This afternoon at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, the New Esterházy Quartet presented the seventh installment in a series of programs called Haydn & his Students, juxtaposing a composition by Haydn with those of two of his students. As usual, violinist Kati Kyme and Lisa Weiss shared first violin duties, Kyme taking the first chair for the first half of the program, a very early quartet by Joseph Haydn and an equally early quartet (Opus 2 in C major) by his student Paul Struck. Weiss then took over first chair for the second half, featuring Haydn’s best known student, Ludwig van Beethoven, with his (late) Opus 131 quartet in C-sharp minor. Also as usual, Kyme and Weiss were joined by Anthony Martin on viola and William Skeen on cello.
The early quartet was Hoboken II/6 in E-flat major, listed as “Number 0” in Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s publication of the six (actually seven) quartets of Opus 1 but classified as a divertimento in Anthony van Hoboken’s catalog. In introducing this piece, Martin called it “party music,” with the implication that it was never meant to be anything other than background for socializing (otherwise known as gossiping). Perhaps because he knew he could hide in the background, Haydn went to town with his bag of tricks, working with almost trivial themes and subjecting them to no end of prankish back-and-forth exchanges between pairs of instruments. Apparently, no one took him to task for playing these games; so his hiding gambit seems to have succeeded.
The Struck quartet was not quite as prankish. It was pretty clear, however, that Struck was using Haydn’s material as models; and that included some of his witty devices as well as his overall architecture. The result is that Struck knew how to appreciate Haydn’s capacity for wit; but, unlike Beethoven, he never seemed to cultivate one of his own. The result was that his Opus 2 had a bit of the Haydn’s-greatest-hits ring to it; but it was certainly a pleasant diversion, even if it had not been intended as more party music.
For his part, Beethoven was a keen listener to Haydn’s music; but he was just as keen at taking the master’s ideas off into previously unknown territory. By the time he got to Opus 131, he might have taken his explorations to the moon. The quartet is in seven movements played without interruption and often joined by abrupt, if not jarring, transitions. However, those who know the Beethoven canon can appreciate just how Janus-faced this quartet is.
The very decision to begin with a fugue in C-sharp minor suggests that Beethoven was now thinking earlier than Haydn by going back to Johann Sebastian Bach. However, at the same time, informed listeners will recognize the second subject of the fugue as a theme that will resurface in the final movement of Beethoven’s last completed quartet, Opus 135 in F major. On the other hand the final movement has a theme that reflects back on the second of the Opus 18 quartets (in the key of G major).
In the midst of this structural elegance, Beethoven still has time to crack jokes. The best source comes right in the middle with the movement of variations on a theme that is almost too long for mind to embrace. Many of the variations thus emerge as motivic commentary; and, when Beethoven decided to introduce some pizzicato passages, it is clear that he was not trying to avoid low humor.
Opus 131 is often recognized as the most opaque of Beethoven’s quartets; and Martin even called out this observation, enumerating a variety of reasons. It was thus a delight that New Esterházy should perform it as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Yes, there were any number of moments that could be called enigmatic; but New Esterházy just kept things moving, concentrating on the journey itself, rather than on any of the speed bumps that might otherwise distract.