Harvard University and the Chiara Quartet gave us a real treat — a free concert of a first-rate string quartet playing Schubert standards (all in minor keys) in the newly re-opened John Knowles Paine Concert Hall at Harvard University.
The set opened with the Quartet No. 13 in A Minor, the “Rosamunde.” Schubert wrote it after being hospitalized in 1823 with a bout of primary syphilis. He was broke, sick, and despondent about ever regaining his health. He had returned to the string quartet for the first time since he was a teenager in 1820, when he produced a first movement, the Quartettesatz in C minor, and then abandoned the project. The A Minor quartet, written in 1824, became an outlet for both his passion and his distress. The first movement (Allegro ma non troppo) opens with a heart-wrenching theme in the first violin, accompanied by a running melody in the second violin from Schubert’s 1814 opus 2 song, “Gretchen am Spinnrade.” The viola and cello underscore the violins with slow-moving drones. This is an amazing combination, played by the Chiara with quiet restraint and very little vibrato. An outburst — a cry of anguish — was followed shortly by a return to the opening, this time played with more vibrato and more expressiveness. The effect for me was to break the somber mood — a reminder that this is music, not life. Throughout the long (~15 minutes) first movement, the process repeats with subtle variations as each of the instruments takes up the somber melody, followed by more cheerful variations. I would have been happier with fewer. The next movement (Andante,) played with nearly the identical tempo, is a favorite of funerals: shorter, beautiful, and moving. The opening melody conveys both sadness and a light kind of wonder about what life brings as well as what it can take away. Throughout the long quartet, Schubert shows his skill at utilizing all the instruments in the piece, particularly the viola (which he played).
My favorite movement was the Menuetto: Allegretto-Trio, which opens with an ominous low cello note, to which the other instruments slowly enter. Quickly the mood lightens to a proper Viennese waltz as the dance begins — only to be interrupted again and again by the somber theme. A much lighter Allegro moderato closes the quartet.
The second piece on the program was the C minor Quartettsatz, a much more cheerful piece played with great verve by the Chiara. This was a welcome relief from the Rosamunde and a great way to end the first half of the concert.
After intermission came the very familiar quartet in D minor, “Death and the Maiden.” Written immediately after the Rosamunde, the D minor is a far more engaging work, and it was given a great reading by the Chiara. The program notes suggest that although many think this work represents Schubert’s pouring out his soul on the subject of death, the melody that starts the second movement was used only at the suggestion of his friends, who thought it was pretty.
I don’t buy it. The D minor quartet is more than a simple expression of musical form. The sometimes violent outbursts of forte in what seems to be the middle of a piano are reminiscent of Beethoven’s early piano sonatas, which Schubert knew very well. These violent outbursts of forte shock, they disturb, just as they do in Beethoven. The opening of the second movement, which starts with the famous “Death and the Maiden” theme, was played pianissimo and with nearly no vibrato. I loved it. Melodic yes, but very spooky. The Chiara, perhaps believing their program notes, rather quickly raised the volume and increased the vibrato, relieving the tension that I have heard in other performances. They needn’t have. Throughout the concert I was aware of the role that vibrato plays in how music affects me emotionally. The Chiara is very careful with it. The beginning and final chords in a long phrase were almost always nearly without vibrato, allowing us to hear the perfect (non-even-tempered) chord tuning a great string quartet can deliver. But whenever the music became more forte, the vibrato did too. The sound became more conventional, more “just music,” louder, more comfortable, but less engaging. But on the whole their performance was at a very high level, and was greatly appreciated by the audience. We hear this piece performed a lot, but their performance was well worth hearing.
The concert took place in the newly renovated Paine Hall building. What about the concert hall itself? I found that most of the work took place elsewhere in the building: new music studios and state-of-the-art practice rooms (including electronic systems for reverberation designed years ago by yours truly). The hall has new stage lights, electrical panels, and a coat of paint. The heating system has been completely redesigned to eliminate sound leakage between the practice rooms and the hall. The hall is now air conditioned, with cool air coming down from vents in the ceiling over the side aisles. It can finally be used year round. (For whatever it is worth, the hall was quite cool during the concert, with many audience members wearing jackets, and some at the side isles complaining of a cold draft.)
The acoustics, alas, do not seem to have changed. The backstage curtain was open, exposing the same ugly highly reflective cave of a stage house. I came early and picked a seat in the fifth row center, where I thought the sound might be best. The quartet, fortunately, set up on the forestage, as close to the audience as possible. But the stage box behind them was open, totally devoid of absorption, and added a muddy color to all that they played.
The muddiness matters, but its effect is difficult to perceive consciously. We are such visual animals that the body language of a visually engaging group like the Chiara carries excitement that the sound may not. I have to shut my eyes for at least five minutes before I can be sure of what I am hearing. Even in my excellent seat the sound was just tolerable. I could localize each instrument only some of the time, and often it was not possible to tell if a line was being played by the second violin or the viola. The uncertainty about the sound adds a sense of distance between the performers and the listeners. There is a sparkle to sound in a good environment that sucks you in, and this was mostly lacking last night.
I am not a frequent visitor to Paine Hall. I remember it more than 30 years ago as a space designed for both music and lectures. The panels between the windows were made of burlap with horsehair sound absorption behind. I vaguely remember more fabric on stage. The sound was clear and not reverberant. I enjoyed the lectures in Music 1, with examples played on the piano on stage, and by an occasional string quartet. Sometime between then and now the absorption on the side walls was removed. They panels are now hard plaster. The present stage shell was added, ostensibly to project the sound of a small group into the now more reverberant hall.
The “improvements” simply do not work. Modern instruments in a small hall do not need more loudness — they need more clarity. Adding reflections from behind, beside, and overhead increases loudness and reduces clarity. The added reverberation in the hall might be beautiful if the sound up front was clearer, but now it only adds to the muddle. Performing from inside the stage cave (from my experience as a singer) is not a pleasant experience. The sound is loud, muddy, and annoying. It is not easy for the performers to hear one another. I wish stage curtains were back in fashion.
David Griesinger is a Harvard-trained physicist who is eminent in the field of sound and music. His website is here.