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:

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