future of beings. Its structure in three verses dictated the form of this Quartet, without the sacred text being placed in the foreground. It is always the poetic and allegorical aspect that guided my work.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) String Quartet in E minor, Op.59 No. 2 (1805)

Molto adagio (Si tratta questo pezzo con molto di sentimento)
Allegretto: Minore – Maggiore – Minore – Maggiore – Minore
Finale Presto

The Op 59 Razumovsky quartets were a revolution in quartet writing. In Joseph Kerman’s words “It is probably not too much to say that Op 59 doomed the amateur string quartet.” The conversation between equal players of Haydn, Mozart and even Beethoven in his earlier Op 18 quartets here gives way to “the heroic discourse of the symphony” – and no ordinary symphony at that. The Op 59 quartets were written in 1805-6, a full four years after the Op 18 set but only shortly after the third, Eroica Symphony (op. 55). The commission was from Count Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to Vienna and a very able second violinist in his own quartet. Its first fiddle was Ignaz Schuppanzigh a friend, inspiration and perhaps also violin teacher to Beethoven. As well as playing with the Count, Schuppanzigh had formed his own professional quartet in 1804 in order to give public quartet concerts – a radical new departure. This accomplished quartet may have encouraged Beethoven to stretch the technical demands on the players to match his more ambitious musical conceptions.

While the first quartet of the set is, like the contemporary Eroica Symphony, gloriously expansive, this E minor quartet is, at least in its first movement, terse, full of nervous tension. It opens with two forte chords, much like the call to attention at the beginning of some of Haydn’s late quartets; then silence; then a pianissimo E minor arpeggio evaporating in semiquavers; silence; then the same in F minor; silence; more of the same in stranger keys and more wandering semiquavers. Where are we going? Back to the opening two chords, and now at last the first violin gives a sense of purpose, the semiquavers gather energy, and the movement is off. This sense of dislocation at the beginning of a work returns in a more extreme form in the Andante opening of the third of the Razumovsky set.

An almost unique feature of the Op 59 no 2 quartet among Beethoven’s major works is that all the movements have the same keynote, in this case E. The E major slow movement is one of Beethoven’s finest. In contrast to the nervousness of the first movement, all is serene in this molto adagioBeethoven Molto adagio that is to be played with ‘lots of feeling’. Its unhurried theme (illustrated) is soon given a pulse by a persistent dotted heart-beat derived from the dotted figure in the third bar (*). It briefly hardens into a double dotted figure before giving way to sublimely soaring triplets.

The third movement is unusual in that Beethoven calls for a triple-decker rather the usual two-slice sandwich. The start of the Minore is a permutation of the E minor arpeggio of the first movement’s opening bars. The Maggiore Trio is based, as a concession to Razumovsky, on a Russian theme:Russian theme: Glory to the Sun Glory to the Sun (illustrated) that had appeared in a collection put together by the polymath Nikolay Lvov and Ivan Prach. The tune was later used by Moussorgsky in Boris Godunov and also by Rachmaninov.

The last movement transforms the heart-beat of the slow movement into a boisterous canter. It starts in C major and flirts for 50-odd bars with a move into its nominal key of E minor before finally landing on it – a piquant addition to the large helping of E that the quartet presents us with. As in our earlier Haydn quartet, the canter turns into a gallop just before the end of this good-humoured movement.

See Chris Darwin’s Programme Notes for other works on his web page.