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Foursome Across the Board

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The Amernet Quartet, a frequent visitor to Maverick Concerts in recent years, is now on a mission—a very odd mission. The composer Jeffery L. Briggs, who in recent years seems to have been writing mostly music for video games he created, took on the quixotic project of arranging all of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas for string quartet—even the one Beethoven himself arranged (Op. 14 No. 1). The Amernets are learning all of these arrangements and intend to perform all of them.

Last year, the ensemble played its first of these at a Maverick Concert, the familiar “Pathétique” Sonata. That version sounded respectful enough, perhaps even a little too respectful. (Beethoven’s transformation of Op. 14 No. 1 takes far more liberties.) This time, we got Briggs’s arrangement of the “Pastorale” Sonata, in D, Op. 28; it worked much better. With minimal changes to Beethoven’s writing, Briggs has turned this music into a pretty convincing string quartet. If I didn’t know the original, I might have been fooled into thinking this was original string quartet music.

Perhaps the difference in success is due to the nature of the music. The “Pathétique” is turbulent, dramatic music. Of course Beethoven wrote plenty of turbulent, dramatic music for string quartet, but this piano music didn’t translate well. The “Pastorale” is much gentler music, and it translated quite well indeed. Briggs made effective use of such devices as cello pizzicato, and he reinforced some inner voices by giving them to the viola, where they were more prominent than they usually are on the piano.

The third movement Scherzo came across too legato in this time, losing some of its crispness. Overall, though, the account was very effective. Though the traversal proved enjoyable, I remain uncertain that Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas need to be played by a string quartet.

Programming the four String Quartets Shostakovich which wrote in the 1960s formed another sub-project of this summer’s Maverick Concerts. The thematic pretense, “Woodstock in the Spirit of the ‘60s,” seemed a little farfetched, but this music is welcome under any circumstances and it’s still under-performed. This afternoon’s work, the Quartet No 12, in D-flat Major, Op. 133, is one of the strangest of Shostakovich’s often-strange quartets. It’s in two movements, each in several sections, the second one three times as long as the first. Shostakovich was definitely in an experimental phase when he wrote it. There’s a 12-tone row hidden in the first movement, and most of the second is clearly atonal, although it does return to tonality near the end.

Amernet String Quartet (file photo)

Although the general sound of the Amernet Quartet remained identifiable, its versatility was impressive. There wasn’t a grim moment in the Beethoven, but the Shostakovich sounded grim from beginning to end. This isn’t as frightening as some of Shostakovich’s quartets (most famously the Eighth), but it contains not the smallest dollop of happiness. The players reinforced their interpretation with a notable lack of vibrato, which sounded completely appropriate. Oddly enough, next week we’ll be hearing the Pacifica Quartet, which has recorded the complete Shostakovich cycle, with no Shostakovich.

For maximum contrast, and to please Maverick’s Music Director Alexander Platt, the concert concluded with his favorite Dvořák quartet, No. 13, in C Major, Op. 61. The Czech master wrote too many wonderful examples for me to pick a favorite, but I might agree that this is the most unjustly neglected one. It’s just plain gorgeous from beginning to end, with a third movement so dancy that you could arrange it for orchestra and add it to the Slavonic Dances.

Having spent some of my time recently listening to 19th-century style performances by early recording musicians, I have to say that my own enjoyment of this music would be enhanced by some 19th-century flexibility of rhythm and maybe even some portamento. But that’s too much to expect these days, aside from the problem that listeners unacquainted with the style would laugh the performers off the stage. So I decided to be content with this sensitive, mellow take, and relish the occasional slight relaxation of tempo. The harmonies sounded particularly beautiful. And I noticed, to my amusement, the composer’s use of cello pizzicato, a feature of all three works on this program.

I’ll look forward to hearing the Amernet Quartet again next summer. I just hope they don’t try to play Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata.

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.

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