The Beethoven Experience’s final concert brought the fabled cycle to a convincing close with a taste of where it all began (Op. 18, No. 4) and where the final, complete opus ended up. For me, this was the ideal finish given that less than two weeks ago my current journey began coincidentally with the New Orford Quartet and its thoughtful ideas about Op. 135 (cross-reference below).
When polled by artistic director James Campbell as to how many of the noontime congregation had heard every note of the cycle, many dozens of hands flew up enthusiastically. Truly, the programming adventure (can there be too much of a good thing over such a short period of time?) was an unqualified success. How fortunate we are to have such high level of performances deep in Canada’s famed cottage country. If history is to repeat itself, here’s to the next cycle seventeen years hence (so appropriate: 16 quartets and the Grosse Fugue equates numerically to the last time the works were given as a whole at the Festival of the Sound).
The Lafayette Quartet bid their adieu with a clean clear foray through the early C minor quartet. The Allegro man non troppo’s ebb and flow was palatable if a touch brutal on the forceful offbeats. Johann Strauss Jr. seemed to take more than a page from Beethoven’s book: the Andante scherzoso quasi allegretto’s most rollicking line threatens to morph into the famous waltz from Die Fledermaus at any moment. The initial weight of the Menuetto’s dotted rhythm seemed more downbeat than pickup, giving a somewhat uncertain feel to the ¾ flow. No worries: the Allegro – Prestissimo with its apparent homage to Mozart’s last hurrah in Symphony 39—once launched—built steadily towards a scintillating finish that had the crowd beaming from ear to ear.
It fell to the Penderecki Quartet to have the final word. By now, it was a certainty that the performance was bound to please. But no one—likely even themselves—could have predicted the spine chilling opening of the Lento assai—my first such shiver since arriving four days ago. Jeremy Bell simultaneously plumbed the emotional and melodic depths of the opening phrase that brought Beethoven into the room like never before. His colleagues followed in kind, supporting with extra, discreet warmth that let the violin float easily—no push required—above the beautifully crafted threads of musical fabric. After a magnificently executed portamento, cellist Jacob Braun ever-so-wisely left his answering reply entirely in the realm of superb legato, deftly avoiding any possibility of saccharine melodrama moving into frame. “Just” twenty-two measures, yet every one of them will remain etched in memory for years to come.
One never really knows when art of this calibre will present itself to those savvy enough to afford themselves the opportunity of sharing spectacular music-making wherever it can be found.
Jeffrey Stokes’ long-ago (so it seems, with all of the performances, lectures and related events since Tuesday) highlighting the word “demanding” (as related to the music to come for players and patrons alike) took on yet another meaning.
When the perfect storm of compositional genius intertwined with extraordinary musicianship comes ashore, the result is music demanding to be heard. And so it was.
After all of the Beethoven, what could possibly follow and make even a modicum of sense, much less complement the cycle of string-quartet writing extraordinaire?
To cut the chord/cord completely, artistic director James Campbell programmed two works: “Quartets for New Times.”
Raven and the First Man is a largely minimalist soundscape for clarinet (Campbell at his most svelte) and strings (New Zealand String Quartet). Its several sections seem more a soundtrack to the Vancouver-shot video depicting the artistic world of Bill Reid and his collaborators than standalone art (surely any future recording must be a DVD to render the mix of sound and image as intended). Composer Timothy Cortis handles the instruments in convincing, if rudimentary fashion. Likely a career as a film composer would make best use of his emerging talents.
Composed nearly fifty years ago, Shostakovich’s ninth string quartet hardly meets the descriptor “new.” Had it been played first, the stark contrast and many similarities to Beethoven’s style would have been more readily apparent (as violinist Douglas Bellman pointed out in his introductory remarks, the music—especially the last three movements—does have a decidedly orchestral feel, just as Op. 131 can work well, if differently, in a full string orchestra performance). Yet how could the Russian’s emotionally charged score (brought to vivid, at times despairing life by the New Zealanders) been followed by a pastorale, multi-media event as a fitting closer?
To finish off the day, three aspects of Schubert’s genius were called into play. Stokes prefaced the music by some thoughtful notes about difficult financial times driving a good deal of chamber music out of palaces and into private homes (if that were still the case, the world should now be overwhelmed with chamber music emanating between four small walls instead to specifically designed concert halls—but where are the legions of “amateur” players and dutiful composers to recreate the golden era of salon art?).
Pianist Stéphane Lemelin began the “Schubertiade” with a highly nuanced performance of Moments Musciaux. Saving the best of an already fine grouping for last, the Allegretto was a model of poise, understatement and understanding.
Schubert’s singular ability to bring texts to unforgettable life through song was next, aptly demonstrated in The Shepherd on the Rock. Once past the first phrase, soprano Leslie Fagan put on a master class of phrasing, diction and attention to detail. With Lemelin at the piano and Campbell once again on clarinet duty, the stage was set for more musical magic. Curiously, the overall feeling was caution, leaving spontaneity (as the verses unfolded) and unqualified springtime joy (after the transition to the Allegretto) for another day.
