Saturday, October 22, 2016

For a later age: The Beethoven string quartets part 1

Beethoven in 1805

Portrait of Beethoven (detail), by Joseph Maehler, 1805
"Oh, they are not for you, but for a later age."

—Beethoven to the first musicians attempting to play his Op. 59 string quartets
Last weekend I attended the first two of a series of six concerts by the Takács Quartet in which they will be surveying all of Beethoven's music for string quartet. What follows, to be continued in the spring, are my reflections on the experience of the concerts and the surrounding activities sponsored by UC Berkeley's performing arts organization Cal Performances.

The Takács residency began at noon on Friday October 14 with what was billed as an open rehearsal. I wouldn't actually describe what took place as a rehearsal—it was more an open conversation about the problems posed for the performers by the specific quartets that would be played that weekend. Each musician took turns leading a discussion of a particular moment they found especially problematic or striking in one of the quartets, and (together with the other musicians) demonstrating different ways that the passage could be approached.

What quickly became clear was the quartet's good humor and ease with one another. The Takács (pronounced, roughly, "Tah-katch") has existed for 42 years, and the newest member, violist Geraldine Walther, has been with them for more than a decade. What was also immediately apparent was the sheer number of decisions that have to be made in translating notes on a page into a vibrant and coherent performance. Here are just a few:
  • bowing: whether a note is played on an upstroke or downstroke; close to the frog (where the player holds the bow), the middle, or the tip of the bow; closer to the bridge or to the fingerboard. Each choice creates a different quality of sound.
  • articulation: whether a note is played staccato (crisply), legato (flowingly), or sforzando (a sharp attack to create emphasis).
  • volume: should the note be played loudly, softly, somewhere in between? And should each instrument try to play at the same volume, or should one or another instrument try to make their line more prominent? Should the note be a part of a gradual or sudden crescendo (increase) or diminuendo (decrease) in sound level?
  • tempo: Beethoven's indications of tempo for the quartets played this first weekend include adagio cantabile (slow, with a singing quality), larghetto espressivo (rather slow and with feeling), allegretto ma non troppo (moderately fast, but not too much so), allegro vivace (quick and lively), and allegro assai (very fast). The members of the quartet must agree on exactly what each of these phrases means, and how the tempo should contrast with those that come immediately before and after it.
Together, these choices (and I'm sure I've left many out) make up the musical character that is expressed by the passage in question. And perhaps it's an obvious point, but the players in a small ensemble are more exposed than those in an orchestra or even than a soloist. What any individual member of an orchestra is playing tends to blend into the combined sound of the full group, while a soloist only has to agree with him- or herself about these issues. The members of a quartet each play single parts that unite to make a whole, and so they must try to match one another closely. Any divergence in approach or slip in intonation is immediately apparent.

Takacs Quartet

The Takács Quartet: András Fejér (cello), Edward Dusinberre (first violin), Geraldine Walther (viola), and Károly Schranz (second violin)

The way that each of these musical elements affects how a work can sound became even more apparent during master classes held at the Department of Music later that afternoon. I attended sessions led by Walther and by Károly Schranz, the second violinist. (The members of the Quartet call Schranz "Kársci," pronounced, roughly, "Garshy"; Walther is "Geri.") Walther was extremely gentle with her students, generally posing her suggestions as questions ("Do you think we might slur this a bit more?"), and playing along with them to demonstrate her points and provide support. Schranz was also reassuring ("It's good, it's good," he would say), but then would borrow a student's instrument to suggest a new approach. In both cases, the improvement after even a few minutes was audible even to a listener as naïve as myself.

The afternoon's events also introduced us to Nicholas Mathew, Associate Professor of Music History at Berkeley, who was invited to make some introductory comments at the open rehearsal, and who would give the pre-concert talks throughout the cycle. Mathew is a rock star. Charismatic, articulate, overflowing with ideas, but also genuinely interested in drawing others into the conversation, he made us all want to go back to school and become music majors.

