Friday, December 13, 2019

A Beethovenian Summit Conquered

l-r: Rafael Rishik, Andrew Shulman, Tereza Stanislav, Rob Brophy.


New Hollywood String Quartet, South Bay Chamber Music Society, Los Angeles Harbor College

The early, middle, and late spans into which Beethoven’s compositional career is often divided each has works for string quartet at its heart: respectively the six of Op. 18 (1798-1800) for the “Early Period”; the three Op. 59 “Razumovskys” (1806), together with the “Harp” Op. 74 (1809) and “Serioso” Op. 95 (1810-11) in the “Middle Period”; and finally the great series of “Late Quartets” from 1825-26, comprising Opp. 127, 130-133, and 135.

Portrait by Carl Riedel of Beethoven in 1801, the year
his Op. 18 string quartets were published.
This being the case, string quartet recitals devoted to the composer often comprise one work from each period, and the first interesting thing about the New Hollywood String Quartet’s selection for their “Celebration of Beethoven’s 250th Birthday” concert (actually a year before the date) for the South Bay Chamber Music Society was that they sidestepped this, avoiding the “Middle Period” altogether and choosing instead the most expansive of the Op. 18 set, No. 1 in F major (but probably the second to be composed), then the last and most concise of the “late quartets”, No. 16 in F major, Op. 135, and finally the toughest challenge of the lot, also a late-period work, the Grosse Fuge in B-flat major, Op. 133.

This had the effect both of drawing together the alpha and omega of Beethoven’s achievement in the medium, and of emphasizing its overall range. The New Hollywood’s account of No. 1 in F major was broad, with the welcome observation of the first movement exposition repeat and an exceptionally spacious basic tempo for the Romeo and Juliet-inspired Adagio affetuoso ed appassionato slow movement pushing its overall duration to around the 32-minute mark.

This emphasized the step up in scale from Haydnesque models that this quartet represents, almost as much as the Second Symphony of a couple of years later marks an unprecedented expansion of the symphonic medium. Within their large-scale interpretation of the work the New Hollywood Quartet (Tereza Stanislav and Rafael Rishik, violins; Rob Brophy, viola; Andrew Shulman, cello) were meticulously observant of detail, carefully distinguishing, for example, between marked pizzicato and arco bowing in fast 16th-note runs, and between sforzando and fortissimo impacts on held chords towards the end of the first movement. It was a performance to be cherished.

Beethoven in 1823: portrait by
Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller.
I confess that I've always found String Quartet No. 16 a little problematic, representing as it seems a retreat from the progressively growing structural originality and astonishing expressive range of its four larger-scale predecessors. Was Beethoven “taking a breath” in his last quartet, drawing back, before further but never-to-be-realized flights into the unknown? Heard alongside its predecessor—also in F major—of a quarter-century earlier this seemed likely. But then this very juxtaposition brought into sharp focus Op. 135's epigrammatic subtlety and economy, and seemingly effortless originality, all much beyond the grasp of his younger self.

The New Hollywood Quartet were as impressive here as in the earlier work, their sensitively pliable tempi in the Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo being especially impressive (a movement that seems set at its outset to be as expansive as the Heiliger Dankgesang of Op. 132 in A minor, but which then proves to have said all it needs to say in about one-third the duration).

As played, the four movements of Op. 135 are in compact proportion with each other, but curiously Beethoven marks a large second repeat in the finale that, if taken, would quite upset that overall balance. The New Hollywoods—like just about every other quartet I have encountered playing the piece—did not observe this, but their performance left me wondering what the effect of including it would be. Beethoven must have meant it, surely?

David Hurwitz, the controversialist reviewer for Classics Today, earlier this month came out with a list of “Classical Music’s Ten Dirtiest Secrets.” Tongue-in-cheek or not, these contain items that almost every music-lover will either furiously shake their head at or chortle in secret agreement with… and maybe both. But in the context of this concert the one that caught my eye was #2 “Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is just plain ugly.”

I first heard the Grosse Fuge in the very first concert I ever attended, back in 1965, a London Prom by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Rudolf Kempe that also included Wagner’s Parsifal Prelude and Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony (you got maximum minutes for money back in those days!). So what was this work for string quartet doing in an otherwise orchestral concert? Answer: it was played by the full string forces.

This practice was endorsed by the great musicologist Sir Donald Tovey, who wrote in Vol. 2 of his Essays in Musical Analysis (pp.170-71): “…as a rule, nothing could be worse than to play a string quartet on a full string band. But this fugue is the exception which proves the rule...” He argues that there’s nothing to be gained from the sheer sense of strain when four “players have to maintain for at least five minutes a quasi-orchestral fortissimo”: the reason, perhaps, for Hurwitz’s dismissive “just plain ugly.”

"Beethoven nears the end": impression by Oswald Charles Barrett (1892-1945, drawn for the
1938 Oxford Companion to Music.
My view of the piece has always been infected by this idea, that a full modern orchestral string section, expertly conducted, can make all the score’s angular intensity clear and powerful without being undermined by any sense of effortful strain. For four players, by contrast, simply getting through all those pages of fast and intricate counterpoint, with thematic material constantly involving wide, awkward leaps, and all at an almost unrelieved fortissimo, must be the musical equivalent of free-soloing El Capitan—one slip and disaster ensues.

There were no disasters in the New Hollywood Quartet’s performance of the Grosse Fuge; indeed it was one of the very few string quartet accounts of it that I have heard which made it seem that the work really does belong to the medium, rather than being a case of Beethoven’s thought bursting beyond its capabilities. In addition to not merely getting through but conveying a triumphant exuberance in the long fugal opening section, their care with tempo relationships and dynamics made structural sense of the later alternations between contemplative stasis and yet wilder bursts of energy, where towards the end of all those torrential 741 measures Beethoven seems to be maliciously teasing both players and audience… You think I’ve finished? Again? Not yet!

As is well known, the Grosse Fuge was originally intended as the finale of the six-movement String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major, Op. 130, but Beethoven was persuaded by his publisher that this was one Pelion that really shouldn’t be piled on Ossa, and to substitute instead a shorter, more light-textured finale. I wonder whether the New Hollywood Quartet have ever played Op. 130 with the Grosse Fuge as finale? I’d love to hear them do it. 


South Bay Chamber Music Society, Music Department Recital Hall, Los Angeles Harbor College, Wilmington, 8 p.m., Friday, December 6, 2019 (repeated at Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes, 3 p.m., Sunday, December 8).
Images: New Hollywood String Quartet: Artists' website; Beethoven in 1801: Wikimedia Commons; Beethoven in 1823: Wikimedia Commons; "Beethoven nears the end": Flickr.

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