Late of Boston, and now Illinois-based, the Jupiter Quartet gave the last installment in its complete set of Beethoven quartets Friday evening at Kresge. (Same time as the Parker up the street.) It was a powerful and satisfying close, and notably better-performed (not easy to do) than the previous ones I reviewed. Alas, no recording was made.
The Jupiter Beethoven events here have featured one quartet each of the early, middle, and late batches. Beethoven’s apparently first, official, “now I know what I’m doing” quartet, Opus 18 no. 3, started us off. Lyrical, full of wrong-key jokes, its lol ending was likely intended to delight and at the same time pay tribute to Haydn. The ensemble and intonation of first and second violinists Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel, violist Liz Freivogel, and cellist Daniel McDonough, sounded altogether unimprovable. Even in this age of string quartet magnificence, openers like that are rare.
The middle quartet offered was the last of that group—Opus 95, from 1810—Beethoven aged 40. Barry Cooper says it’s one of the composer’s very personal responses to political liberation. It does looks forward to his sonically strange composing future. Beethoven knew it was unusual: “Written for a small circle of connoisseurs and never to be performed in public”, the Serioso (an arguably madeup Italian name) is a tough nut. Michael Steinberg: In addition to Beethoven’s
interest in the Massive Statement, there was alive in him an appetite for compression, a desire to invent music whose tight packing was as unprecedented as the breadth of his roomiest compositions. … [In] the Opus 95 Quartet [Allegro con brio first movement], in something like half a minute, Beethoven has twice brought the music to a jarring halt; covered a wide range of dynamics, textures, and modes of articulation; begun to transform and develop the idea he so violently has flung out in the first two measures; and is already on the verge of settling in a new key and presenting a new and contrasting theme. The mood of this explosive beginning is grim.
The second movement Allegreto ma non troppo is “music virtually devoid of physical energy … tempo neither slow nor fast ”, melancholy leading to chromatic half-baked fugal materials, and then again, and finally a destabilizing ending. For the third movement, “Beethoven returns to his invented Italian adjective and directs that the music should be Allegro assai vivace ma serioso, a very alive Allegro but serious”; the ensuing material is “tricky, stormy, full of serious consequence,” then sometimes restless only. At the end, simultaneously abbreviated and to be played faster, the
compressions are very much in the spirit of the first movement. After all this compaction, Beethoven [in the fourth movement Larghetto espressivo–Allegretto agitato] takes time—not many seconds by the clock, but much psychological time—for a pathos-filled slow introduction to the finale. As in the first three movements, the music is, at the beginning, broken by silences. The main part of the movement is agitato, and the music touches both the stormy world and the ghostly. Unexpectedly, it sinks to a halt on an F-major chord, whose effect is more wan than cheerful. This turns out to be the herald to a swift coda….
I did not feel that the Jupiter concurred enough in the spirit of these analyses. Daniel McDonough in a brief spoken intro called the Serioso brusque—fine, so does everyone—but then the Jupiter took it so briskly that none of its white space, empty moments, silences, related strangenesses were much plumbed or even acknowledged. My lapsed chamber-musician date thought that was generally okay:
… It was too fast not in the sense of faster than they could comfortably play yet— they were very comfortable performing at that speed—but faster than allowed one to register the interesting unusual disruptive self-interrupting things that Beethoven does all the way through that movement and indeed most of opus 95. On the other hand, it is refreshing to hear a rendition like this after so many decades of quartets emphasizing all of those very points. We don’t think of Beethoven as taking a polish well, or at any rate of gaining more than is lost through such an approach. But as the Jupiter showed, there is also a buoyant, vibrant, untroubled side to this music that needs to be heard and rarely is.
Maybe. To my ear the performance wanted etch and edge. True, the score indication is half-note = 92. But the playing lacked profile. There were plenty of attack and plenty of bite visually, but conveyed, not so much. The playing looked and sounded plenty precise and clear, but not so much as understood and heard, not the very last word in precision and clarity. I realize this comes across as either hairsplitting or confused. Also, almost everything sounded excessively legato. I must add that while Opus 95 was often unpleasantly brisk, the Jupiter did not play it as some others have, with tension and drive. This foursome’s approach is rounded, fond, and human withal.
(I must add also that the quartet’s overblending is not due to the acoustics; Kresge is nice and bright; the curved wood and ceiling clouds keep the reflected treble comparatively loud all the way to the back corners, where I encourage readers to sit for an atypically clear while reverberant experience.)
Opus 130 likewise seemed to tend a little bit to the creamy and smooth and legato. It proceeded not fast. Musicianship again was outstanding, just extraordinarily lovely. I went on about the piece at length the last time [here], so now will point out only that at least three times in that powerful Great Fugue, after some climactic shouting (“incomprehensible, like Chinese,” said a contemporary reviewer), when Beethoven goes to unwind / rewind / wind up, the Jupiter revealed revealed lines and strands—weavings that devolve, shock and predict—which I have never noticed before.