in: Reviews

January 29, 2010

Insightful Pairing: Higdon Significant with Beethoven

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Pacifica String Quartet’s pairing of music by Beethoven and Jennifer Higdon featured in the concert at Longy on January intrigued me. Was it an indication of Higdon’s status as one of the leading voices in new music in North America? Or would it be an example of lopsided programming, of dropping something inconsequential between two works by the “giant”? Like most people, I bring some baggage to Beethoven and his string quartets, and it’s impossible to listen without unpacking a least a bit of it. But the Higdon was moving, impactful, and yes, significant, even on first hearing — without bringing preconceived notions to it. So, the Higdon-Beethoven pairing Pacifica String Quartet’s pairing of music by Beethoven and Jennifer Higdon featured in the concert at Longy on January was an insightful one.

The physical drama of the Pacifica’s interaction was apparent from the first few notes, their collective electricity a palpable reminder of the importance of live performance as opposed to a recording. First violin Simin Ganatra was buoyant in her gestures, and cellist Brandon Vamos responded, even leading with his chiseled jawline and angular shoulders. Although they have been playing together for more than 15 years, the Pacifica’s energy is fresh, youthful and spontaneous.

The six quartets of Opus 18 are usually described as illustrating Beethoven’s mastery of the conventions of Viennese classicism. No. 6 of the set begins with an Allegro con brio, in the Pacifica’s hands a theatre piece of playful banter, coy asides, and humorous interchanges. The second movement, Adagio ma non troppo, continues with Mozartean simplicity and depth of feeling; the contrasting inner section was performed with an eerie delicacy. The Scherzo was jovial jousting and vigorous cross-rhythms, brought to life with great energy and precision. The last movement, La Malinconia: Adagio – Allegretto quasi Allegro, begins with somber statements that hint at a fugue, but then coalesce into stark unisons, building in stress and intensity, until – until — (more stress!) the release with a theme of buoyancy and exuberance, a whirling rondo, played at a tempo that kept me gasping.

Jennifer Higdon’s quartet Voices was commissioned in 1993 by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. The first movement “Blitz” begins with a ferocious crunch, continuing with harsh tone clusters given a knife-sharp edge by precise rhythmic intensity. Violent pizzicato snaps are followed by a ticking ostinato figure laced with squealing glissandi. The tone clusters return, and there is a segue directly into the next movement, “Enlacing.” This employs a broad palette of sonorities – resonant harmonics give an effect of floating underwater, but melodic gestures build, becoming increasingly exuberant.

In the last movement, “Grace,” sustained parallel fifths serve as a lugubrious support. Eventually the cello takes up an evocative expressive statement, first pressing in intensity, and then easing – the ending is delicate, even fragile. The Pacifica played with complete commitment to this compelling work with its demanding range of emotions. I want to hear it again so I grasp more of its structure, thankfully there is a recording, so I can listen to “Voices” again soon. (discography at http://www.jenniferhigdon.com/)

Beethoven’s quartet op. 130 reveals hallmarks of his late style, one that envelops and encompasses (or at times fragments and even parodies) the early vocabulary, creating a profound and monumental expression and radical formal experiments. In the first movement, elements of the traditional sonata form can be discerned – development section, recapitulation – but also there a range of unexpected twists and turns. The second movement is a mysterious Presto, which, as its theme is repeated, is varied playfully, wryly, by the first violin. The next movement, Andante, pulls its motive out of the Presto, expanding it. Its vocabulary sounds like something from the opus 18 era, except for the sudden dissolving into minor, and the symphonic drama of the soft-loud ending. Then follows “Alla danza tedezca” – instead of a Minuet, a rather inelegant German dance. While clever in some spots, the major chord ending is absolutely banal. But this heavy-handedness is followed by the sublime warmth and insight of the “Cavatina”. Beethoven, through a melody of simple means but expansive phrasing, achieves a Mahlerian kind of breadth and solemnity. First violinist Ganatra brought searing heat to the passage Beethoven marks as “Beklemmt,” an outburst of grief and sorrow, that is then contained by the recall of the melody.

The famous “Great Fugue” (Grosse Fuge) has been a work of controversy since it was written. Beethoven was convinced to remove from its position as the final movement of the quartet, replacing it with a shorter, lighter and easier movement. Since then, this Fugue (like the cheese) stands alone. But the Pacifica’s performance of the work as part of the quartet, convinced me of the wisdom of Beethoven’s original conception. Following the banality of the “danza tedesca”, and the despondency and introverted sorrow of the Cavatina, the Fugue, with its monumentality, its anger, struggle, and repeated battles of the themes in eternal conflict, seems very necessary – this is where it belongs! It is also, famously, impossibly written: Beethoven’s abstract ideas are far from idiomatic on string instruments. The enormous jagged leaps of the repeating theme are so awkward – but that sense of impossible struggle (and its angst) is something that a string quartet can physically convey with great vividness (and something that is lost in the orchestrations of the work – sure, it’s easy if you divide it up among a whole orchestra!) It is also a movement of striking contrasts — in a hushed passage well into the piece, the Pacifica evoke a muffled John Cage music box, drawing a delicate, tinkling rendering of the themes. The ideas then return (yet again) in renewed sparring, majestic, but then questioning. The ending is grand, but with its ambiguity.

The athleticism of the Fugue (and its vigorous enactment by Pacifica) made me think that concert dress for musicians ought to be made by the same designers who make clothes for Olympic athletes. Surely what this quartet does is every bit as demanding, physically, as the work of a highjumper or gymnast. Does concert black serve to remind us of the weightiness of the intellectual pursuit of this music? Is such a reminder needed.

And, hey, why no encore? The carpeted floor of Pickman Hall prevented us from stamping out our desire for one; the Cavatina would have been perfect. But drenched, (well, damp) in their athlete’s sweat, the Pacifica Quartet deserved to call it a night.

Liane Curtis (Ph.D., Musicology) is Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University. Her website is here.

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