I recently spent several days at home recovering from minor surgery and took the opportunity to revist the Beethoven string quartets and the Beethoven piano sonatas. I thought the quartets would be especially appropriate to hear in recovering from surgery. I looked forward particularly to revisiting the "Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Deity by a Convalscent,in the Lydian Mode", the third movement of the opus 132 quartet which Beethoven wrote when he recovered from an illness far worse than that which plagued me. There is, perhaps, a similar feeling expressed in the slow, hymnlike movement of the second Razumovsky Quartet, opus 59 no.2.
Hearing the music made me appreciate not only my health but also the opportunities I have enjoyed to get to know the quartets. Many years ago, I first heard the quartets live played by the Fine Arts Quartet when it was the quartet-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin -- Milwaukee. I subsequently acquired the Fine Arts Quartet's excellent recording of the entire cycle. Then, while living in Washington D.C. for thirty years, I have had many opportunities to hear the Juilliard String Quartet, and other ensembles, perform the Beethoven quartets at the Library of Congress, probably the best musical venue in what is a musical capital city.
To rehear the quartets, I chose a recent reissue of the cycle by the Guarneri Quartet. I have never heard the Guarneri's live before, even though the quartet is in residence at the nearby University of Maryland. The group has been playing together since 1965 and is deservedly revered. The ensemble plays with a lyrical, songlike and expressive character, with a flow, a grace, and a feel of gemuitlicheit that brought me new insights into this music. It is an outstanding recording of the quartet cycle. In a detailed review of the Guarneri's performance of the cycle on MusicWeb, Paul Shoemaker justly wrote that "If there's a better version of these quartets, I've not heard it."
As do the piano sonatas, Beethoven's 16 quartets allow the listener to experience the development and deepening of his style from his early period, to the period of maturity, to the final works at the end of his life. But the quartets are evenly divided between Beethoven's three major compositional periods while the piano sonatas are somewhat weighted towards the composer's earlier years. In addition, Beethoven composed his quartets in three rather continuous blocks, giving each group a distinctive character, while the piano sonatas were written more continuously in Beethoven's career and tend to meld and flow more easily from one period to another.
In recovering from an illness, I thought while listening of how the quartets deal in their different ways with human pain. Beethoven composed his first series of six quartets, opus 18, as a young man in his late 20s who was full of hope and optimism, aware of his extraordinary gifts and of his ability to realize them in his music. These works are in the style of Haydn and Mozart but show a Beethoven intent on developing a voice of his own. They are optimistic, powerful works full of confidence but with hints of sadness and depths in the slow movement of the first quartet and in the "La Malinconia" section of the fourth movement of the sixth quartet. In my listening, I spent more time revisiting this first group of quartets than I had anticipated.
The second group of quartets include the three "Razumovsky" quartets of opus 59 written in 1806 together with the "Harp" and "Serioso" quartets written somewhat later. These are large, inspiring works from Beethoven's "heroic" period and the best known of his quartets. They show a composer who has known difficulty and disappointment, in his growing deafness, his health, and in his failure to form a lasting loving and sexual relationship with a woman, who tries to overcome his problems through strength, hope and will. These are large-scale inspiring works. I spent most of my time in this group with the second quartet of opus 59, with the poignant slow movement of the third quarted of opus 59 and, surprisingly, with the radiant lyricism of the "harp" quartet, opus 74.
Beethoven's final compositions consist of the last five quartets, opus nos. 127, 130, 131, 132, 135, together with the "Great Fugue" opus 133. This is deep and complex music in which Beethoven moves beyond suffering and struggle to various forms of recognition and acceptance. In rehearing this music as played by the Guarneri Quartet, I was taken by its lyricism, the many songs, dances, and marches in these quartets interlaced with the more forbidding fugues. The Guarneri Quartet has the rare virtue of not taking itself too seriously. I have already mentioned the "Hymn of Thanksgiving" in the opus 132 quartet. I also listened a great deal to the opus 127 quartet, which opens with inspiring chords and is a mixture of the resolute and the reflective, and to the final quartet, opus 135. This is the shortest quartet of the final five and shows Beethoven finding his answer to human suffering in the form of comedy and laughter rather than tragedy (think of the laughing Buddha). I also thought about the ending Beethoven wrote, after completing opus 135, to replace the "Great Fugue" in opus 130. It seemed to me that he had acted wisely and correctly by bringing this quartet to a light, almost comedic, conclusion.
It is not a pleasant experience to be in recovery, but I was grateful for the opportunity to hear the Guarneri Quartet and to revisit the Beethoven string quartets. This is music that speaks to the heart of listeners at different times and stages of life. I suggest that listeners coming to the quartets for the first time (or after many times) also read a good overview to Beethoven's life and music. I recommend Lewis Lockwood's "Beethoven: The Music and the Life" (2003). This study places Beethoven's achievement in its historical and musical context and includes lengthy treatments of each of the three groups of string quartets.