in: Reviews

February 21, 2015

Beethoven Shows Young Composers How To Experiment

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Calder Quartet (Autumn DeWilde photo)

Calder Quartet (Autumn DeWilde photo)

The Celebrity Series of Boston brought in the Calder Quartet, one of the country’s leading groups in this ever-more-crowded field, to a noticeably weather-depleted gathering at Jordan Hall on Friday. The Los Angeles-based group, comprising Benjamin Jacobson and Andrew Bulbrook, violins; Jonathan Moerschel, viola; and Eric Byers, cello; programmed admirably varied old, new, and new-ish works that, intended or not (nothing suggestive in the program book), could be taken as an essay on youthful initiatives with the reflections of one old pro.

The last—or at least the latest—came first with what must be the local premiere of the string quartet version of Andrew Norman’s Sabina, a piece that has taken many forms since it first appeared as Alabaster Rounds for string trio in 2006. Born in 1979 and currently one of the hotter names on the classical-composer circuit, Norman took as his musical inspiration the play of light from the translucent-stone windows of St. Sabina’s Church in Rome from pre-dawn into morning. He then took its musical ideas and devised solo works, now under the name Sabina, for viola, cello and violin respectively, after which he took the string trio arrangement, as Sabina, and made it the ninth and last movement of his 2010 The Companion Guide to Rome, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and has been recorded by A Far Cry. A performance by Diana Cohen, Dimitri Murrath and Julie Albers is here, and the solo examples are also available on YouTube. Now, on commission from CQ, he has string-quartetized it.

Norman’s music, as his web site spins it, “explores the act of interpretation in classical music and draws on an eclectic mix of instrumental sounds, notational practices, and non-linear narrative structures to do so.” What that seems to mean in English is that he offers performers considerable quasi-aleatory freedom to interact with the composed materials. In practice, Sabina followed a fairly traditional trajectory, opening with darkling silences and gradual accumulations of scrapings, flutterings on open strings and tremolos sul ponticello, production of harmonics (both played as such and through acoustic interactions between the instruments), through a series of climaxes to a grand pause, whereupon, from another foundation of silence, a more melodious section, led by the cello, begins just before it all ends. The work evidences a prodigious understanding of string sound production and the sonorous capabilities of the instruments, a compositional self-assurance befitting a 27-year-old (from the date of its original incarnation), along with a concomitant shallowness. As they worked with the composer on it, the Calders performed Sabina admirably and, we assume, authoritatively.

The first half ended with one of CQ’s signature pieces, the Ravel Quartet in F Major, also a young man’s product (Ravel was about 29 when he produced this quartet in 1904). Not much need be said about one of the most popular quartets in the standard repertoire. Its fascination for us, apart from the sheer sensuality of the sound, is how Ravel took the harmonic processes of Debussy, and the structural device of basing the whole work on a single melodic idea, and integrated all that into Ravel’s unique classical rigor. CQ puts a high sheen on the sound, quite appropriately, but is to be commended for never losing the individual instrumental voices in the wash. Within Ravel’s generally crepuscular dynamic range, they finely modulated and shaped their phrases. The outer sections of the scherzo second movement were characterized with outstanding pizzicato that never lost clarity or dynamic strength, while the trio, sweet and serene, might have been taken a bit too slowly. The slow movement was mysterious and dark, and CQ caressed each phrase without—and this is Ravel’s fault, not theirs—producing a strong sense of passion. The finale brought out higher energy in places. This was as good a performance as one would expect from an A-level quartet, but we think it’s time to give this piece a rest; the uniformly high quality and faithful execution that all the best quartets bring to it have given it a corporate sameness: there doesn’t seem much room for eccentricity, and if anyone tried it would doubtless sound forced.

Opening the second half was one of the breakthrough pieces by Thomas Adès, his Arcadiana, op. 12 from 1994, when he was 25. Bulbrook, who took on the role of emcee for this concert, mentioned that Andrew Norman originally balked at having his piece on the same program as this one, saying, apparently, that it was the best string quartet of the last 50 years. Well, for one thing, Arcadiana is more a suite of miniatures than a proper “string quartet” in the sense of a work carrying on sustained musical argument, and for another, the past 50 years have brought forth, among other things, the last five quartets of Shostakovich, the Britten Third, the Ligeti Second, the third through fifth Carter quartets, and all ten of Peter Maxwell Davies’s. While there’s no accounting for taste, that Norman would make such a remark took him down a few pegs in our estimation.

