Beethoven’s String Quartet No.10 Opus 74 in E-flat Major has always been one of my favorites. By now you all know how important this key is to Beethoven. Piano trios, sonatas, the “Emperor” concerto, the “Eroica” symphony! Masterpieces all. The Opus 74 measures up. It begins with a fairly short slow introduction gentle in character. After roaming through a few strange harmonies, the main body of the first movement begins Allegro. After a short while the violins alternate pizzicato (plucking the strings) for four bars, an idea that is expanded in the development section. Here the pizzicatos are passed through all the instruments starting with the cello. The rhythm accelerates giving a harp like quality, thus the nickname “the Harp” quartet. Near the end of this movement is one of the most thrilling passages in all of chamber music. The first violin plays an extended passage of bariolage, the rapid crossing of the strings back and forth, either 2, 3, or all 4 of them. Underneath, the other instruments first replay the harp idea and then the second violin and viola engage in a canon. They play the same notes an octave apart but the viola copies the violin exactly one bar later. They sing! Amazing result. Absolutely joyous!
A wonderfully serene and sensitive Adagio second movement is followed by and absolutely furious third movement scherzo. The contrast of these inner moments is remarkable.
Some critics, I like to call them the “Great Unwashed”, say that the finale is weak compared to the rest of the quartet. How wrong they are. I adore this set of variations. They are consistent with the other three movements; they maintain the overall calm and inner looking aspects of the others (excluding the wild third). They come to an exuberant close. Please enjoy this wonderful quartet. I’m attaching links to two performances. The first by the legendary Budapest String Quartet. This group first established the high standard of quartet playing that has carried forward to this day. The second is by the Alban Berg Quartet, an excellent modern-day group.
Budapest String Quartet
The Alban Berg Quartet