April 30, 2017, 4pm

Alexander String Quartet

For more than 30 years, the Alexander String Quartet has performed in the major music capitals of five continents, securing its standing among the world’s premier ensembles. A favorite of our audience, they return to our series to perform works by Mozart and Britten, concluding with Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 59, No. 2.

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String Quartet No. 22 in B-flat major, K. 589 (1790)      W.A. Mozart

      Menuetto: Moderato
      Allegro assai


String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 25 (1941)         Benjamin Britten

      Andante sostenuto – Allegro vivo
      Allegretto con slancio
      Andante calmo
      Molto vivace




String Quartet No. 8 in E minor,                        Ludwig van Beethoven
Op. 59, No. 2 (1806)                                                                 (1770-1827)

      Molto adagio
      Finale: Presto


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Program Notes


String Quartet in B-flat major, K. 589

Born January 27, 1756, Salzburg
Died December 5, 1791, Vienna

            In the spring of 1789, Prince Karl Lichnowsky, a generous patron of music, invited Mozart to visit Berlin with him. Legend has it that the cello-playing King Friedrich Wilhelm II was desperate to receive Mozart, who played before the king and queen and was rewarded with a golden snuffbox full of a hundred louis d’or and a commission to compose six string quartets for the king and six easy keyboard sonatas for his daughter. Mozart returned to Vienna but was able to complete only three of these quartets, thereafter nicknamed the “King of Prussia Quartets,” and then had to sell them for quick cash during the poverty of his final years.

But the problem is that this tale appears to have been a complete fabrication on Mozart’s part. While Mozart did visit Berlin in May 1789, all the evidence suggests that the king did not receive him, gave him no gift, and commissioned nothing. Faced with having to return to Vienna in utter defeat, Mozart borrowed money to pass off as from the king and created the story of the commission. Certainly he did not seem to take the commission – if it ever existed – very seriously: he wrote one quartet immediately, two a year later, and then forgot about the whole thing, and when these quartets were published there was no hint of a royal dedication (in his biography of Mozart, Maynard Solomon discusses in some detail the implications of this distressing episode). This should not cause us to undervalue these quartets, but it does present them in a different light than the legend would have it.

The three quartets he completed, however, have inevitably been nicknamed the “King of Prussia” quartets. Taking an obvious cue, Mozart made sure that all three feature an important role for the cellist, but such prominence created special problems for Mozart, who was essentially a “top-line” composer: he preferred to have the melody in the highest register, the accompaniment beneath it. As soon as the bottom voice is given prominence, the other three voices must have their roles re-defined. As a result, all four instruments have very active roles, giving these quartets an unusually rich sonority.

The Quartet in B-flat major, completed in May 1790, is relaxed and agreeable music. There is a sense of smoothness throughout the first movement. Its opening theme flows easily in the first violin, and the second subject – specifically given to the cello – proceeds along a steady pulse of eighth-notes; the surprisingly short development section makes frequent use of triplet rhythms. The cello has the main theme of the Larghetto; textures grow complex here, with ornate rhythms and unusual pairings of instruments: the first violin and cello, though some distance apart in range, share the material at times.

The cello fades from prominence over the final two movements. The Menuetto is in many ways the most impressive movement of this quartet. Much of the writing in the opening section sends the first violin quite high in its register, perhaps as an effort to balance the deep sonority of the cello. The trio section is huge: over a busy, chirping accompaniment, the first violin begins to develop material from the minuet, and Mozart stays with this until the third movement becomes, surprisingly, almost the longest in the quartet. The finale, much more conventional, flows smoothly on its 6/8 meter, and many have felt that its main theme bears a close relationship to the finale of Haydn’s “Joke” Quartet. The movement drives to an almost operatic climax with the first violin soaring high above the other instruments before the music subsides to its nicely understated close.


String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 25

Born November 22, 1913, Lowestoft
Died December 4, 1976, Aldeburgh

            Benjamin Britten, a pacifist, had left England in 1939 at the outbreak of World War II and set out to establish himself as a composer in this country: the New York Philharmonic premiered his Violin Concerto in 1940 and his Sinfonia da Requiem in 1941.  In the spring of 1941, Britten and his companion Peter Pears drove an aging Model A across the United States to Escondido, California, where they spent the summer as guests of the duo-piano team Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson. While there, Britten received a visit from the distinguished American patron of the arts Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who commissioned a string quartet from the 27-year-old composer.  Britten would receive $400 for the quartet, but there was a time constraint – the premiere was scheduled for the end of the summer.  To a friend, Britten wrote: “Short notice & a bit of a sweat, but I’ll do it as the cash will be useful!”  The Coolidge Quartet gave the premiere of the String Quartet in D major in Los Angeles with Britten in attendance on September 21, 1941.

