String Quintet in E flat, Op.4
String Quintet in C, Op.29
Nash Ensemble [Marianne Thorsen & Malin Broman (violins), Lawrence Power & Philip Dukes (violas) and Paul Watkins (cello)]
Recorded 16-18 September 2007 in St Paul’s Church, Deptford, London
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: February 2009
CD No: HYPERION CDA67693
Duration: 63 minutes
It may come as something of a surprise to learn that Beethoven wrote three string quintets. The last of the three to be published was Opus 104, a work alluded to in Vikram Seth’s novel “An Equal Music”, with the writer embarking on something of a quest to find it. This and Opus 4 are seldom-recorded works, with only Opus 29 recently becoming a regular feature of the string-quintet repertoire.
Written in 1795, the E flat Quintet is the development of a work intended for wind octet, the latter eventually published as Opus 103. In its transition to string quintet Beethoven extended a lot of the thematic material, though the change of medium seems to have been a straightforward one.
The Nash Ensemble performs with a charm suggesting the influence of Haydn in his late pieces, particularly when Beethoven moves to far-off keys in the course of his melodic development. The musicians also display the composer’s instinctive grasp of this (then) relatively new medium, with a strong sense of ensemble ensuring each part is clearly heard.
A light humour abounds throughout, reminding the listener that this was a period where Beethoven was also concentrating on the Serenade (for string trio, Opus 8). Certainly the last movement begins with a sinuous violin theme but moves on to explore dynamic extremes, the sudden fortissimo chords particularly brought off well here. The charming Andante, meanwhile, is a serenade in all but name, its song-like quality clearly evident. The Nash Ensemble has the measure of this music, making the most of its beautiful melodic nuances.
The same performance techniques can be heard in the better-known Opus 29, the only string-quintet of Beethoven’s conceived as such from the start. The theme of the first movement points firmly towards the start of the composer’s ‘middle’ period, a more serious utterance that in this interpretation finds genuine breadth. Also clear from the Nash’s interpretation is the way in which Beethoven was moving towards the scherzo. The finale begins as if a second example of the form, a vigorous tremolo giving instant drive and energy. The scherzo itself is more playful.
Throughout the Nash musicians are superb, and in particular the central viola parts come through well. The performers bring a commendable sense of purpose and togetherness that gives these works a youthful vigour, and in the case of Opus 29, shows how Beethoven was really starting to flex his compositional muscles. The recorded sound is excellent, too.