Beethoven wrote only (!) 16 string quartets, all of which stand as pillars of the repertory. But what if you could triple that number? Some of us know of a 17th quartet, Beethoven’s own arrangement of his Piano Sonata, Op. 14, No. 1, but few of us have heard it.
Now, the composer Jeffery Briggs, who also writes music for his own computer games, has completed the task of arranging all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas (even Op. 14, No. 1) for string quartet, thus effectively tripling Beethoven’s quartet oeuvre. But how plausible Briggs’s are arrangements? Last Sunday, the Amernet String Quartet brought to Maverick Concerts in Woodstock his transcription of the Sonata in C Minor, Op. 13, “Pathétique.” The familiarity of the original gave us a good chance to evaluate Briggs’s respectful and reasonably effective work. Compared with Beethoven’s arrangement, Brigg seems perhaps too faithful to the piano original, avoiding the kind of alterations Beethoven himself used in adapting his piano writing to the strings. And it’s hard to believe that Beethoven, who liked to play the viola, would have given the viola such a subservient role. But if you want to hear this music played by a string quartet, this was a reasonable way to do it. It sounded completely familiar yet interestingly transformed.
The reading perhaps exaggerated the “Grave” opening section a bit, and it was surprising to hear some flubs from such an otherwise adept group at the end of the first movement. Otherwise, it was typically expert playing. We’re sorry the first movement exposition repeat went missing, though.
I’ve never heard a bad performance of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8, in C Minor, Op. 110, one of the great tragic masterpieces. Like another favorite, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, it seems to attract only musicians who can do it justice. It’s too affecting to permit objective note taking, so all I can tell you is that the playing was extremely intense yet without exaggeration, and that I’ll be hearing the way the finale died away for a long time. The audience’s silence was impressively complete for several seconds before the applause finally started.
Dvořák must be one of the underexposed composers in this era. Maverick’s Music Director Alexander Platt said in his introduction that he’s been trying to get a string quartet to play Dvořák’s Quartet No. 9, in D Minor, Op. 34, for 15 years. If a lesser-known composer had written this piece it might well be a repertory staple by now. Instead it’s a rarity.
It was certainly worth the wait, especially in this mellow, loving performance, played with enough viola tone to satisfy this balance-freak. The second movement Polka went with such liveliness, it was almost surprising nobody got up and danced. Even in the energetic finale, the approach and sound remained as mellow as they had been throughout.
I’ll be looking forward to hearing the Amernet String Quartet at Maverick next year, especially if they bring Briggs’s version of Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata. The group is fun to watch, too, as the members play with such evident enjoyment. It’s also a kick to notice that the only long beard in the group belongs to cellist Jason Calloway, whose instrument is the only one that permits such a beard.
Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and Amazon.com. He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.