On a bleak afternoon, the Quartet in Residence at the Curtis Institute of Music, uplifted us with Haydn, Janáček and Schubert at Calderwood Hall as a feature of Curtis on Tour. Where some foursomes strive for perfect unity of voice, the Aizuri Quartet’s four individuals found each other through the music, bringing new life to well-known pieces.
One of a set of twelve commissioned by Joseph Tost, former principal second violinist in Haydn’s Esterháza orchestra, Haydn’s String Quartet in B-flat Major, Hob. III:67, Op. 63, No. 3 shows the master fully in command of his art. The performance showed the Aizuri fully in command of Haydn’s restrained wit and humor, and completely aware of his importance for the future of the quartet form. Throughout, the quartet controlled the ebb and flow of the dynamics masterfully, with clear cadences and perfect tempi. The first movement vivace assai was exactly that: the “galloping” theme introduced by Karen Ouzounian’s cello was alert, vivacious but not rushed, down to earth and without pretense. The lovely adagio was elegant, with a good balance between forward movement and restraint. The menuetto, played a bit ländler-like, had Miho Saegusa’s violin take on the tone of a country fiddler, Ouzounian’s cello introducing a lively bounce. The Finale, fully taking into account the con spirito marking, was impelled by the cello, the violins dancing, and Ayane Kozasa’s viola tempering it and trying to mediate.
Janáček wrote his String Quartet No. 1 during a burst of creativity in 1923, finishing it in only two weeks. Subtitled “Kreutzer Sonata” after the Tolstoy story and with references to the Beethoven Kreutzer Sonata, the piece reveals much about Janáček’s anguish over being trapped in an unhappy marriage and passionately in love with a married woman 38 years his junior. It is perhaps the apex of his chamber output—a bold and original composition eschewing traditional forms and tonalities. As though deeply conversant with Tolstoy’s story, the quartet played the short but intense work with a clear awareness of the terror of uncontrollable passions. The opening adagio was tense and violent, Zoë Martin-Doike tearing phrases from the violin, arguing with Kozasa’s viola. A swift mood change brought obsession and nervousness from the cello, all fading away ambiguously. The second movement began as a slow dance passed from viola to second violin to first, with danger and horror overlaid by sul ponticello agitation, deep mournful moans in the cello, obsessive mania in repeated short nervous phrases from violin and viola, ending in disintegration. The third movement began with a yearning, reflective mood, interrupted by buzzing sul ponticello demons that took over the space. The atmosphere grew increasingly haunted and grotesque, engulfing even the capacity for reflectiveness. The final movement then presented us with the calm of devastation. We live in the desert of our own destructiveness. The movement grew into a cacophony of unbearable ferocity followed by incurable sadness.
It is hard to believe that Schubert’s magnificent Quintet in C Major, D. 956, remained unpublished and unheard until more than two decades after the composer’s death. Written in the 18 months between Beethoven’s death and Schubert’s own, it is one of the great Romantic chamber works and a key element of Schubert’s legacy. It comes as close as anything to depicting what the philosopher Jean-Luc Marion calls the “saturated phenomenon,” unknowable in its quality, overwhelming and blinding our intuition.
Peter Wiley of the Curtis Institute and famously from the Guarneri Quartet, joined the Aizuri as second cello, and the quintet built the performance around a pivotal moment near the end of the second movement adagio, an epiphany that gives meaning to the entire structure. The long first movement, played to perfection, was an exploration of the grandeur and solitude of human fate, a grappling with mortality, at times finding melodious beauty, at other times crushed by despair. At the end, we were left with a noble resolve in the face of tragedy.
But then we had the miracle of the adagio in the guise of a vigil, outside of time, driven by an inner pleading from the first violin. The steady forward motion lifted us to a landscape of light and beauty. At the very moment when this unfamiliar space was recognized as home, we were plunged into a violent anguish of almost unbearable and convulsive power. The five players stayed with the anguish, not rushing through it, and gave full weight to the repeated silences that bring it to a close. In these silences an epiphany occurred, the pivotal moment of the entire quintet, leading to a return of the opening of the adagio, but imbued with gratitude, trust, hope and above all, celestial peace.
The scherzo conveyed firm but rapturous joy, a liberation, the expansiveness arising from a rigorous encounter with a higher truth. This was confirmed by the Trio section in which, thanks to the quintet’s beautiful phrasing, anguish was replaced by a capacity to will the inevitable. The allegretto finale, with fear gone and despair dissolved, rose to a higher state of generativity—loving life in the face of death. We were invited to view, from a remove, the wisdom of peasant dances that celebrate life, seasons, communal tasks and inter-generation transmission. Saegusa’s violin briefly paid homage to Vivaldi, to the beauty of nature and the rhythms of the biosphere. A brief homage to Haydn emerged in a distinctly Viennese gracefulness. Moments of regret mingled with the joy of the here and now, even as time rushed to its end, a current of the unstoppable.