Beethoven is a behemoth. A larger-than-life mythical creature whose very name signifies something beyond the seemingly underwhelming, but equally mystical, title of composer; something paranormal, supernatural. His music is an institution of royalty that requires collective obeisance from its audience. He is everywhere and exists in almost every chamber music series and symphony orchestra season. Yet this continual omnipresence has done little to turn the institutionalized Beethoven into a cliché or trend. We cannot escape his music. His artifacts in the museum-like trappings of the chamber or symphonic concert are and will be continually on display.
In the spirit of this continual exhibition and refashioning of Beethoven, the Muir String Quartet played an all-Beethoven concert on Wednesday, October 21, (part 3 of an ongoing cycle of all the Beethoven quartets). This daunting task of performing a canon of such complexity and significance requires the obvious skill and expressivity that ensembles such as the Muir possesses. Not so obvious, but also unsurprising, it requires careful programming. Even though this becomes somewhat ancillary to the actual performative aspect, it deserves some commentary. The Muir Quartet doesn’t fall into the teleological trap of going from beginning to end as a way to display the evolution and progression of Beethoven’s style over time. This has programmatic problems, especially for those who take preference of one Beethoven stylistic period over another. Rather the Muir carefully crafted a cycle where each concert is an encapsulation of all the stylistic periods of Beethoven without the chronology. This concert exemplified such; going from the whimsical humor and classicism of his early period (No. 3 in D Major, op.18/3) interstitially connected with foreshadowings of irreverence and unrest. Then, the late period’s nostalgic meanderings into and troubling re-fashionings of older forms (“Grosse Fugue” in B-flat Major, op. 133) couched in a style that teeters incessantly between chaos and order. And lastly, a flashback into the middle period as represented by a mature and confident voice of a seasoned and troubled master whose craft (No. 7 in F Major, op. 59/1 “Rasumovsky1”) is securely fastened together by surprising, but intentional treatments of classical form. Not to mention, any of the Rasumovskys tend to be crowd favorites (as indicated by the humming of the cello line of the first movement by at least three or four audience members in my field of hearing).
In addition to this clever programming, the Muir accomplished something else: an embodiment of the group dynamics involved in collective music-making. Each movement of each quartet was carefully shaped and choreographed. Even further were the moments within movements, whether it be the dramatic moment near the end of the exposition, in the first movement of op. 18/3 where all the players dramatically disappear except for a line sustained by the cello, or the sinuous rawness of the second-to-last section of the “Grosse Fugue,” where all of the players dramatically swash-buckled their bows in unified exuberance. And then, there was one of the most arresting moments of collective cohesion from the whole concert where (in the second movement of the Rasumovsky) the whole quartet backed away to make room for one gentle pizzicato shortly before the movement is concluded. This was pure genius on part of the quartet. That single pizzicato, played by the first violin seemed to take the audience by complete and utter surprise. Yet, in the midst of this hyper-self consciousness as a collective and unified instrumental body, there were moments where individuals were allowed to poke through — like when the haunting theme in the third movement (Adagio molto e mesto) of “Rasumovsky 1” (String Quartet No.7 in F Major, Op.59/1), appears out of the texture. It is here where Peter Zazofsky, first violin, pulls it off deftly but without melodrama. Yet his presence as the leader is made clear. Or, throughout the concert, the cellist, Michael Reynolds cleverly negotiates between a supportive background player to a forthright foreground soloist (i.e. the notorious first movement of the Rasumovsky). Each player moves in and out of the roles created by the music with a creative flair that surprisingly, yet satisfactorily re-imagines this icon we call Beethoven.
Addendum: The Muir Quartet will continue its Beethoven on January 20, 2010 at 7:30 in the Tsai Performance Center on Commonwealth Ave in Boston. Click here for more details.