in: Reviews

April 12, 2014

An Abundance of Quartets and Big Beethoven

by

Jupiter Streing Quartet (file photo)

Jupiter String Quartet (file photo)

“Too much of a good thing can be wonderful,” Mae West avers, and so it was that I heard the rising Jupiter Quartet hit the midpoint of its Beethoven cycle a week ago (Friday April 4; Opus 59 No. 1 and Opus 130) in MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, followed a few days later by a private concert of the established Leipzig Quartet also featuring Opus 130. (And of course last Friday night saw two separate, simultaneous local recitals of the Bartok even-numbered quartets.)

The Jupiter are a terrific quartet and great fun to watch, especially cellist Daniel McDonough hyper-alertly presiding over all, while sitting between his very pregnant wife the second violinist Meg Freivogel and his dancing-legged sister-in-law the violist Liz Freivogel, and regularly nodding to aplomb-laden first violinist Nelson Lee.

In the first decade of the 19th century Beethoven was in his 30s and, having smacked his way about the Classical styles, was now constructing the most inspired larger-scale works of genius, one after another. The three opus 59 ‘Razumovsky’ quartets (their serious violinist commissioner had been Russian ambassador to Vienna for over a decade) are long, the first of them most of all. They were well-reviewed at the time, unusually: “profoundly thought through and admirably worked out, though not to be grasped by all”; to their genre they were, in Michael Steinberg’s words, “what the Eroica had been to the symphony and the Waldstein to the piano sonata.” (I’ve raved before here about the amazing must-own Beethoven Quartet Companion book, overflowing with important insights by Steinberg; Maynard Solomon; Joseph Kerman; Roberts Winter and Martin; Leon Botstein; and Charles Rosen and Robert Levin and others via quotation. Steinberg’s subtle harmonic explications are most helpful.)

The Jupiter Quartet sometimes sound, amazingly, like one big happy instrument, with different registers but to the ear all similarly euphonious, low violin indistinguishable from upper viola, lower viola indistinguishable from upper cello, as a passage proceeds up or down the staffs. Even today it’s uncommon to hear quartet playing quite this superlative. Opus 59 No. 1 chugged by wonderfully, from opening locomotion to closing jerky dramatics, with much fun in between, notably when the third movement unfolds without break into the fourth with its Russian theme.

It’s not easy to pinpoint what the Jupiter lack, if they lack anything. Sometimes they overinflect (59/1 second movement), but more often it may be that they could stand a bit more personality. (Not visually! — their onstage animation is pleasing as is, from McDonough on down.) Their emotional dynamic range feels a bit compressed and sometimes it seems they have little left to give. Do they need to project more into large spaces? Reduce homogeneity? Pause longer? Beethoven often does jerk-like things to the players, wit under duress and duress under wit.

A lapsed chamber musician in attendance tried to grapple with it all:

Take a look at the final page of 59/1. Into the end of a movement marked ‘Allegro’, just before a few final bars marked ‘Presto’, Beethoven drops nine bars of ‘Adagio ma non troppo’, which start piano and end pianississimo (3 ps). The driving rhythms fall away and for a brief bittersweet moment, wistful harmonies and songful lines come to the fore, as we hear the jolly theme of the movement one final time, now transformed into something hushed and valedictory. It is like the moment when the hero takes a last look back at the woman who stole his heart before spurring the flanks of his stallion and roaring off across the plains. In other words, pure theater, and from the tempo and dynamic markings there’s no mistaking that Beethoven had something like that in mind, a contrasting moment, a suspension of momentum, a brief glimpse into a different rhythmic world. It is also one of the few unabashedly heartrending moments in all of Beethoven. Thus it was disappointing to hear this moment treated more as a slight ratcheting-down of the movement’s rambunctiousness than as an interruption of it by intentionally contrasting material. The Jupiter’s approach to the whole piece was headlong and vigorous throughout, so perhaps this can be put down to consistency with that vision; but there’s more to this work than effervescence. In going to Adagio here, however qualified, Beethoven is skipping over Andante, in other words downshifting two gears, not just one. I felt Jupiter played it Andante, and actually was shocked a little, a visceral reaction, not intellectual. Some other quartets get all the different sides of the personality of pieces.

This observation caused me to mull a more general notion: that some modern groups’ attentions to expert execution and implementation of detail (rhythm, other precision) may sometimes come at the expense of variety of expressivity—heightened sensitivity to the liveliness of the score right there on the page. Partly this is what sets the Borromeo apart, say, a sort of doing-it-all accomplishment with an extra shot of liveliness and an almost unexpected spot-lit affection and enthusiasm.

With opus 130 two decades later, another vast work (although written quickly, in a matter of months) comprising more than the normal number of movements, some very short, the Jupiter took a while to settle in, to get a grip and make it gripping. That my chamber-music date felt the opposite made me realize also that Friday night after work may not be the easiest time to immerse oneself in Beethoven’s complex art. After the opening Adagio, the Presto tended to the brutal, which happens, maybe not always the performers’ fault. But the German (tedesca) dance sounded duly Germanic. And the Andante con moto showed more moto than most performances, while the simple sad Cavatina sang short and sweet, emerging from the preceding dance—operatic aria, Steinberg explains, direct and brief. “At no point, were the melody to break off, could we foretell its continuation, for all that whatever does come always sounds like the inevitable way. What the other instruments play is active and organic, always closely related to the song itself. Never before was an ‘accompaniment’ so little inclined to be ‘accompanimental.’”

