Beethoven: The Forgotten Works for String Quartet * Covington String Quartet

Mon, 01/05/2015 - 1:16pm -- anonymous


I particularly enjoy recordings that introduce musical oddities from the 'grand masters’. For example, most know the beauty and complexity of Beethoven’s later quartets; the awe-inspiring, out-of-this-world Große Fuge, or the verve of his string trios,but how many have heard his Pencarrow String Quartet(in D minor, 1817) or the Brilliant String Quartet (in A major, Biamonti 382)? These probably haven’t been listed on run-of-the-mill subscription concert programs; especially considering, at least in the case of the former, the manuscript wasn’t unearthed until 1999, and regarding the fragmented latter, a mere 18 extant measures have survived. Luckily, here at the Redwood (and in only eight other libraries worldwide as there are neither streaming nor MP3 options for this CD), we hold a sprightly recording in the collection, Beethoven: The Forgotten Works for String Quartet (MC.Quar BEET.L 2006), masterfully played by the mid-Atlantic based Covington String Quartet.

Beethoven wrote the short PencarrowQuartet as a souvenir piece for the then eighteen year-old travel writer Richard Ford (Murray’s Handbook for Travelers in Spain, 1845) who made a visit to Beethoven in 1817. Most remarkably, this wee piece was composed during Beethoven’s declining years as deafness set in (1815-1820) affecting the quantity, if certainly not quality, of his writing; as the jocular linear notes add, “obviously, Beethoven was in a good mood that day…”. Ford wrote on the manuscript, ‘"this quartette was composed for me in my presence by Ludwig v. Beethoven at Vienna Friday 28th November 1817” and thereafter was stowed away with other autographed miscellany in a family collection. Finally re-discovered in Pencarrow, Cornwall at the Molesworth-St. Aubyn family house (familial lineage of author Edward St. Aubyn), the manuscript, to some acclaim and élan, was auctioned off in December, 1999 at Sotheby’s for close to $270,000. It is a fully fledged piece; self-contained and developed with both thematic and harmonic qualities that echo the late quartets.   

Whereas the Pencarrow is a short yet complete score, the BrilliantQuartet is a mere fragment with present-day completion undertaken by the Dutch musicologist Willem Holsbergen. Debate has dogged attempts at completing unfinished pieces. For example, the musicologist Brian Newbould has had some recent success in attempting completion of Schubert’s unfinished works, in particular Symphonies #8 and #10; however, many critics would like to leave well enough alone. The completion and “re-imagining” of fragments "are the latest examples of a long-standing trend to unduly exaggerate or misrepresent sources in an effort to grab media attention,” suggested William Kinderman, a musicologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, during an interview on WQXR (NYC) in 2012. Alex Ross (The Rest is Noise, 2007) stated in a blog post of the same year, “wouldn't it be great if the media were covering significant new works by living composers, instead of reporting the discovery of an exceedingly minor piece by Beethoven.”  With over 8,000 Beethoven fragments scattered among various sketchbooks, musicologists and composers have a vast store to work with; the question is should they? In listening to the Brilliant Quartet, it’s a mixed bag; although the thematic material originally penned by Beethoven is given a full treatment in the formal Sonata form, it does not have the sonic heft of, say, the Op. 18 Quartets that had immediately preceded The Brilliant.  Unfortunately, it sounds exactly like a sketch of a fragment, inhibiting any attempts to fully extrapolate from its notated wisps. 

 Also included in this recording are various unfinished minuets; fragments of thematic material from more well-known works, and early contrapuntal fugal studies from the early 1790s. It is indeed a lovely curiosity of an album, wholly enjoyable, and available to Redwood members to borrow (MC.Quar BEET.L 2006) for 14 days.


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For Redwood members, please listen to our Naxos Music streaming library recordingof "The Beethoven Project Trio - featuring the World Premiere Recording of Beethoven's Trio in E-flat Major, Hess 47"

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