The Jupiter Quartet resumed its Beethoven quartet cycle at MIT with installment four, which spanned extremes of Beethoven’s work in the genre. The first half leapt from the Op. 18, No. 4 in C minor, written in 1799, to the F major Op. 135, the penultimate quartet. His final quartet, the Op. 131 C-sharp minor, followed after intermission.
All quartets balance individual voices and group dynamics: the Jupiter combines unique personalities with a profound connectedness. Perhaps the close ties between three of the players contribute: the second violinist and violist are sisters (Meg and Liz Freivogel), and the cellist (Daniel McDonough) is married to Meg. First violinist Nelson Lee often occupies a place apart, though never entirely separate from the others: his tone is brighter and more aggressive than the others, with an idiosyncratic recklessness that is variously exciting and worrying. Meg and Liz Freivogel give the impression of playing one large instrument between them: Meg’s tone is generally dark and rich, and music in her lower register sounds both of violin and viola. Liz Freivogel was something of an enigma during this concert: for much of the evening Beethoven asked the viola to bind the other parts together, and she did such an excellent job that it could be difficult to pick out her playing from the ensemble, without missing anything. But in those places where she was given brief moments to shine (especially in the Op. 135), she displayed a muscular and lithe musicality that made her ability to merge seamlessly into the ensemble more impressive. McDonough was as willing to take risks as Lee, and possesses a powerful tone that has a bit of trombone to it: but he has fewer edges, and a weightier center to his playing.
Throughout the readings were serious and brisk. The opening C-minor quartet was even a little rushed: less compact and more discursive than the late quartets, it felt like the Jupiters were attempting to apply some compression to it to help it better fit in. The piece does not lack for interesting moments, especially in the opening movement, filled with many of the elements that make early Beethoven compelling: stormy and passionate melodies, violent gestures (much multiple-stopping), and a feeling that the composer is wrestling with the materials of music: many cadences are not simply arrived at but rather struggled for, and there’s some heavy work when it comes time to wrench the development back to the recapitulation. The Jupiters attacked this music with plenty of energy and an edge that pressed but never cut. First violinist Lee was impetuous and wild, to the point of losing some control of tone and intonation in several places. The following movements don’t rise to the same level of interest, although the second movement was never less than charming, and the rather heavy third movement menuetto looked forward to the First Symphony and beyond. The fourth movement, a simple repetitive rondo, generated a lot of heat very quickly, coming to an end just before it burned itself out. Lee’s willingness to play at the limits of control produced some spirited fiddle-like messiness that was hovered between thrilling and distracting.
I’m not sure there could have been a starker contrast with this early quartet than the F-major Op. 135. It is a masterpiece of compression; despite taking about the same amount of time as the C-minor, it feels much shorter. The first movement’s rigor felt almost improvised, each musician playing his individual line with freedom while never losing sight of an integrated whole. One envisioned each line flowing in space, and could follow the dialogue of motives and gestures effortlessly. The Largo was both immensely emotional and yet fragile; it was filled with moments where one felt balanced on an edge: sometimes literally, when the players hovered on the horizon of audibility; sometimes expressively, as the music itself strains towards an outburst but never loses its composure. (Some of sonic fragility came from the brief outbursts of an infant in the pause before the movement began. Perhaps under Beethoven’s spell, it remained quiet throughout the entire movement, only finally losing its self-control after the movement was safely over). The opening of the finale, with the famous “Muss es sein?” written under the initial motive, featured chords whose voicing signaled more than the anguish of indecision: the richness and color of the dissonance was extraordinary, looking forward a century. This quartet showed the Jupiters at their best. Lee’s impetuousness contributed energy without distraction, and there was throughout calm conversation and intent listening. It was exhilarating, but also exhausting, the players laying open the music to make intense demands on us.
As such, intermission may not have given us enough time to gather our strength to confront the C-sharp minor Op. 131, with its seven lopsided, intensely contrasted movements. It may be the listener’s fault that something didn’t quite engage during the slow, contrapuntal first movement; or that the brief angular dance of the second movement passed by so mildly. The performance did not catch fire until it needed to, in the set of variations at its heart in the fourth movement, and which continued to the very end. In the brief, incomplete final variation, there was something in the hurdy-gurdy accompaniment that revived the communication and play that had characterized Op. 135, and that continued to make the following Presto a mad dash, the Adagio a brief but deeply affecting moment of commiseration, and the split-personality Allegro simultaneously exhilarating and inscrutable. The performance as a whole found the group seeking a way into music that remains difficult to penetrate, finally discovering a path that enabled them to project and share.