Yesterday afternoon at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, the New Esterházy Quartet (violinists Lisa Weiss and Kati Kyme, alternating as leaders, violist Anthony Martin, and cellist William Skeen) presented the eighth installment of a series of concerts entitled Students of Haydn. The usual format for these programs involves a quartet by Joseph Haydn, one by his most famous student, Ludwig van Beethoven, and one by a composer likely to be new to the audience. Yesterday that third composer was Johannes (János in his native Hungary) Spech.
Martin observed the structural consistency across the entire program: Each quartet had four movements. One of the inner movements was a dance form, while the other amounted to an instrumental song. The opening movement tended to be the most formal and assertive, while the final movement took on folk-like qualities, Hungarian for Haydn and Spech and Russian for Beethoven. Martin then quickly chuckled, suggesting that this generalization be best forgotten.
This was particularly the case where Beethoven was concerned; but it was through such acts of “breaking the mold” that Haydn had his greatest impact on Beethoven as a teacher. (If Beethoven really did once say that he had learned nothing from Haydn, that remark had more to do with self-promotion in an age of growing commercialism than with an assessment of the skills he had acquired.) Thus, this site has observed that any effort to try to dance to one of Haydn’s Menuet movements is likely to lead to a twisted ankle; and that was definitely the case in yesterday’s selection, Hoboken III/69 in B-flat major, the first of the three quartets dedicated to Count Anton Georg Apponyi published as Opus 71.
In spite of the dedication, this quartet was written during Haydn’s first visit to London, which would be his first brush with that age of growing commercialism. This quartet was written for performance before a paying public, rather than an intimate salon of nobles. Haydn learned quickly that getting the attention of a general audience was not always easy, so he chose to begin with five thick staccato chords (requiring double and triple string bowing) that sounded for all the world like the end of a major composition. (See the score excerpt reproduced above.) Following three beats of rest, he could then introduce the first theme of the opening movement, pretty confident that he had his audience’s attention. Yesterday’s audience had the same response; and, with Weiss as first violin, New Esterházy proceeded to unfold an engagingly transparent account of Haydn at the top of his chamber music game.
The Beethoven selection was written in 1806, by which time the commercialism of London had taken just as much hold In Vienna. Nevertheless, this particular quartet had what might be called aristocratic patrimony, since it was the first of the three Opus 59 quartets written for his patron, Count Andrey Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador in Vienna. Regardless of patronage, the music was given its first performance by a quartet led by Ignaz Schuppanzigh at a public concert. Stories are told about how the ensemble thought that the music was, at best, a joke and, at worst, unplayable, which provoked one of Beethoven’s famous retorts that he was writing for posterity.
Listening to the “period” performance by New Esterházy, led by Kyme, the attentive listener could more readily grasp the “otherness” of this music than tends to come through in the more polished “modern” performances (and recordings). With Haydn and Spech providing the context, Beethoven’s quartet stood out through many of its unusual approaches to combining instruments (including having the cello abandon the bass line), along with a sense of discourse that keeps swinging (not particularly regularly) between homophony and intricate counterpoint. The spirit of Haydn is also honored with another un-danceable “dance” movement, this one almost deliberately mocking its own two left feet. While New Esterházy most likely performed with far more understanding than Schuppanzigh and his quartet could muster, they also succeeded in conveying some sense of why this music left most of Beethoven’s contemporaries (musicians and audiences) more than a little perplexed.
No such perplexity was provoked by the Spech composition, on the other hand. Indeed, the notes provided by Jonathan Rhodes Lee suggested that Spech was very good at taking the music of his master as a model and then following that model almost slavishly. The result might be described as “Haydn without the surprises.” Haydn probably would have endorsed Ralph Waldo Emerson’s observation: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds;” and he always knew how to break with consistency. Spech was not so adventurous, but yesterday’s selection could still be enjoyed for its relatively innocuous sense of pleasure.