JWR Articles: Live Event - The Beethoven Experience (Featured composer: Ludwig van Beethoven) - August 4, 2011

The Beethoven Experience

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The experience gains steam and breadth

Day two of The Beethoven Experience probed ever so much more deeply into the composer’s music, life and added yet another layer to the already generous performance package.

Following Jeffrey Stokes’ succinct lecture “Beethoven as Journeyman” with the able assistance of the Lafayette Quartet, the same indefatigable players dug into the complete Op. 18, No. 1 (parts of it had been used in the pre-concert chat). The Allegro con brio moved along readily but just lacked a real feeling of arrival at the key moments to achieve a great not merely good result. The Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato whose rising first phrase most certainly found its way into Brahms’ theme kit (as witness his D Minor Piano Concerto) had an unforgettably sublime closing section only to momentarily stutter as the Menuetto took flight. The Allegro came across a touch rough-and-ready and by now one started to wonder if violinist Ann Elliott-Goldschmidt’s emphatic, climactic foot kicks were doing more harm than good (with so much at stake re-arranging the body’s weight—even for a split second—can produce unexpected results).

Next up was a breath of fresh air as pianist Stéphane Lemelin presented Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in D Major, Op. 10, No. 3. No matter its relationship to the cycle (coming just ahead of the previous work) it was instructive to be reminded of the composer’s incredibly rich and complex creations for a single voice. Only yesterday hearing New Zealand String Quartet violinist Helene Pohl decrying in public that “composers wrote their best music for string quartets,” it was cheering to have that, understandably given her vocation, ridiculous bias tossed aside in the most convincing way possible. (Were the single string quartets from, for example, Ravel and Debussy their finest achievements?—she doth exaggerate too much, methinks.)

Lemelin came out flying from the blocks—if at times a touch unsteady—in the opening Presto, where the development was marvellously gruff even as the key cadential moments barely had time to resolve much less catch a breath. The somewhat affected Largo e mesto (so subjective: many others revel in the push and pull) was, nonetheless a marvel of texture and tone. How thoughtful for the not-muzzled cellphone to wait until just after the double bar to deliver its ever-unwanted ring tone. The Menuetto brought new meaning to the term “agréable,” even as the Rondo’s over-the-barline theme was given a singularly curious weight. Judging from the huge ovation from the crowd, the inclusion of a “not the best” work was welcomed by one and all.

Back to the strings. Op. 18, No. 5 is one of the greatest expressions of happiness and joy ever penned by the “uncompromising” composer. Sadly, the New Zealanders opted, instead, to force out drama and angst where precious little really exists. The result was at times too quick and tight and more “serioso” than infused with welcome respite (think Mozart’s Les Petits Riens for a comparable mood and feel).

Just over an hour later, the Wellington ensemble was far more in its element, delivering a wonderfully engaging (even the very young man in front of me at both events stopped his incessant hyperactivity and got into the score—who knew that it was his father who was producing some of the music?) opening salvo into the “middle” quartets. Special kudos to violinist Douglas Bellman for adding just the right amount of weight to the miraculous inner voices of the Adagio and cellist Rolf Gjelsten’s deceptively easy-going rendering of his numerous melodic lines. Here’s hoping that at future performances Pohl might kick her near-addiction to the bridge to bring her soaring lines into consciousness and opt instead for as great a variety of touch and tone as her colleagues.

To finish off the second “set,” all three quartets reassembled at the Charles W. Stockey Centre for the Performing Arts. Not surprisingly given the relentless schedule, none of the performances was stellar, yet all had something to admire.

After an uncertain opening, the New Zealand String Quartet plunged into Op. 59, No.2 with abandon intermingled with a decidedly academic approach. A notable exception was violist Gillian Ansell’s first-rate solo lines of the Molto Adagio. In the final two frames, one could only hope that the barlines would vanish, leaving Beethoven to lead the way.

Hampered by uncomfortable pitch, some greasy portamenti and a few slips off the track of steadiness, the Lafayette String Quartet, nonetheless, still managed to endear themselves to the supportive crowd with their infectious joie de vivre during Op. 59, No. 3 (where the “at last—it’s C major!” moment teetered on the abyss of too many notes).