Schubert’s only string quintet requires a second cello to complete the basic string quartet instrumentation. Having Rolf Gjelsten accept that assignment paid off in more ways than anyone could have imagined. Much of the cello II writing involves laying down the bass line, freeing all others to work out the themes, ideas and transitions with more freedom than just four players can provide on their own. As he has demonstrated many times over in his regular spot as cellist with the New Zealand Quartet, Gjelsten is a musician who plays just as much from harmonic knowledge as to the subtext of the “changes” as from musical instinct. Adding that far-too-rare skill to the Lafayette Quartet had the effect of focussing their considerable talents on the subliminal architecture rather than the more superficial goal of playing everything as it seems to appear. Like a bassist in a jazz band, setting down the “bottom” is a primary ingredient along the road to “oh yeah.”
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Adagio. Gjelsten’s finger-rich, golden pizzicati inspired violinist Ann Elliott-Goldschmidt to new heights of subtlety and control. One wished his movement had no double bar. The remaining inner voices also rose to the occasion, needing just a touch more presence—particularly in their sustained lines—to bring Schubert’s heavenly lengths into the realm of unforgettable beauty. Here’s to more cross-pollination: an additional voice can often help others slip the yolk of routine and discover new ways of looking at the same art. JWR
Historical Perspectives/Contemporary Comparisons
Op. 18, No. 4
Naxos, DDD 8.8550.559
Recorded in Budapest (Phoenix Studio, Unitarian Church), February 1995
Like the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven’s only string quartet in C minor is fraught with all manner of performance challenges, not least of which is the execution of the frequent fermatas. The first of these seems innocent enough: the very last note of the brooding Allegro man non tanto. After delivering an ever-engaging survey (especially the collective ethereal touch to the oh-so-delicate closing sections) the last bar is dismissed without holding the final chord at least half-as-much again as strict time would indicate. Similarly (and this deficiency may well have been brought on by the recording engineers), the last two measures of the work are almost entirely rests—with a fermata over the last “empty” quarter note. The composer is trying to “force” his listeners and performers to take a few seconds’ breath and reflect on all that has come before. Small point, huge difference.
The only movement without a fermata (Scherzo) was in many ways the finest playing of all. Attention to dynamic detail and consistency of note lengths let the music move steadily forward. The remaining fermata (but one in the Menuetto; many more in the Finale) were all eased into, which seems entirely logical and true to the ear. Why then are the opening pauses in the Op. 67 nearly always pounced on unprepared?
Julliard String Quartet
Sony SK 62792
Recorded in Alexander Hall, Princeton, New Jersey, June 11-13 1996
The opening Allegretto is a model of earnest thoughtfulness and infectious joy. The Vivace is likewise sleek and purposely awkward by measure. It‘s hard to imagine (yet, see above) a more impassioned reading of the Lento where the “hairpin” dynamics are beautifully executed, replete with the fullest weight exactly where it belongs (so many back off too soon …). The Finale becomes a bit frantic at times and the older fashion of favouring the first violin (both live and through the engineering) leaves many of the inner voices a bit out of focus. Happily, with the twin themes—“Must it Be?”—surely giving birth to César Franck’s only symphony—leading the fray, all of the repeats are made, allowing the full effect of Beethoven’s marvellous structure to be savoured and further understood.
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Leonard Bernstein, conductor
Recorded September 1997, Konzerthaus, Vienna
Many conductors cannot resist the allure of putting this wide-ranging personal testament into their own hands and savouring its bounty of greatness for themselves, their players and large-hall audiences. While, necessarily, much of the intimacy is lost, hearing the work at full bore can only add to the desire to re-hear as intended, steeped in a broader perspective.
Leonard Bernstein digs deep into the music’s fabric like few others can. Knowing he has one of the finest string sections in the world gives him the confidence to take chances and let the music lead the way.
While in C-sharp Minor, the work could also be seen as an intimate study of all of the possibilities of a single pitch: C sharp. The goal of the first half step and home tonality also has much to say disguised as D flat, establishing the mode of A major or being the easy “glue” between E major and its relative minor. Bernstein knows all of this and more (would that others further explore why the notes are on the page), driving/sculpting the seemingly seven disparate sections into a complete, largely satisfying whole. Only the ongoing integrity of the pages of single eighths—whether preceded by a quarter in the triple metre or a quarter and an eighth—duples and the exaggerated lifts in the Presto’s Adagio sections cause concern.
Bernstein’s own sense of gritty, nuanced drama (Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile) and inner child revelling in the fun (also the Presto), knowing full well of the dark clouds ahead keep the ear continuously engaged and delighted in turn. Put this recording at the top of the “sound-enhanced” version of Beethoven’s magical study of human existence. JWR