The concept behind Arcadiana, as its title suggests, is the contemplation of mythical idylls, though the relation of some of the movements to that theme can be tenuous. In seven short movements, it is arranged so that the four odd-numbered ones treat subjects relating to water, while the even-numbered ones have to do with land. Adès has even suggested that the water-based movements (“Venezia notturna,” “Auf dem Waßer zu singen,” “L’embarquement,” and “Lethe”) could be carved out as a separate suite. Be that as it may, Adès’s Venice, while it sets up a lovely barcarolle-like rocking in the viola against which a fragmented melody gathers steam, takes a turn toward Vienna near the end. His very brief Mozart pastiche (of “Magic Flute”) entitled “Das klinget so herrlich, das klinget so schön” (that sounds so glorious and beautiful), which induced us to think “We’ll be the judge of that,” was a funhouse distortion of Mozartean snippets. Similarly, the “to be sung on the water” movement, looking towards Schubert, was a bit difficult to, um, fathom other than to note its gathering frenzy. The central movement, “Et…(tango mortale)” (“dead center,” Adès dryly observed), is a contemplation of Poussin’s famous painting of a graveyard entitled “Et in Arcadia ego,” referring to death; it features fierce pizzes, ghostly slides, frenzied double-stops and other sepulchral invocations, very enjoyably piquant. The next movement, also after a painting, Watteau’s “Embarkation for the Isle of Cythera,” offers a frolicsome scene in 6/8 with happy folk getting on a boat, oblivious to the storm brewing in the distance (a fact seemingly unmarked in the music except for the last note, out of key, that links it to the next movement). That next movement, “O Albion,” is the most self-consciously “beautiful” of the piece, invoking the lost mythological kingdom of Elgar’s England, with harmonic progressions pointing to the “Nimrod” section of the Enigma Variations. Finally, “Lethe” brings us across the river of death itself, leading to oblivion, with wisps of forgetfulness in the violins against a (purposely?) forgettable melody in the cello, leading to isolated unaccompanied notes in each instrument, winking out of existence.

As noted, these movements are basically miniatures, whose effect is gained through sharp delineation and quick jabs of color, and whose affect is of oh-so-clever irony. It was a brilliant turn for the young Adès, and CQ (who have recorded it) gave it full measure in color and articulation. In fact, we were much more impressed with the piece after hearing them than we were listening to the performance available on YouTube, which is clearly a mark of how well they did it.

After all three of the preceding works by young composers experimenting with unusual soundscapes, it remained for the old-timer to show them how experimentation should go. Beethoven’s Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Op. 95, which the composer called “Quartetto Serioso,” was published with Beethoven’s admonition that it should not be played in a public concert, but only privately. It is, in many ways, a much weirder piece than any of his late quartets, full of starts and stops, wildly incongruous key changes and mercurial mood swings, ending with a cheerful coda that could only have been taken as a joke by its initial performers. In the brusque and bipolar opening movement, the CQ found its dynamic mojo for the evening and provided fine pacing. In the slow movement (actually an allegretto, as in the Seventh and Eighth symphonies, but here taken slower than those) they maintained a subdued air and played beautifully through the musical pauses, a very Haydn thing to do. Momentum suffered here, though. They came roaring back for the fierce scherzo, with flexible rhythms giving an improvisatory feeling to the trio. The finale displayed excellent tension through soft dynamics before the goofily raucous ending. While this was a fine and engaging account of this piece, and it certainly gave a pointed conclusion to this program’s trajectory, it is perhaps telling that although they keep the principal Beethoven numbers in their repertoire, CQ’s discography doesn’t seem to include any of them, and from the admittedly very limited vantage point of this one example, we wouldn’t instantly think of them as a great Beethoven quartet. Still, no worries—it came together quite well.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

1 Comment

  1. A terrifically astute account of Friday night’s concert, which many local concertgoers should be sorry to have missed.

    May I offer a divergent perception of the Norman piece, however, quite orthogonal to Mr. Koven’s? I could hear nothing “shallow” in ‘Sabina’. Along the radiant dimensions of expression in which the composer was operating, his music attained to the most profoundly ecstatic intensity imaginable. I was reminded of the poetic declaration, “now the ears of my ears awake…”.

    I’m looking forward to the CQ’s next release, which will include this piece, as well as a listen to the trio version as rendered by A Far Cry. Even more, though, I’m eager to hear ‘Sabina’ again in concert, although it’s hard to imagine anyone surpassing the CQ in this music.

    Comment by nimitta — February 22, 2015 at 12:25 pm

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