At the other end of the spectrum, the Penderecki String Quartet (thus far given the day off for good behaviour due to the manner in which the assignments worked out) finished the evening performance with an intense reading (where, as is their custom, Jeremy Bell took his turn in the driver’s seat while Jerzy Kaplanek played a most convincing second fiddle) of Op. 74. With all of its magnificent moments (not least of which emanated from violist Christine Vlajk’s much-appreciated legato and cellist Jacob Braun’s searing power) the beguiling mystery of the Presto’s rhythm fell too frequently into the trap of triplets to move this performance into the realm of extraordinary.

No worries. The patrons were enthralled—particularly when all twelve performers took a final bow together, reminding one and all it’s the master’s music not the individual egos creating it that binds all of those on both sides of stage to common cause. Being in the same room with that feeling is as priceless as it is rare. JWR

Historical Perspectives/Contemporary Comparisons

 Artemis Quartett

Op. 18, No. 1
Artemis Quartett
Virgin Classics, 50999 628659 0 6
Recorded in Berlin (Teldex Studio), May-June 2010

Having recently completed their first recording of the complete cycle, it’s clear from the very first measure that the members of the Artemis Quartett are well on their way to becoming one of the world’s finest ensembles. For togetherness is the hallmark of this vivid, crystal clear performance. The only quibble in the Allegro con brio is the lack of lift on the second subject’s first note. Their attention to the dynamic indications also gives the first movement a wider spectrum of hues than most other renditions: Imagine hearing the vast difference between fp and fz! The Adagio has a compelling flow and lets all of the players have their turn at the solo bar—especially welcome is violist Friedemann Weigle’s melodic interventions. Like the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1, taking both repeats on the Da Capo might rouse musicologists into academic debate—just be glad for the bonus of art. The Finale generates real excitement and has a coda that can’t fail to bring cheers and heartfelt thanks.

Op. 18, No. 5
Kodály Quartet
Naxos, DDD 8.8550.559
Recorded in Budapest (Phoenix Studio, Unitarian Church) February 1995

Happiness and joy: those are the preponderant moods created by Beethoven and near perfectly rendered by players and recording engineers alike.

From the opening Allegro, there’s an infectious warmth that seldom dissipates. The 6/8 lilt lifts the music seemingly effortlessly (only a few early eighths from Attila Falvay when truly seul interrupt the flow). The Menuetto is picture perfect, beginning the series of movements whose themes all begin as upbeats (the sole exception being the second subject of the Finale). It’s hard to imagine a better tempo and such fine rendering of the details. The Theme and Variations which follow are notable for the composer’s decision not to slip into the tonic minor (so common, so often), rather letting listeners savour the hidden fruit of F-sharp minor and the wonderfully sudden jolt of B-flat major.

The closing Allegro is incredibly at one with Mozart’s final movement of the “Prague” Symphony where the energy never quits and the relative harmonic/thematic simplicity can only induce Salieri-like envy in any composer striving to create such a wonderful celebration of the human spirit. This one’s a must-have for any collection.

Op. 59, No. 1
Quartetto Italiano
Philips, 6998 017
Recorded in 1975

Every time the first movement Allegro begins its incredible journey, it’s like hearing a well-known story again: even though the outcome is already known, the excitement, beauty and drama ahead are all in the telling. And one can’t help but think of the opening theme’s first cousin (“Archduke” Piano Trio) and marvel yet again how Beethoven can create so much from seemingly so little.

Recorded in 1975 to mark their 30th Anniversary season, it’s hard to imagine what it might be like for the same four souls to ply their craft without a single change of personnel for three decades. The results frequently astonish not least of which, here, is the sublime Adagio, molto e mesto. Surely it must be one instrument, not four as the themes, accompaniments and transitions are lovingly passed around, the total agreement on length, texture, tone and nuance is incredibly unified. Even when five octaves apart, it is only the register that changes. True, liquid legato and real, dry staccati are the norm, seldom favouring (particularly the latter) the player instead of fulfilling the art. Music-making doesn’t get much better than this.