In the evening Mathew interviewed first violinist Edward Dusinberre about his new book, Beethoven for a Later Age: Living with the String Quartets (University of Chicago Press, 2016). The book is a first-person history of the Takács Quartet (Dusinberre joined in 1993, replacing the founding first violinist Gabor Takács-Nagy), a description of the compositional origins of selected Beethoven quartets and a detailed account of the challenges of performing them.

Both on the page and in person Dusinberre has a delightfully dry and self-deprecating sense of humor. A key point he makes both in the book and the interview was that the answers to the problems posed by the quartets can never be final, but necessarily differ with every performance. Thus the theme of the weekend, "Making and Remaking the Beethoven Quartets"; the quartets are made and remade every time they are played.

That sense of contingency, risk, and excitement was palpable during the weekend's concerts. The Takács programmed the series brilliantly. Instead of playing the entire quartet cycle in chronological order, in each concert they performed an early, middle, and late quartet (and will continue this pattern in the spring). It allowed us to hear over the course of a single concert both the radical changes in Beethoven's style over time, and also the continuities.

On Saturday evening the Takács opened the first concert in the series with the String Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2 (1800). The first movement of this quartet sounds almost as though it could have been written by Mozart or Haydn; in its lightness and elegance it is an audible homage to Beethoven's predecessors and (in the case of Haydn) teacher. The contrast with the middle-period String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95, Serioso (1810), was stark. Here was the dark, stormy music that I think of when I hear the name Beethoven; it's perhaps the quartet equivalent of the Fifth Symphony (first performed in 1808). This is the quartet of which the composer famously said that it was "written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public." It must indeed have sounded radical during its first performance in 1814, because it still does today.

The concert concluded with the late String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130 (1825). The Quartet chose to play it with the second ending, which Beethoven composed after his publisher complained about the length and difficulty of the first one. (The original final movement was later published as a separate piece entirely, the Grosse Fuge, "Great Fugue," Op. 133.) With its six movements, this quartet breaks with the then-standard four-movement structure. The first "extra" movement, the fifth, is marked "Cavatina. Adagio molto espressivo" (slowly, and with great feeling):

After this outpouring of lyricism (even more powerful when heard live), I was stunned. All I wanted was a few moments of silence to try to take in what I'd just heard. But—without a break—Beethoven has the performers move into the finale, a rollicking, boisterous "country dance," as Nic Mathew described it. It utterly tramples on the mood created by the Cavatina, as if Beethoven could not bear the feelings his own music evoked. The finale seems to me to be an act of self-vandalism; I wish that he had simply cut it off and let the quartet end with the Cavatina. Even better would be if he had placed 10 measures of rest at the end of the piece, so that the audience wouldn't prematurely break the spell by bursting into applause.

When I expressed this thought to the group I'm attending the concerts with, I got some funny looks. I felt like I was revealing a shameful lapse in taste, as though I were expressing a preference for art that is pretty and unchallenging. But the Cavatina is anything but unchallenging—it is profound and deeply moving. And, really: is Beethoven beyond criticism? Although I might indeed be displaying my own intellectual shortcomings, I can't help but feel that even Beethoven sometimes needed an editor.

But it's not only members of my concertgoing group who aren't disconcerted, as I am, by the second finale. In Beethoven for a Later Age Dusinberre, who has played Op. 130 with the Takács for almost 25 years, writes that in place of the Grosse Fugue he has come to prefer the alternative ending, which is
less taxing to muscles and psyche. When I first learned Opus 130 I had more zest for the fugue's violent energy, but now I am drawn to the music of...Opus 130's alternative finale, which dare[s] to brush off past conflicts and anguish. (p. 230)
We'll see if the Grosse Fugue's "violent energy" is preferable to what seems to me the incongruous cheerfulness of the second finale: the Takács will perform Op. 130 with its original ending to close the final concert of the series in April.