The String Quartet in D major seems to look both backward and forward at the same time.  Its form appears quite traditional.  It is in four movements, and these seem to conform to the shape of the classical string quartet: a sonata-form first movement, a scherzo, a slow movement, and a fast finale.  But to describe Britten’s First String Quartet that way is to miss the originality of this music.  This quartet is remarkable for the sound-world Britten creates, for the structure of its movements, for the way themes reappear in different guises, and for its unexpected key relationships.

The unusual sound-world is evident from the first instant of the Andante sostenuto, where the two violins and viola – set very high in their range – play a pulsing pattern that Britten specifies must be both triple piano and molto vibrato; far below, the pizzicato cello has completely different material.  These two opening ideas, sounded simultaneously but so unlike each other, will return in different forms later in the quartet.  The long opening section gives way to a rhythmic, angular Allegro vivo derived from the very beginning, and Britten shifts back and forth between these two themes at quite different tempos before the movement winks out on barely audible pizzicatos.

Briefest of the movements, the Allegretto con slancio (“impetuous”) proceeds along its steady 3/4 pulse, but soon this is bristling with energy: sharp attacks, trills, whistling runs.  After the violent end of the second movement, the third movement brings a world of calm (it is in fact marked Andante calmo).  The 5/4 meter of this movement at first masks the fact that its opening is a subtle variation of the beginning of the first movement.  The music grows more animated in its central episode, which is in turn derived from the pizzicato cello of the very beginning.

The finale, marked Molto vivace, demands virtuoso performers.  It begins with what seems an isolated fragment, a quick two-measure phrase for the first violin.  But quickly the other instruments pick this up and treat it to some blistering contrapuntal extension.  The energy never lets up in this movement, which races to its resounding close on a firm D-major chord.

String Quartet in E minor, Op. 59, No. 2

Born December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna

            When Count Andreas Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to Vienna and chamber music enthusiast, commissioned a set of three string quartets from Beethoven in 1805, he could not possibly have known what he would receive in return.  Beethoven had at that time written one set of six quartets (published in 1801), cast very much in the high classical mold as set out by Haydn and Mozart.  Doubtless Razumovsky expected something on this order, and he provided Beethoven with some Russian themes and asked that he include one in each of the three quartets.

The three quartets Beethoven wrote in 1806, however, were so completely original that in one stroke they redefined the whole conception of the string quartet.  These are massive quartets, both in duration and dramatic scope, and it is no surprise that they alienated virtually everyone who heard them; only with time did Beethoven’s astonishing achievement in this music become clear.  Trying to take the measure of this new music, some early critics referred to the Razumovsky quartets as “symphony quartets,” but this is misleading, for the quartets are true chamber music.  But it is true that what the Eroica did for the symphony, these quartets did for the string quartet: they opened new vistas, entirely new conceptions of what the string quartet might be and of the power it might unleash.

The first Razumovsky quartet is broad and heroic and the third extroverted and virtuosic, but the second has defied easy characterization.  Part of the problem is that in this quartet Beethoven seems to be experimenting with new ideas about themes and harmony.  The thematic material of the first movement in particular has baffled many, for it seems almost consciously non-thematic, and harmonically this quartet can seem elusive as well: all four movements are in some form of E, but Beethoven refuses to settle into any key for very long, and one key will melt into another (often unexpected) key in just a matter of measures.

Such a description would seem to make the Quartet in E minor a nervous work, unsettled in its procedures and unsettling to audiences.  But the wonder is that — despite these many original strokes — this music is so unified, so convincing, and at times so achingly beautiful.  Simple verbal description cannot begin to provide a measure of this music, but a general description can at least aid a listener along his way to discovering this music for himself.  The two chords that open the Allegro will recur throughout, at quite different dynamic levels and used in quite different ways.  The “theme” that follows seems almost a fragment, and Beethoven develops small parts even of this theme, using them as rhythmic figures or developing intervals from this opening statement.  This is a big movement, and Beethoven asks for repeats of both the exposition and development (not always observed in performance) before the movement closes on a massive restatement of the opening theme which suddenly fades into silence.

Beethoven’s friend Carl Czerny said that the composer had been inspired to write the Molto Adagio “when contemplating the starry sky and thinking of the music of the spheres.”  Beethoven specifies in the score that “This piece must be played with great feeling,” and after the somewhat nervous first movement the Adagio brings a world of expressive intensity.  This massive movement, in sonata form, opens with a prayer‑like main theme, but all is not peace: along the way Beethoven punctuates the generally hushed mood with powerful massed chords.

The Allegretto, with its skittering main theme (the pulses are off the beat), feels somewhat playful.  In its trio section, Beethoven introduces Razumovsky’s “Russian” theme and then proceeds to subject it to such strait-jacketed contrapuntal treatment that some critics have felt that Beethoven is trying annihilate the theme; Joseph Kerman speaks of the trio as Beethoven’s “revenge” on Razumovsky.  The finale begins in the wrong key (C major) and then wobbles uncertainly between C major and E minor throughout.  Despite the air of high-spirited dancing in the main theme, this movement too brings stuttering phrases and the treatment of bits of theme, which are sometimes tossed rapidly between the four voices.  A Piu Presto coda brings this most original quartet to a sudden close.


