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FESTIVAL REVIEW

Subtle Sensibilities

July 29, 2005


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By David Bratman

When Beethoven sat down at the age of 27 to write his first six string quartets, he was emulating Mozart, who had begun his six great quartets dedicated to Haydn at about the same age. And when Beethoven published all six quartets together in 1801 as his Opus 18, he was following the eighteenth-century custom of publishing everything from symphonies to sonatas in groups of six.

But that doesn't mean Beethoven intended the six quartets to be performed together in one day. Music@Menlo, however, determined on doing exactly that. The Peninsula's chamber music festival had chosen Beethoven as its theme for this year's outing, their third, and have brought in six ensembles to cover all sixteen quartets. They have less than two-and-a-half weeks to do all this and put on numerous other concerts and lectures as well, so that means taking some really big bites from the repertoire.

As a result, anyone who came to St. Mark's Episcopal Church in midtown Palo Alto by 5 p.m. Thursday could hear all six of the Opus 18 quartets in two concerts before departing, thoroughly stuffed but satisfied, about 10:30. I'd not heard a concert at St. Mark's before: it's a small church with very bright but dry acoustics, and an excellent venue once the fan is turned off ( by the time the main event began at 8 p.m.). P>

Miró Quartet

Opus 18 has a mixed reputation. Some critics with ears attuned to the composer's later works complain that the quartets are not “real” Beethoven, that he was trying to imitate Haydn and Mozart and not always succeeding very well. But early Beethoven is still genuine, and these quartets come from a recognizable voice that could not be anyone else's. The echoes of his seniors go only as far as the composer wanted them to, and the large, formal structures are what he then wanted a quartet to have. Each of the six is distinctive; all received absorbing and diligent treatment by the three ensembles involved.

The star performers were the Miró Quartet, who played four of the quartets at the 8 p.m. concert. The group has a restrained, delicate style, which was carefully adjusted to fit the individual characters of the four works. No. 3 is the lightest and most classical of all the quartets, the least like stereotypical Beethoven. The performance was sweet and bouncy. The performers took to heart the fast second movement tempo of Andante con moto, treating the music with elegance and grace. Their rendition of No. 4 startled me by smothering the dark violence of the C-minor opening movement in a gentle friendly wash, but it was all for the best: this approach enabled the remaining movements to shine as light little chatterboxes. The scherzo tumbled on into the minuet and finale, all dashed off with dazzling virtuosity.

No. 6, overall a more genial piece, was taken more seriously: the wit was subdued, but so was the sorrow of the La Malinconia finale. All the way through the concluding prestissimo the work was taken at an even keel with skillful, controlled playing as the signal virtue. It was No. 2, the most Haydnesque of the set, which the Miró designated as the humorous work. I was reminded of performers who treat Haydn as a rustic Croatian peasant: this was a rough-hewn, scraping performance, with much less minute control of dynamics than elsewhere. Though the group's innate light delicacy of approach prevented sheer crudity, it was a very different sound than they otherwise gave.

Well established

The Miró, founded ten years ago, have held their present lineup since 1997 and are mature, confident performers with a sure sense of ensemble. Second violinist Sandy Yamamoto and violist John Largess have smooth and even tones; cellist Joshua Gindele can be rough in solos, but only as a calculated effect. That leaves first violinist Daniel Ching to dominate perhaps slightly more than is ideal. His tone could at times be a little raw, but his control and expression were excellent. The point in the slow movement of No. 2 where he extends a cadence into a fast running figure could not have melted the Adagio cantabile into an Allegro more beautifully.

Throughout the quartets, little touches of care shone out. No. 3 is full of triplet figures, here tossed off with quick bounces that gave the effect of arpeggios. The players adjusted the strength of each sforzando according to proper context, and they could produce a real pianissimo that sounded more stealthy than a piano, not just quieter. This worked to splendid effect, especially at the end of the exposition of No. 4's first movement and in some exquisite passages in the slow movement of No. 3.

If you'd like to hear the Miró for yourself: they have recently recorded the whole of Opus 18. The CD is due for release from Artemis Classics at the end of August.

For an encore, the Miró offered an attractive piece in the early Beethoven tradition: the ghostly minuet and courtly trio from the Quartet No. 3 in E-flat of Juan Crisostomo Arriaga, a brilliant Spanish Basque composer. He was probably inspired to write his three quartets by hearing the Opus 18 works in Paris in the 1820s, where he died at the tragic age of 19.

New on the scene

The appetizer concert featured two young quartets performing one each of the remaining works of Opus 18. Each group has been together for about two years. Festival co-artistic director Wu Han in her introductory remarks predicted that in future years they might be the stars of the cycle, and I can believe it, for though they almost all looked startlingly young, their assurance and virtuosity as performers, and their ability to work together as ensembles, were fully professional. What was lacking, and that only by contrast with the Miró, was seasoning and maturity in interpretation. This expressed itself objectively in a lack of subtlety in dynamics and, in the case of the Kashii Quartet, a certain wobbliness in tempo.

But do not think that this free concert was anything other than delightful. The Attacca Quartet took the relatively sedate and Mozartean No. 5 and propelled it in a compulsive, springing manner that still emphasized lyricism. The Kashii Quartet, given the large, broad No. 1, were more stolid and contemplative but also more detail-oriented. Their sense of drama in the “Romeo and Juliet” slow movement was a highlight of the concert. The Kashii and Attacca will be performing Opp. 74 and 95, respectively, in another free “Prelude Performance” on Sunday, August 7, at St. Mark's, and they and their individual members will be giving other free concerts during the festival.

(David Bratman, librarian, lives with his lawfully-wedded soprano and a wallful of symphony recordings.)

©2005 David Bratman, all rights reserved