At the key distant modulation with drop in dynamics, the score for first violin is famously marked beklemmt: choked, anxious, straitened. The second violinist of the premiering quartet said the Cavatina “cost the composer tears in the writing and brought out the confession that nothing he had written had so moved him, in fact that merely to revive it afterward in his thoughts and feelings brought forth renewed tributes of tears”—and this mere months after writing opus 132’s famous ‘Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Deity’, which too is imbued with up/down inhales/exhales, if not quite to this frightening, halt, arrhythmic-breathing extent. Nine or so distilled, troubling and troubled violin measures, introduced and then underlain by three quiet, gasping ensemble triplets: what makes anyone write like that? Steinberg: “Unlike anything else he ever composed.”

(I await the day when a quartet bravely attempts the middle three opera in order of composition: 132, 130+133, 131; two-and-a-half-hours of playing, ~18 months of composing.)

The Cavatina has been used for famous funerals, and was included on the 1977 goldplated record sent into space as part of the human demonstration. The movement’s compressed closing-down and reprise were properly honored by the Jupiter. When the original Big (Grosse) Fugue ending is substituted with the long and totally Haydnesque Finale that the composer was agreeably lobbied into providing by his publisher, the Cavatina becomes the weighty center of the piece. The Jupiter had much fun with the wonderful letdown conclusion following; thus backward-facing toward his mentors, it turned out to be Beethoven’s last composition, as he died a few months later.

I urge all readers not to miss the Jupiter’s three concluding local Beethoven cycle concerts starting next fall.

***

 A few nights later, the Leipzig Quartet, founded in the late 1980s by three first chairs (at the time) of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, passed through town and gave a private Beacon Hill recital. Their program included György Kurtág and Haydn alongside opus 130 with its original ending, that Big Fugue.

Haydn to my ear calls for a certain lightness and snappy crispness, even in so serious a piece as opus 20 no. 4 (early 1770s, Haydn 40). I had found those qualities wanting with the Jerusalem a few weeks ago, but regularly hear them from other young or new groups. The Leipzig’s suave approach to this quartet emphasized elegance and purity in an early music style; indeed, they even used different bows for the Haydn. Yet some moments, notably the third movement’s menuet, could have stood more nuance, lilt and swing. Tonal beauty notwithstanding, it was more intellectual than zingarese (as marked).

Except for cellist Matthias Moosdorf, the players stood while playing the Haydn, and this presentation, starkly detailed by the small-library, dry acoustic (which I love), made me speculate that this very piece probably had been similarly fiddled within a mile of where we were ~240 years earlier in the revolting Colonies.

The Leipzig’s polished, straightforward, no-gimmick musicmaking perfectly served Kurtag’s Hommage à Mihály András, 12 Microludes for string quartet (later 1970s, the Romanian/Hungarian composer in his early 50s; András was a fellow musician). With each piece 20-80 seconds long, a wondrous buffet is formed, of static homophony, nimble polyphonic series, chorales in stasis, then slashing attacks: George Crumb and Wallace Stevens’s blackbird intensely speaking to each other, to invoke provincially American comparisons. I found it bracing, quite like the thrill of listening to packed miniatures of Webern and Schoenberg, and would much like to rehear this performance.

And then the second opus 130, a wonderful too much. Again, it took a while for the Leipzig to settle in, so I felt I was understanding something new about the difficulty of the opening pages and the setting of long arcs. Ensemble was untidier than with Jupiter, specifically Stefan Arzberger’s first violin, but you could also detect greater gravitas throughout, a certain lived-with comfort of legato even if not everywhere lots of love. (Same as the Haydn: can such a group possibly be too Germanic in this repertory?) That the violins of Arzberger and Tilman Büning, the viola of Ivo Bauer, and Moosdorf’s cello never formed one whole instrument must have been chiefly the result of the room’s tweedy deadness.

But soon enough their beautiful playing prevailed: the danza tedesca concluded in deep grace, the Cavatina sang briskly in a superb and moving reading, and the Big Fugue was prodigious, just sensational, as fine as I have ever heard, rough and ready, leaving one shaken and stirred, with Arzberger especially prodigious. Such immense difficulty overcome in the service of immense power. (Beethoven rhetorically asked of his fat pal, the violinist and original late-quartet advocate Ignaz Schuppanzigh, “Does he believe that I think of a wretched fiddle when the spirit speaks to me?”).

Leipzig String Quartet (file photo)

Leipzig String Quartet (file photo)

It remains not hard today to still hear the Big Fugue as the yells of someone who doesn’t hear himself yelling. But the movement is now ensconced in the repertory, thank goodness, coherent in its violent dissociations, (Steinberg) “unrelieved in ferocious vigor, limitlessly bold in harmony” … semitones pried open, interruptions, moments still “so startling that you could almost think you were dealing with a badly spliced tape.” At the end “the music loses momentum, then stops, uncertainly, on another dissonance. Silence. The two violins offer to start the fugue over from the beginning. This is bad idea. Silence again. Then what about the gentle Meno mosso e moderato? Also not the right thing. The four instruments then unite in strong octaves like those at the beginning of the Overtura, and from there Beethoven moves swiftly to the end. The resolution of these extraordinary, unprecedented conflicts that the Grosse Fuge has posed is surprising and touching—a mixture of the exalted and the humorous that only Beethoven could have invented.”

Schuppanzigh’s quartet premiered opus 130, coincidentally on Bach’s 141st birthday. Beethoven waited in a nearby bar. Told that the audience wanted encores of the Presto (Solomon says the Cavatina) and the Alla danza tedesca, he roared “Why not the fugue? Cattle! Asses!”

David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 45 years, with special interest in the keyboard.

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