JWR Articles: Live Event - The Beethoven Experience (Featured composer: Ludwig van Beethoven) - August 3, 2011

The Beethoven Experience

3.5 3.5

Three quartets: no waiting

The Beethoven Experience lifted off with verve at the opening concert. How often can anyone hear the complete cycle of string quartets performed over four consecutive days in such beautiful surroundings? Better still, Beethoven’s three creative periods for these masterworks (early, middle, late) are being performed/interpreted by three distinct musical entities. Like the master’s compositional evolution, each quartet has a different view, breadth of experience and artistic approach.

Happily, the first program had all 12 musicians take stage at the Charles W. Stockey Centre for the Performing Arts. With so much wood surrounding them, one had the feeling that each ensemble was the hall’s sound post, kindling the music to glorious life.

Host Jeffrey Stokes most certainly summed up what was afoot as he reminded the crowd that these works were steeped in social networking at the various Viennese courts when their commissioners could bask in reflected glory. Also particularly apt was his observation that all of the works ahead would be demanding on players and audience alike.

Victoria’s Lafayette String Quartet had the honour of leading off. From the very first minor seventh (what fun that Beethoven’s First Symphony also begins with a dominant seventh), there was no doubt that their collective warmth would engage and delight. Ensemble had its problems from time to time (the close of the Andante con moto being one slight example), but the rest of the ensuing Allegro and perfectly finished Presto readily forgave any quibbles of attack or just-under pitch.

Stand and deliver (save and except cellist Rolf Gjelsten who, nonetheless, rose above the hardwood floor) was a literal plan of attack for the wonderfully lean New Zealanders.

Particularly effective was the Adagio cantabile, wonderfully balanced, if at times a breath away from impeccable togetherness. The squeaky-cute Scherzo drew smiles all around. Not even the one o’clock wristwatch alarm could spoil the joy that infused the Finale from stem to stern.

From Waterloo, the Penderecki Quartet provided the most consistent playing of the three selections from Op. 18. The group’s vibrant, secure tone was infectious from the first measure of the Allegro con brio. Especially invigorating was violinist Jeremy Bell’s unwavering support of his colleagues, employing an ever-attentive ear and translating what he heard instantly to what was required, be that team-player accompaniment or team-leading melodic turns. The Adagio man non troppo was a compelling example of the power of one. Cellist Jacob Braun’s steady anchor throughout and powerful yet subtle interventions in La Malinconia contributed much to the overall success. Jerky Kaplanek’s tempi suited every movement to a tee while violist Christine Vlajk proved an able proponent of thrust and parry—classical style.

With such a strong beginning to this incredible artistic journey, the next installments are eagerly awaited. JWR

Historical Perspectives

Kodály Quartet

Op. 18, No. 3
Kodály Quartet
Naxos, DDD 8.8550.559
Recorded in Budapest (Phoenix Studio, Unitarian Church), February 1995

One of Beethoven’s early triumphs with harmonic shifts and development is given an amiable reading by the Kodály Quartet. What it really lacks are any sort of logical plan for the staccato markings (in all movements) and a feeling for the pulse (especially in the concluding Presto where the notes fly by)—it takes a copy of the score to ferret out just where the downbeats ought to be. The frequent use of the chord of the augmented sixth (maddeningly in the sequence of them leading to C-sharp major in the opening movement) goes by unnoticed. The most convincing of all was the glorious Andante con moto where the tempo was spot on and the balance much improved (too often the viola seemed unnecessarily distant compared with his colleagues).

Op. 18, No. 6
Kodály Quartet
Naxos, DDD 8.8550.559
Recorded in Budapest (Phoenix Studio, Unitarian Church), February 1995

To complete their set of Op. 18, the members of the Kodály Quartet have cobbled together a performance that both delights and disturbs. Cautions first: the numerous fzs approach the pain threshold rather than emphatic sting, tempered by the current dynamic indication and the fps do not have quite enough split between loud and soft to truly make the difference. In the charming Adagio ma non troppo, sound overrules substance as the bows remain too long on the string even as vrai staccati are needed to better balance the legato lines. On the plus side, the Scherzo is a marvel of playfulness and pulse shifts that are the perfect foil to what preceded and a heady stage-setter for the wonderfully controlled La Malinconia—no matter where one prefers the grace notes: ahead of or on the beat. The final Allegretto quasi Allegro is the perfect thematic companion to its counterpart in Piano Sonata Op. 31, No.2, “The Tempest.” Clearly, Beethoven wasn’t finished with the four-note wonder that informs both movements. What fun it would be to find them both on the same program! JWR

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String Quartet in D Major, Op. 18, No. 3 - Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2 - Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 18, No. 6 - Ludwig van Beethoven
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