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With Conviction and Character, Muir String Quartet Continues Beethoven Cycle


In their fourth installment of a cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets, the Muir String Quartet once again offered a virtuoso representation of each period of one of the most celebrated composers of all time. Wednesday’s concert featured Quartets in E-Flat Major, Op. 74; G Major, Op. 18 No. 2; and C-Sharp Minor, Op. 131.  As with each of the Muir’s concerts in this series, the group has opted to take an approach that highlights the stylistic variety of Beethoven’s life works rather than a consecutive approach.

This approach is, of course, for the best–getting a sample of each contrasting period makes for a much more interesting audience experience. There is, however, an added element of difficulty that comes with taking on a piece from each of Beethoven’s periods on the same concert program: the musical approach to each piece has to be entirely different and fresh, as if the ensemble was interpreting pieces written centuries apart from each other. As expected with an ensemble that has become so intimate with the music of Beethoven over the years, Muir String Quartet brought each masterpiece to life on its own terms. The evening’s performances became unique characters, the ensemble placing various traits–tranquility and intensity, motion and suspension, delicacy and grit—in all the right places.

The two earlier works, the G Major and the E-flat Major, or, “Harp” Quartet were performed on the first half of the concert. The ensemble performed the lyricism of the G major quartet with a rarely heard quality of organic beauty. Perhaps the one aspect of both pieces on the first half, representing Beethoven’s comparatively less progressive music, is the demand for each performer to add their own unique drama into their part, while remaining tightly knit as an ensemble. The “Harp” Quartet shares many of these attributes, with a bit more expansive properties in terms of style and musical expression. This performance’s high point was without doubt the Scherzo of the E-flat quartet, exhibiting the ensemble’s fullest expressive abilities that can only come from years of playing with each other.

While there are devout camps of musicians that champion any of the three periods imposed on Beethoven’s catalog, I can say without hesitation that the E-flat Major and G Major quartets are child’s play compared to the C-sharp minor quartet. The 40-minute work contains one of the most inspired, complicated, and elegant webs of musical development in the canon of 19th-century music. The demands on the performers in this piece go far beyond earlier examples of Beethoven’s music for strings. The Muir’s performance of the quartet was done with such precision that all the inner complexities of the structure seemed to illuminate themselves as the piece unfolded–a phenomenon that can only occur when the ensemble possesses the dedication to apply a vast theoretical understanding of the composition to its practice.

These series of performances by the Muir String Quartet have attracted a good deal of local enthusiasm, evidenced by such an impressive turnout at the Tsai Performing Arts Center that they ran out of programs before the concert began. It has become clear that the work this ensemble is putting into this series will become a significant milestone in the developing performance tradition of Beethoven’s string quartets.

The next performance in the Muir String Quartet’s series on Beethoven’s Quartets is scheduled for March 3rd.

Peter Van Zandt Lane is a composer and bassoonist who performs regularly in the Boston area. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Music Composition and Theory at Brandeis University.

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  1. I always sit on the edge of my seat when performers play the C#-minor Quartet, because Beethoven specifies that it MUST be played continuously…no pauses between movements! I attended a performance at the Falls Village, CT concert hall on a hot summer’s evening, and I worried that the humidity might cause the players (the Shanghai SQ) to go out of tune, but as far as I could tell, they didn’t. The Muir’s performance took place on a cool, desert-dry evening of course…I thought there was a bit of an intonationn problem after the fierce motto-filled movment, but all told, the master of the Muir members was fully on display. Now if only the last of the scheduled concerts in the spring (if there is one; there wasn’t last year) could be transferred to the Tsai, and not in the acoustically dead business building (home of the first concert in the series).

    Comment by Laurence Glavin — January 24, 2010 at 2:40 pm

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