The Sunday afternoon concert began with the Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1 (1800), which is notable for its second movement. Marked Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato (slowly, tenderly and passionately), it was said by a close friend of Beethoven's to represent the tomb scene from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Beethoven wrote on the sketches for the movement "il prend le tombeau" (he descends into the tomb), "désespoir" (despair), "il se tue" (he kills himself),  "les derniers soupirs" (the last breaths). At the time he was composing this quartet Beethoven had fallen hopelessly in love with one of his piano students, Josephine von Brunsvik. She, though, was engaged to another man and apparently did not return Beethoven's affection.

It's usually simplistic to try to read biographical details into musical composition. Apparently the last piece of music an ill and suffering Beethoven completed before his death in 1827 was that jaunty finale to Op. 130. But the anguished slow movement of Op. 18 No. 1 does indeed sound like the musical expression of Beethoven's crushed romantic hopes:

The next piece on the program was the Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 74, Harp, so called (not by Beethoven) because it calls for extensive pizzicato (plucking) in the first movement. But again, it was the slow second movement that I found most engaging. As the members of the quartet made clear in the open rehearsal, slow movements as well as fast ones are technically difficult; they must be deliberate enough to fully express the character of the music, but not so slow that they become static. It's a fine balance that the Takács has found unerringly so far.

The final quartet was Op. 131, often lauded as the pinnacle of Beethoven's achievement in the string quartet. (This is the quartet that is central to Yaron Zilberman's 2012 film A Late Quartet.) It has seven movements that are played continuously, rather than with standard pauses in between. As a result it is a bit of a marathon for performers and listeners alike.

Over its first 25 minutes or so, the mood shifts from serene to sprightly to reflective. Then in the fifth movement a manically insistent melody is played by the first violin. Over the next five minutes it undergoes variations but keeps returning over and over. The Takács played this section at an almost inhuman speed. While their virtuosity was breathtaking, I'm not a fan of technical difficulty for difficulty's sake. In his middle and late quartets Beethoven seems to be pushing musicians to the limits of what is possible, but to my ears the technical challenges are not always justified by the musical ends:

In its frantic energy and relentless repetition this movement reminded me of nothing so much as one of Carl Stalling's cartoon soundtracks. This is followed by a brief, mournful adagio that leads into the broken rhythms of the finale, a powerful, "Beethovenian" conclusion:

But as Nic Mathew pointed out in his pre-concert talk, Beethoven possesses a "multiplicity of voices." To seek coherence in his late quartets—with their jarring shifts of mood, tone and tempo—is to look for a unity that Beethoven seems to delight in negating. As Dusinberre mentioned during his interview with Mathew, Beethoven repeatedly "confounds your expectations in an uncomfortable way." Perhaps the only way to approach these works is simply to accept what critic Edward Said has called their "bristling, difficult and unyielding—perhaps even inhuman—challenge" to performers and listeners alike.

The talks, interviews, master classes and other events surrounding these concerts immeasurably enriched the experience of this music for me. I'm very much looking forward to the Takács Quartet's return in the spring to continue their Cal Performances residency and complete the cycle of the Beethoven quartets. More posts will follow.

Other posts in this series:

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The madness of love: Layla and Majnun, The Winter's Tale, and Kindra Scharich

As he was walking in the shaft of light from the setting sun, he thought to himself that love is an infected root that seeks out the best way to survive: a fatal illness with an incredibly long course that causes addiction, making the victim prefer suffering to well-being, grief to tranquility, uncertainty to stability.

—Maurizio de Giovanni, Everyone in Their Place: The Summer of Commissario Ricciardi (translated by Antony Shugaar)
Thanks to a gift from a dear friend I'm currently reading the Commissario Ricciardi novels of Maurizio de Giovanni (the subject of a future post). In the third novel in the series, Everyone in Their Place, love causes ordinary people to feel the unfamiliar, stabbing emotions of anguish, jealousy and hatred, and to contemplate (and sometimes commit) extraordinary acts of violence towards others and themselves. Love, Commissario Ricciardi begins to feel, is a form of madness.

It's a time-honored theme: a week ago I had the opportunity to witness three performances featuring works spanning half a millennium, all on the madness that love inspires.

