Masterclass: Beethoven Grosse Fuge op.133 (part one)

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Belcea Quartet violist Krzysztof Chorzelski guides us on a journey that requires courage from both listener and performer

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Just as it generated controversy from its first performance, Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge  op.133 continues to confound and challenge. For all its rigour and formality, this is not a normal fugue. Usually the aim when playing a fugue is to bring out certain elements and make sure the texture is clear and understandable for the listener. To do that here would be contrary to the nature of this music, which is about being on the brink of coherence.

The beginning is similar to that of the finale of the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata. Beethoven sets out his ideas – the eight-note main fugue subject, trills, iambic rhythms and appoggiaturas laid out both in gentle melody and in the disjointed countersubject – as if he were a child pyromaniac diligently preparing all the elements and then, on the word Fuga, lighting a match and beginning a long, merciless journey towards destruction…

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