String Quartet No.1, Op.1 - Rodolphe Kreutzer
R. Kreutzer Quartet No. 1 - Full Piece Recording
Composer: Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766-1831)
Kreutzer is actually a name I'd heard before. He has a pretty well known book of etudes for the violin that I use to play in my lessons. I didn't realize he wrote other things, and was actually rather surprised that I couldn't find any recordings as he's not a completely obscured figure.
He's probably best known for having a sonata written for him (sort of) by Beethoven. Beethoven's sonata was originally written for another violinist named George Bridgetower, but the two had a drunken falling out after the premiere and Beethoven rededicated it to Kreutzer. Kreutzer never played it, allegedly because he hated it.
Kreutzer was born in France and became a pretty successful virtuoso soloist. He taught at the Paris Conservatory and co-authored the conservatory's violin method. Wikipedia tells me he conducted at the Paris Opera as well. He wrote violin concertos, operas, etudes, and apparently some quartets.
Date: ? Sometime between 1766 and 1831
Kreutzer's life spanned the Classical and Romantic era of Western orchestral music. (The boundary is fuzzy, of course) So is this a Classical piece or a Romantic piece? I have no idea.
Romance with variations
Why this one:
I stumbled on this piece after recognizing Kreutzer's name while going through a list of imslp's string quartets. I was curious what Kreutzer's ouvre was like as I had only known of him through his teaching etudes. This quartet, the first in a group of six, mainly piqued my interest because the second movement was a theme and variations movement which had a featured solo for all four instruments. I hadn't played a theme and variations for this project and I was looking forward to the challenge of the cello and viola solos. I was a little anxious about the cello solo in particular, as this was going to be more involved than cello parts I'd done previously.
And also I was (naively, it turns out) optimistic about the first movement, as Allegro Moderato isn't super fast in the grand scheme of things.
Movement 1 - Allegro Moderato
Time: 4/4 BPM=100
The opening theme, in the key of D, is played in unison on all four instruments, and then the key modulates to A shortly afterwards. While in A for a good chunk of time, the piece flirts with E a little but to my ear doesn't quite stay there long enough to feel like a real key change. About halfway though the opening figure comes back, this time in A.
From 3:35-4:22 there's a cool section that modulates to a new key center before drifting back to A. I cannot quite get my head wrapped around what the key actually switches to. The underlying chords that sound right over this part are A, Bm, and F#, so maybe a VII-I-V progression in B minor? (I wish I were better at this). It's the most harmonically interesting section of the movement.
The opening theme returns again towards the end, now back in D where the movement pretty much stays until the end.
Except for the recurring opening theme, the melodic material is primarily in the first violin with the second violin taking over occasionally. The viola and cello are mostly support here.
The original score has a repeat just about halfway through and another at the end, so both halves of the piece were intended to be played twice. I opted not to do this.
I definitely underestimated the difficulty of this movement when I was skimming the score during my prep work. On my first pass through, I (correctly) identified three sections of sixteenth note runs in the violin 1 part that I thought were going to be trouble. Two of those sections were also in the violin 2 part with slight variations. I started drilling those parts immediately and kept at it for more than two months, but still had to reduce the tempo. The left hand fingerings of two of the passages weren't too hard, but the string crossings with my picking hand were brutal. The third trouble spot had both tricky fingering and ugly cross-picking. You can probably tell which spots they are even on a cursory listen, but the passages with difficult picking are at 1:48 and 5:22 in violin 1 (left speaker) and 2:15 and 5:48 in violin 2 (right speaker). The passage with both difficult fretting and picking is at 4:24 in violin 1.
(For a deeper dive into what goes into learning one of these passages, check out this blog post)
Originally my plan was to record at 110 BPM, but I didn't think I was going to be able to get there, so I reduced to 105, then 103, and finally after plateauing and getting frustrated I dropped down to 100. That's probably a bit slow for this movement, but it was either that or scrap months of work. I suppose that's the hazard of playing pieces written by virtuosos: the parts for their primary instrument are really difficult.
I was barely hanging on when recording parts of this movement; hopefully it's not too blazingly obvious.
I recorded the second violin part first, followed by the viola, then the cello, then the first violin.
I was overconfident to start with the second violin and if I had to do it over I definitely would not have. This was mostly a logistical decision; to try to be time efficient I recorded both violin 2 movements in the same session. I had a good handle on the second movement and I really wanted it recorded so I could practice the more difficult cello and viola parts. The decision to record the entire piece one session forced me to play the much more difficult first movement earlier than was wise but I was eager to get started.
I should have just split the violin 2 in to two sessions and started with the Romance, and then I would have had more time to drill the Allegro Moderato. I also kind of had a poor playing day in general when I went in to do this part which was a killer when it was so close to my skill ceiling.
After a rather difficult session on the violin 2 part, the next two sessions (viola then cello) went pretty smoothly. There were only really two parts in the viola and cello that had tricky fingering, but both parts were mercifully brief.