Layla and Majnun, Mark Morris Dance Company, with Alim Qasimov (Majnun), Fargana Qasimova (Layla), and the Silk Road Ensemble. Seen in its world premiere performance Friday, September 30 at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley; commissioned and produced by Cal Performances.

Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova

Layla and Majnun, like Juliet and Romeo, are lovers tragically separated by their families. Layla is forced into an arranged marriage by her parents; Majnun ("madman") then wanders the desert declaiming poems in which his pure love for Layla becomes an aspect of his love for the Divine. When Layla dies Majnun makes a pilgrimage to her grave, where he perishes of grief, uniting with his beloved in death.

Majnun's death on Layla's grave, ca. 1450

It is a tale with ancient roots and it has been reimagined many times, in many cultures, and in many forms, including plays, novels and films. Perhaps the most renowned version is that by 12th-century poet Nezami Ganjawi, born in Azerbaijan when it was part of the Persian Seljuk Empire. Nezami's epic inspired the 16th-century Azerbaijani poet Füzuli to create his own version. And nearly four hundred years later, Füzuli's version was used by Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyli as the basis of an opera combining Western and Azerbaijani musical forms; the opera is still frequently performed in its country of origin.

A century after the opera's premiere in 1908, it was adapted and condensed by Azerbaijani mugham vocalist Alim Qasimov and musicians of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble into an hour-long work for two singers accompanied by a chamber orchestra mixing Western, Azerbaijani and Asian instruments. Mark Morris was then invited to choreograph a danced version, and eventually agreed; once again, the story has crossed boundaries of culture and artistic form.

Mark Morris Dance Group and the Silk Road Ensemble in Layla and Majnun

The first thing to say about Morris's Layla and Majnun is that it is less a dance piece accompanied by music than a musical work accompanied by dance. The centrality of the music to the experience of the work was made clear by the staging, which placed the musicians center stage surrounded by a stepped platform; the dancers performed on the platform, at the front of the stage, and occasionally among the musicians.

And the music—particularly the melismatic microtonal mugham singing—is stunning. Here's an example: Alim Qasimov and Faragana Qasimova performing part of the second section of the music of Layla and Majnun with the Silk Road Ensemble:

Rather than designating two soloists as Layla and Majnun, Morris had a different pair of dancers take on the roles in each of the five parts; he seemed to be saying that we are all potential Laylas and Majnuns. The movement vocabulary drew extensively on spinning reminiscent of ecstatic Sufi dancing. I was also reminded by a friend that Morris was once a member of the company of the choreographer Laura Dean, for whom whirling dancers became a signature. That friend also reported that on the second night some of the movement and interactions among the dancers had changed. Morris had clearly given his company the freedom to improvise in response to the vocalists' inspirations.

In the end, the music, the movement, and the striking backdrop by gestural painter Howard Hodgkin (which seemed to shift and change under James Ingalls' atmospheric lighting), combined into a stunning totality in which every element enhanced and enriched the meanings of the others. Another masterpiece from Mark Morris and his collaborators.

The Winter's Tale. Free Shakespeare in the Park. Seen Saturday, October 1 in McLaren Park, San Francisco; produced by the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival.

Happy Bohemians in SF Shakespeare Festival's "The Winter's Tale"

"The Winter's Tale" is one of Shakespeare's "problem plays," dramas in which elements of both tragedy and comedy uneasily coexist. It was a bold choice for Free Shakespeare in the Park, because it's not an obvious crowd-pleaser: the mixed character of the play means that our responses must necessarily be mixed as well.

Leontes (Stephen Muterspaugh), ruler of Sicilia, is wildly jealous of his pregnant wife Hermione (Maryssa Wanlass). He suspects her of having an affair with his old friend Polixenes (David Everett Moore), king of Bohemia, who has been on an lengthy visit to Sicilia's court. In his madness Leontes twists everything into evidence of Hermione's unfaithfulness: when, at Leontes' bidding, Hermione urges Polixenes to extend his stay, Leontes sees both her willingness to make the request and Polixenes' acquiescence as confirmations of his suspicions.