About the Artists 

THE ALEXANDER STRING QUARTET                                                                                      Biography

Zakarias Grafilo, violin
Frederick Lifsitz, violin
Paul Yarbrough, viola
Sandy Wilson, cello

Celebrating its 35th Anniversary in 2016, the Alexander String Quartet has performed in the major music capitals of five continents, securing its standing among the world’s premier ensembles. Widely admired for its interpretations of Beethoven, Mozart, and Shostakovich, the quartet’s recordings of the Beethoven cycle (twice), Bartók, and Shostakovich cycle have won international critical acclaim. The quartet has also established itself as an important advocate of new music through over 30 commissions from such composers as Jake Heggie, Cindy Cox, Augusta Read Thomas, Robert Greenberg, Martin Bresnick, Cesar Cano, and Pulitzer Prize-winner Wayne Peterson. A new work by Tarik O’Regan, commissioned for the Alexander by the Boise Chamber Music Series, had its premiere in October 2016, and a work for quintet from Samuel Carl Adams is planned for premiere in early 2018 with pianist Joyce Yang.

The Alexander String Quartet is a major artistic presence in its home base of San Francisco, serving since 1989 as Ensemble in Residence of San Francisco Performances and Directors of the Morrison Chamber Music Center in the College of Liberal and Creative Arts at San Francisco State University.

The Alexander String Quartet’s annual calendar of concerts includes engagements at major halls throughout North America and Europe.  The quartet has appeared at Lincoln Center, the 92nd Street Y, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York City; Jordan Hall in Boston; the Library of Congress and Dumbarton Oaks in Washington; and chamber music societies and universities across the North American continent.  This past summer, the quartet returned as faculty to the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, a nexus of their early career. Recent overseas tours have brought them to the U.K., the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, France, Greece, the Republic of Georgia, Argentina, Panamá, and the Philippines. They returned to Poland for their debut performances at the Beethoven Easter Festival in 2015.

Among the fine musicians with whom the Alexander String Quartet has collaborated are pianists Joyce Yang, Roger Woodward, Anne-Marie McDermott, Menachem Pressler, Marc-André Hamelin, and Jeremy Menuhin; clarinetists Joan Enric Lluna, David Shifrin, Richard Stoltzman, and Eli Eban; soprano Elly Ameling; mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato; violinist Midori; cellists Lynn Harrell, Sadao Harada, and David Requiro; and jazz greats Branford Marsalis, David Sanchez, and Andrew Speight. The quartet has worked with many composers including Aaron Copland, George Crumb, and Elliott Carter, and has long enjoyed a close relationship with composer-lecturer Robert Greenberg, performing numerous lecture-concerts with him annually.

The Alexander String Quartet added considerably to its distinguished and wide-ranging discography over the past decade, now recording exclusively for the FoghornClassics label. There were three major releases in the 2013-2014 season: The combined string quartet cycles of Bartók and Kodály, recorded on the renowned Ellen M. Egger matched quartet of instruments built by San Francisco luthier, Francis Kuttner (“If ever an album had “Grammy nominee” written on its front cover, this is it.” –Audiophile Audition); the string quintets and sextets of Brahms with Toby Appel and David Requiro (“a uniquely detailed, transparent warmth” –Strings Magazine); and the Schumann and Brahms piano quintets with Joyce Yang (“passionate, soulful readings of two pinnacles of the chamber repertory” –The New York Times).  Their recording of music of Gershwin and Kern was released in the summer of 2012, following the spring 2012 recording of the clarinet quintet of Brahms and a new quintet from César Cano, in collaboration with Joan Enric Lluna, as well as a disc in collaboration with the San Francisco Choral Artists.  An album of works by Cindy Cox was released in 2015. Their recording of the Mozart “Prussian” Quartets will be released in Fall 2016.

The Alexander’s 2009 release of the complete Beethoven cycle was described by Music Web International as performances “uncompromising in power, intensity and spiritual depth,” while Strings Magazine described the set as “a landmark journey through the greatest of all quartet cycles.”  The FoghornClassics label released a three-CD set (Homage) of the Mozart quartets dedicated to Haydn in 2004.  Foghorn released the a six-CD album (Fragments) of the complete Shostakovich quartets in 2006 and 2007, and a recording of the complete quartets of Pulitzer prize-winning San Francisco composer, Wayne Peterson, was released in the spring of 2008.  BMG Classics released the quartet’s first recording of Beethoven cycle on its Arte Nova label to tremendous critical acclaim in 1999.

The Alexander String Quartet was formed in New York City in 1981 and captured international attention as the first American quartet to win the London International String Quartet Competition in 1985. The quartet has received honorary degrees from Allegheny College and Saint Lawrence University, and Presidential medals from Baruch College (CUNY).

[August 2016]