The first violin session for this movement was absolutely brutal. I didn't even bother trying to record both movements in the same session, wish was the right choice. I had trouble with all the parts I thought I would. It was frustrating, as I'd had a really good practice week. But as I like to say, you get immediately 10% worse once the record button gets pressed.
I did learn from my experience with the Fodor quartet and paid really close attention to the timing of the drone sixteenth notes in the violin 2 and viola as I was laying them down. I didn't have to go back and re-record anything.
Getting good dynamic contrast between loud and soft parts is still a struggle, but I'm starting to think that issue is baked into the way I have to record these and the limitations of both the instruments and the player.
Movement 2: Romance and variations
Key : D
Time: 4/4 BPM=95
A theme and variations movement is basically just what it sounds like. There's a main theme established at the beginning and then subsequent sections are variations on that theme. In this Romance, the main theme is played by the first violin and the viola and is followed by four variations, each with a different solo instrument. The second violin takes the lead in variation 1, the cello in variation 2, the viola in variation 3, and the first violin in variation 4. The main theme returns at the end.
This movement is mostly in D major, though there are a lot of G# accidentals in variation 1 and some in variation 4, which would kind of imply a slide into A. The keys of D and A have mostly overlapping notes, so it isn't a very dramatic shift.
Variation 2 (1:45-2:45) with the cello in the lead, switches key to D minor, with a brief modulation in the middle to F major (2:06-2:15). This gives a sense of motion between related keys as this variation takes the movement from D major to D minor (the parallel minor) to F major (relative major of D minor) back to D minor and then back to D major when variation 3 takes over. I think this is a cool way to do some harmonic exploring without taking us too far afield as the keys involved are closely related*.
*Parallel keys like D major and D minor have 3 notes that are different, but since they are centered around the same tonic note (D in this case), though they have a very different character, they still sound related. Relative keys like D minor and F major have the exact same notes, but are centered around a different tonic.
The second half of variation 3 (3:06-3:16) does what sounds to me like a modulation to minor, but I can't quite figure it out. The chords that fit under that section are A major, D minor, and E minor. I'm not sure where that leaves us.
One other thing of note on this score is that the cello part in variation 2 is written in false treble clef rather than bass clef.
Selecting a tempo for this one was kind of a process. "Romance" by itself isn't super helpful compared to movements that are just named after the intended tempo. I searched around for and listened to Classical and Romantic era pieces called "Romance" and it wasn't as conclusive as I'd hoped. Beethoven has a concerto movement Romance that is an Adagio (pretty slow), the Romance movement of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is an Andante (walking pace) as is Brahm's Op 118 No. 5. They were mostly on the slower side but playing this piece at the same tempo as say the above Mozart or Brahms felt really draggy to me. So I opted to only bring the tempo down slightly from the Allegro Moderato movement. I have no idea this is accurate to the intent of the piece, but it sounds ok to me.
I had lots of debates with myself about whether to play the repeats in this movement. The theme and each variation are all split into two parts which repeat. Repeats in a theme and variation really can establish the melodies in the listener's ear better and make the contrasting variations stand out but I wasn't sure I wanted to make a 6 minute movement into a 12 minute one. Also I didn't know if I wanted to massively imbalance the piece as a whole by making the second movement considerably longer than the first. I considered only doing the repeats for the opening theme to better establish it prior to the variations, but in the end opted out of doing that. My recording windows tend to be short, so making the piece longer without a really compelling reason means I run the risk of running out of time and having to stop mid movement, which could cause issues with the performance and recording. (e.g. I could be sitting in a slightly different place relative to the mic which would might make it really obvious that we stitched it together over two sessions or my strings being in a slightly different wear and tear state could cause some discontinuities in sound etc)
Each variation solo had its challenges, but overall the cello variation 2 and the first violin variation 4 were the most difficult. The violin 1 part was fast with some tricky fingerings and string crossings, but overall wasn't as difficult as the fast sections in movement 1.
The main impediment in the cello part was the false treble clef. I actually read treble clef really well. but my instinctive mental map between the notes on the page and the fretboard is just absent for the mandocello. It's kind of the difference between normal reading where you just glance at the word and know how to say it and having to sound everything out. Learning variation 2 was a very slow process and there are lots of position shifts so it took me a long time to find the notes and figure out the best way to play them. The section is only a minute long, so after all the repetitions to learn it I ended up accidentally just memorizing it, so the reading challenge didn't trip me up in the studio.
I think I found two small errors in the score in the second violin part in variation 1 and variation 4 where an accidental at the beginning of a measure was not undone at the end. (e.g. an E that was made into an E# at the start was not notated back to E natural later in the measure). They definitely sounded off when I played them as written.
There's also a section in the second violin variation 4 that doesn't match the score because I didn't really understand how it was supposed to be played. It's two measures where eighth notes on every beat are tied to a sixteenth note on the same beat with a sixteenth rest underneath the sixteenth note.
R. Kreutzer Quartet No. 1 - Romance Quadrant Video (Excerpt)
In retrospect it's probably meant to be played as an eighth note, a sixteenth rest, and another sixteenth note, but at the time of recording I wasn't sure and playing as straight eighths didn't sound bad.