Merel Quartet: Beethoven, Janáček and Schumann
"…each individual is a musician of the highest technical ability, but what is more impressive is how they create a completely homogenous and harmonious ensemble. Their honest approach to the works convinces me as intelligent and mature. If this all sounds too serious, allow me to emphasize the group’s joyful and youthful playing..." Bernard Haitink
Includes HD Video & Audio files
- Information and credits
- Merel Quartet
- Beethoven: String Quartet Op.74 "Harp"
- Janáček: String Quartet No.1 "Kreutzer Sonata"
- Schumann: String Quartet in A minor, Op.41 No.1
A concert at St. John the Baptist church, Plush on 9th July 2010. Part of the Music at Plush festival.
Schumann: String Quartet in A minor, Op.41 No.1
IV. Poco allegro
Janáček: String Quartet No.1 "Kreutzer Sonata"
I. Allegro moderato
II. Scherzo: allegro con brio
IV. Finale: allegro
Beethoven: String Quartet Op.74 "Harp"
I. Poco adagio. Allegro
II. Adagio ma non troppo
IV. Allegro con Variazioni
HD Video and Audio – 1 hour 16 minutes
Cameras – Simon Yapp, Kat Brendel, Matthew Jolly
Audio Recording and Editing – Lyndon Jones
Video editor – Matthew Jolly
Assistant video editing and colour correction – Denni Bakardji
Produced by Matthew Jolly
Mary Ellen Woodside – violin
Meesun Hong – violin
Alexander Besa – viola
Rafael Rosenfeld – cello
Since its formation in 2002, the Merel Quartet has received unanimous praise. The Wiener Zeitung writes: "This young Zürich ensembles music-making is extraordinarily precise and tonally exceedingly well-matched" (August 2008) and the Neue Zürcher Zeitung praised the quartet for playing "with utmost expressivity and a subtle sense of form, tone and rhetoric" (May, 2007).
The Merel Quartet performs extensively in Europe in such prestigious venues as the Zürich Tonhalle and Wigmore Hall and in such important festivals as the Salzburger Festspiele, Lucerne Festival, Kunstfest Weimar, the Ittingen Whitsun Festival and the Menuhin Festival Gstaad. The quartet has collaborated with such artists as Ruth Ziesak, Juliane Banse, Dénes Várjon, Nobuko Imai, Thomas Demenga, Heinz Holliger, Christoph Schiller, Julian Bliss, Jörg Widmann, the Quatour Ebène and the Quatour Mosaiques.
Acclaimed performances and live radio broadcasts of repertoire spanning Bach to contemporary works by such modern masters as György Kurtág and Kaija Saariaho attest to the quartets versatility. The Merel Quartet's recently released CD with works by Robert Schumann, Léoš Janáček and award-winning Swiss composer David Philip Hefti was praised by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung am Sonntag as "the outstanding CD-Premier of a first-rate quartet".
Beethoven’s ‘Harp quartet’ received its title from the publisher, as was often the case with Beethoven’s music. It refers to the extended pizzicato section of the first movement, where the instruments collectively sound like the plucking of a harp. Of more interest than the title though, is the unique and somewhat baffling form of the piece.
The ‘Harp’ parallels many facets of the fifth symphony, which was written alongside it. And the heroic, progressive quality evident in this and other works of Beethoven’s middle period is reflected in this quartet too, but with some intriguing anomalies such as the last movement, which is a very traditionally conceived theme and variations. This movement has stymied scholar’s attempts to contextualise this piece in Beethoven’s stylistic trajectory, but also demonstrates the remarkable ways in which the composer understood to create successful new musical edifices by doing the unexpected. In some ways this could also be seen as a continuation of Haydn’s own delight in surprising his audience and playing with and distorting form. Another plausible reason for the accessibility of the Finale is the somewhat muted reaction to his opus 59 ‘Razumovsky’ quartets, so groundbreaking and daring in their conception. It could be that he fancied giving his audience a breather with the ‘Harp’ before reverting to type with his intense and very private ‘Quartetto serioso’ opus 95.
Beethoven dedicated most of his music around this time to his patron Prince Lobkowitz, who promised him an income for life if the composer stayed in Vienna or within the Habsburg territories. Beethoven inevitably fell out with him, but not before producing some of the most memorable works in his entire output in the years 1809-1815, within which the ‘Harp’ has an assured place.
Another work written at unbelievable speed was Leoš Janáček’s ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ for string quartet, inspired by Tolstoy’s novella of that name. The piece was finished in fifteen days, and has a fittingly intense hue – Janáček wrote that he imagined ‘a poor woman, tormented and run down, just like...Tolstoy describes’. The music is a psychological drama with great conflict at heart, almost abandoning the fields of traditional harmony.
The work as a whole seems to be constructed by the juxtaposition of melodic and rhythmic fragments. The melancholy first movement, with its opening rising motif, sets the tone of the work. The second movement scherzo is a tortured affair, with a polka-like theme that is interrupted with an icy tremolo ‘sul ponticello’ (bowed at the bridge) and a motif that foreshadows the quote in the following movement from Beethoven’s own ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ for violin and piano. The distortion and obsessive repetition of this theme transports us into the mind of the jealous husband featured in Tolstoy’s book (who catches his wife with a violinist he introduced her to, playing Beethoven’s work together. He ends up stabbing his wife with a dagger as the violinist flees). The fourth movement reprises the works opening theme before ending tearfully, as his dying wife scoffs at his request for forgiveness and denies him the custody of their children.
Janáček only achieved success in the last decade of his life, predominantly through his opera ‘Jenufa’. By that stage he was living in a virtual dreamworld, hopelessly and one-sidedly obsessed with a woman 37 years his junior, who became his unwitting muse for the rest of his life.
Robert Schumann, who celebrated his 200th anniversary in 2009, was largely regarded as a crank in his lifetime. Friends of his such as Brahms did what they could, but his music remained largely obscure until much later. His fragile mental state wasn’t helped by his secondary role as ‘Mr Clara Schumann’; his wife enjoyed a wonderful career as concert pianist and sustained Robert through his brooding depressions.
In 1842 he wrote to Clara complaining about the increasing limitations of the piano as a vessel for his ideas, and the need to attack different instruments and genres. What followed was a spectacular year of inspiration that yielded all of his most famous chamber works including the set of three string quartets, of which the A minor is the first. He had studied the great quartets of Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn in depth, simultaneously building up a well of ideas that exploded onto the page in record time. The A minor took just a week to be sketched and formed, and three months and much rehearsal later, received its premiere as a gift to Clara on her 23rd birthday.
The work opens with a bow to Bach and is characterised by the canons Schumann loved to write. The work contains much progressive tonality, constantly taking one away from a tonal centre: it is only at the end of the quartet that one can establish the key of A minor as the tonic for sure. If his studies of the above-mentioned great masters had convinced him to tackle this genre, the style is much closer to Mendelssohn in spirit. Moreover, the deeply engrained pianistic style of Schumann’s composing is evident in these works too, a factor that would persuade him not to write any more music without piano for small forces following the quartets’ completion. Schumann scholar Donald Taylor went so far as to describe the works as ‘music written for a string quartet but not string quartet music’.