 Quartetto Italiano

Op. 59, No. 2
Quartetto Italiano
Philips, 6998 017
Recorded in 1975

Beethoven’s harmonic and rhythmic inventiveness come to the fore in this magnificently crafted essay. The Italianos fire on all cylinders with the tonal bounty (aided and abetted by the composer’s best friend: silence) but come up a bit short in the rhythm department. Too many times during the Molto Adagio, the dotted rhythms in the accompaniments slip their duple leashes and morph into triple, diminishing the inner tension that is a must to sustain the movement. Likewise the Presto, which took many more measures than should ever be expected to settle into its skin. Best of the bunch was the opening Allegro (maddeningly—we are greedy for every morsel—the second repeat was not taken, depriving all listeners of yet another (a) brilliant transition from E major to its distant cousin E-flat minor and (b) helping of renaming the same pitches (e.g., G-flat to F-sharp to travel still further along the full spectrum of pitch) where the balance was superb and the consistency of note lengths (most especially in the frequent syncopations) was all that could be asked for. Curiously, the “required” (part of Rasoumovsky’s commission) Russian theme informing the Allegretto’s Trio of its musical content still seems more of a novelty than part of the overall fabric: even if it gets unusual double hearing with no variation.

Op. 59, No. 3
Quartetto Italiano
Philips, 6998 017
Recorded in 1975

Oh to have been a fly on the wall at the première of the last quartet from Op. 59. One can only imagine a few chuckles or looks of disdain from the moneyed crowd as the “wrong” notes from the Introduzione came to first, incredible life: either the famed master had lost it (“patchwork by a madman” according to one critic of the set) or the performers hadn’t properly tuned up. Even when the Allegro vivace was launched, the establishment of the central tonality had to await 13 more measures. But who amongst the patrons wouldn’t have burst into a face-wide grin and felt unbelievable joy when C major arrived in all of its thematic glory? Though seldom to return, that’s what makes every recurrence so magnificent. Not many other works in the classical style avoid their centre so effectively.

Knowing all of this, the Italianos savour the early dramatic tension then explode into high art as few other ensembles can or could. The Andante is sublime. Cellist Franco Rossi’s guitar-like pizzicati provide an ideal foundation upon which his colleagues build the haunting principal theme and beautifully work it through the successively darker sides of A minor, which, when finally exhausted, have carefully paved the harmonic way back to the security of home. What else, then, could end the traversal than—for the first time—the upper voices setting their bows aside and join their colleague for a plucked-octave adieu? Master, indeed.

The Finale overflows with exuberance and tight ensemble that belie the technical challenges. It’s a performance to return to again and again to enjoy the magical ride.

Op. 74
Quartetto Italiano
Philips, 6880 056
Recorded in 1975

The E-flat major quartet is so remarkable that an entire book would be required to delve into all of its intrigues. How marvellous that first Allegro has passagework that would not have been out of place in Mozart’s Overture to the Marriage of Figaro. The intense chromaticism of the opening Poco Adagio and the transitions of the Adagio ma non troppo, providing both uneasy mood and tonal ambiguity, certainly weren’t missed by Richard Wagner as he took the next step to chromatic liberation in the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde. And the master of rhythm aptly demonstrates that he had much more to say about the conundrum of three flying, duple eighths forever flirting with a triplet rendering in the Presto (even the C minor tonality is employed just as it was in Symphony No. 5). Not done with it by any means, should the theme of the Finale’s variations feel like the music starts on the downbeat or upbeat? This performance addresses all of these concerns head on, providing much pleasure, drama and excitement (if we can agree to disagree about the weight/wait alluded to in the last item).

Stop the presses.

Anyone wondering just how the term “cantabile” should be rendered is advised to experience the Adagio ma non troppo for themselves. All four players, in their turn or conversationally, render one of Beethoven’s finest melodies with exquisite flow, shape and direction; excessive portamenti and affectation find no advocates here. Truly, listen and weep. JWR

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String Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1 - Ludwig van Beethoven
Sonata No. 7 in D Major, Op. 10, No. 3 - Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in A Major, Op. 18, No. 5 - Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1, “Razumovsky” - Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 59, No. 2 - Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3 - Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 74 - Ludwig van Beethoven
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