Leontes (Muterspaugh), Hermione (Wanlass) and Polixenes (Moore) in "The Winter's Tale"

Leontes commands his advisor Camillo (Damon Seperi) to poison Polixenes; instead, Camillo warns Polixenes and flees with him to Bohemia—for Leontes, another confirmation that he is surrounded by disloyalty. When Hermione gives birth to a daughter, Leontes orders that the infant be abandoned in the wilderness and puts Hermione, accused of adultery, on trial for her life. Although the words of the Oracle proclaim her innocent, Leontes rejects them, and Hermione collapses and is announced to have died.

Sixteen years later the abandoned daughter, Perdita (Rosie Hallett), becomes engaged to Polixenes' son Prince Florizel (Davern Wright). Their engagement occasions Perdita's reunion with a now-repentant Leontes, a reconciliation between the estranged Leontes and Polixenes, and the discovery that Hermione did not die, but has been in hiding. It's hard to see this as a happy ending, though—by this point Leontes' brutal actions have forever forfeited our sympathies.

The actors were a talented and versatile ensemble, and director Rebecca J. Ennals and her creative design team cleverly pointed up the contrast between the sober, formal Sicilia and the colorful, joyful Bohemia. But another contrast—that between the sunny park setting and dark emotional world of the play—was perhaps too great for this outdoor "Winter's Tale" to fully succeed.

The Great German Songbook. Kindra Scharich, mezzo-soprano, with George Fee, piano. Seen Sunday, October 2, at the Noe Valley Ministry, San Francisco; produced by Lieder Alive!

To be without him is for me like the grave,
And the whole world is bitter.
My poor mind has gone mad,
My poor reason is dismantled,
My peace is gone, my heart is heavy,
I find it never and nevermore.

—Goethe, "Gretchen am Spinnrade" (Gretchen at the spinning wheel), from the musical setting by Franz Schubert
Love is, of course, the great subject of the German lied. And Kindra Scharich seems to be at her considerable best when performing songs of longing and sorrow. She is an exceptionally subtle and communicative singer who can command an audience's rapt attention with hushed inwardness as well as dramatic intensity.

Kindra Scharich

This program was designed to be a kind of greatest hits of the lied, featuring works by a half-dozen composers spanning the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was an ideal introduction to lieder for someone like me, who is just beginning to appreciate the form. Hearing Scharich sing again some of the pieces she had sung during her SF Music Day preview of this program a week earlier helped me to discover new details in the words and musical settings. The way, for example, in which Schubert repeats the opening line of Goethe's poem to end the song "Gretchen am Spinnrade," leaving us with a feeling of uncertainty or suspension that echoes that of the lovelorn speaker (and creating a circular structure that brings to mind the turning of her wheel). Or the way that Liszt has the bell-like piano fall silent in the middle of "Ihr Glocken von Marling" (You bells of  Marling):

If there was any minor issue with this superb program, it was that in the bright acoustic of the Noe Valley Ministry the volume of Fee's piano accompaniment never seemed to drop below mezzo-forte, even at those moments when Scharich was singing pianissimo. But this was a minor issue indeed.

Perhaps the peak moments of the concert were Scharich's performances of three Richard Strauss songs, the ardent "Zueignung" (Gratitude) and the quietly gorgeous "Morgen" (Morning) and "Allerseelen" (All Souls' Day), all of which simply glowed. Strauss's songs seem to be written for Scharich's rich vocal timbre and wide range; I very much hope that performing more of this composer is in her near-future plans.

This was the inaugural concert of Lieder Alive!'s 2016/17 Liederabend Series, which continues with Katherine Growdon, accompanied by Corey Jameson, performing Rilke songs by Schumann, Brahms, and Peter Lieberson on Sunday, October 30 at 5 pm in the Noe Valley Ministry. For more details about upcoming Liederabend concerts, please see the website of Lieder Alive!