Last night at Old First Church, Old First Concerts presented a program by the Santa Rosa Symphony String Quartet (SRSSQ) entitled Great Quartet Works from 1799. The members of the quartet, Joseph Edelberg, Karen Shinozaki Sor, Elizabeth Prior, and Adelle-Akiko Kearns, are, respectively, the principals in the first violin, second violin, viola, and cello sections of the Santa Rosa Symphony (SRS). SRS is now the resident orchestra at the new Green Music Center on the campus of Sonoma State University, and the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall promises to be a major venue for those who take their music listening seriously. SRSSQ seems to have emerged as a sign that chamber music will be given as much attention as the symphonic repertoire.
In music history 1799 was far more than the threshold of a new century. After spending almost a quarter century as a court servant (albeit a highly productive one) at Eszterháza, Joseph Haydn spent about four years in England due to the promotional egis of Johann Peter Salomon, where he became a great success in the radically different world of public concerts. Word of his impact spread across Europe; and, when he returned to Vienna in 1795, he was the eighteenth-century version of a superstar. Haydn still spent his summers with the Esterházy family; but he enjoyed being his own man in Vienna, a life that included prodigious composition, performing, and teaching. His best known student was, of course, Ludwig van Beethoven, who came to Vienna with the reputation of a virtuoso pianist and was beginning to venture into composition.
In 1799 Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian Lobkowitz decided to commission string quartets from both Haydn and Beethoven. Haydn composed two, Hoboken III/81,82, now known as the “Lobkowitz” quartets. (He would compose only one more string quartet, Hoboken III/83 in D minor after these two.) Beethoven composed six, which would later be published as his Opus 18, the first steps in what would become an extraordinarily inventive journey through this particular genre.
Last night SRSSQ structured their program around Hoboken III/81 in G major and the fifth of the Opus 18 quartets in A major, performing the Haydn as the second half of the concert. The Beethoven preceded the intermission and was, itself, preceded by a string quartet by the highly prolific Italian composer Luigi Boccherini, Opus 58, Number 5 in D major. The six Opus 58 quartets were also composed in 1799.
As I have previously written, Beethoven’s relationship with Haydn was not always cordial. Indeed, I have suggested that the young student was downright competitive in the face of the old master, determined to demonstrate that he could master all of Haydn’s tricks and add his own to the mix. This was evident in Beethoven’s earliest published works; and his three Opus 2 piano sonatas, composed in 1795, were dedicated to Haydn. By 1799 he could be less contentious about playing tricks his own way, and there is impressive diversity of expressiveness across the full set of Opus 18 quartets. The A major is one of the more affable with no shortage of wit, and the Andante cantabile movement provides an excellent foretaste of the adventurous spirit with which Beethoven would approach variations form.
Nevertheless, in Hoboken III/81 Haydn was still at the top of his game, making it clear that he still had tricks of his own. At the same time, however, it is clear that Haydn had been tracking the efforts of his rambunctious student. For example, he must have noticed that, in those Opus 2 sonatas, the first had a third movement marked Menuetto, while in the second the label had changed to Scherzo. Haydn, himself, had pushed his Menuetto movements far beyond anything that would allow for stately dance, even during his time at Eszterháza; so the idea of a Scherzo movement must have caught his attention. Thus, in Hoboken III/81 the score for the third movement may say Menuetto; but the music is decidedly a Scherzo, as if now it was Haydn’s turn to outdo Beethoven at his own game.
Both of these quartets were given attentive interpretation by SRSSQ. One gets the impression that they are just beginning to learn to listen to each other and to the music that emerges from their efforts. However, they come across as establishing the necessary chemistry without which the quartets of both Haydn and Beethoven would be mere exercises. Watching the expressions on their faces, one got the impression that they appreciated the element of discovery in both of these quartets, an element that began with the composer and needed to be transferred to the listener through the conduit of performance. For that matter, if the Boccherini quartet was not quite as adventurous, it had its own characteristic rhetoric, particularly in its use of unison in the Andante sostenuto passages; and here, too, SRSSQ could tease out that “discovery factor,” which made this lesser-known quartet serve as a perfect overture for the two major efforts that would follow.