Yesterday afternoon in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, the New Esterházy Quartet began the San Francisco stage of their 2013–2014 season with a program entitled The Cellist King: Quartets for Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia. The violinists of the quartet, Lisa Weiss and Kati Kyme, alternated in the performance of first and second parts, Weiss playing first in the first half of the concert and Kyme taking that chair after the intermission. The remaining members of the quartet are violist Anthony Martin and cellist William Skeen.
Like his predecessor Frederick II (“the Great”), Frederick William (going with American spelling conventions) had a serious and informed interest in music as both patron and performer. However, while Frederick II exercised his talents on the flute, Frederick William was a cellist with a great love of chamber music, whose popularity as a genre was on the rise when he ascended the throne on August 17, 1786. Even before his coronation, Frederick William had appointed Luigi Boccherini “with the title of Composer of our Chamber,” stressing the significance of music in a more intimate setting intended more for the performers than any audience that happened to be present.
Yesterday, Boccherini occupied the middle portion of the program, represented by the first of his Opus 41 string quartets in C minor. To make the event more interesting, the ensemble went beyond the usual practice of performing on period instruments by also playing from photocopies of manuscript parts, presumably in Boccherini’s hand. The quartet is particularly interesting in that its concluding Prestissimo movement is basically a reprise of the opening movement (also Prestissimo); and it is an early example of a movement performed without interruption following the Andante flebile movement. The Prestissimo material also provides a generous share of vigorous cello work (including one chord across all four strings), giving the impression that Boccherini’s relationship with his patron was a pleasure for both of them.
Boccherini’s quartet was preceded by Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken III/44 quartet in B-flat major. This was the first of the set of six quartets published as Opus 50 and dedicated to Frederick William, often referred to as the “Prussian” quartets. Haydn had provided Frederick William with a copy of his six Paris symphonies (Hoboken I/82–87, composed in 1785 and 1786), for which the monarch rewarded him with a ring. The string quartets were written as a gesture of thanks.
Haydn apparently believed his patron had a sense of humor. The cello is honored by playing solo for the first two measures, but all it does is play repeated B-flats, which continue after the other instruments enter for another three measures. (Haydn would then go on to give the cello some far more interesting passages, making it clear that this was a good-natured joke, rather than any criticism of the king’s faculties.) This is also a quartet in which Haydn skillfully applies the rhetorical impact of silence. Indeed, the final “joke” comes in the form of two full-stop measures following a perfectly healthy cadence to the tonic, deceiving the listener into thinking that the piece had concluded, after which it jogs along for another 21 measures before wrapping up with a far more definitive cadence.
The second half of the program was devoted to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s final string quartet, K. 590 in F major. His last three quartets are also called “Prussian” because they, too, were supposedly written for Frederick William. I say “supposedly” because there is no supporting “hard evidence.” The quartets were published a few weeks after Mozart’s death and carried no dedication. Mozart was in poor financial straits when he wrote those quartets, and they could well have been intended as an appeal for compensation. Nevertheless, the music itself reflects a decidedly positive attitude. It is unclear whether Frederick William ever played this quartet; but, had he done so, the cello part would have given him much to enjoy.
For this quartet, Martin arranged for the audience to examine photocopies of the original pages in Mozart’s hand. Contrary to the myth that Mozart composed everything in his head and then just wrote it all down, one has no trouble spotting measures that have been crossed out. There is considerable originality in this quartet along all dimensions of harmonic and contrapuntal grammar, structural logic, and expressive rhetoric. The New Esterházy performance breathed life into all of those dimensions as they had already done with Haydn’s delightful sense of wit and Boccherini’s adventurous passages, particularly when the cello was involved.