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A Rigorous Set

August 3, 2005

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By David Bratman

[email protected] continues its ambitious project of presenting the entire Beethoven string quartet cycle, heart of the quartet repertoire, in the course of one small two-week festival. After hearing all six of the Opus 18 quartets the previous Saturday, I was ready for the next installment. This was on Wednesday at Menlo School's Stent Family Hall, a tiny ballroom holding only 160 seats including the ones at the foyer in the back with no sightlines.

Again the program was enormous, and even more ambitious than its predecessor: the quartets commissioned in 1805 by Count Andreas Razumovsky, Russian ambassador to Vienna. There are only three quartets in Beethoven's Opus 59, but they're all huge, monumental works. Usually only one of them appears in any concert, as the final hefty offering after briefer, lighter pieces. This was the first time I'd ever heard all three in one evening. Even with recordings, I had never thought to listen to all three in a row, and I expect that few performers would attempt such a task.

The ensemble that undertook the job was the Miami String Quartet. They are four players of unusually diverse physical appearance, and their approach to the music brought out their individuality. All of Beethoven's quartets emphasize conversation among the instruments; but the Razumovsky quartets are more discursive than their predecessors, and so unusual for their time that the first performers thought Beethoven was kidding them. All the instruments have prominent solos and exposed parts, and each at times is playing something quite different from its fellows. The ancestry of the centrifugal passages in the quartets of Bartók and Shostakovich might be traced back to the Razumovsky quartets. The Miami players made a coherent ensemble when the score called for it, but the emphasis was on the four individual voices. The slow movements in particular brought out discursive playing that focused more on melodic line than structure. But many of the fast movements emphasized rhythm, jumping with strong rhythms, sforzandos, and sudden fortes. The quartet didn't play any of the sonata-movement repeats, but with such a large program, can you blame them?

E pluribus

Cellist Keith Robinson played with almost painful physical effort. At times his sound was entirely self-effacing; at other moments he thundered the notes out almost brutally, making the hall ring with the thumping of his pizzicato in the slow movement of No. 3. Chauncey Patterson is an extraordinarily strong violist. His sound was always clear and audible, though never grating on exposure, and I don't think this was just because I was sitting nearest to him. Second violinist Cathy Meng Robinson is less physically expressive than the others, but had great shading and nuance in her solos. She too was a prominent partner throughout: the recapitulation in the Molto Adagio of No. 2 sounded more like a true violin duet, rather than the second merely playing a descant accompaniment above the first. First violinist Ivan Chan is also an interesting player. He tends to play detached notes in fast runs and produced some exquisitely lyrical moments in slow movements when he held back his vibrato sufficiently.

Most interesting, however, was the overall effect of the concert. Opinions among reviewers have differed, but I heard this as a program of steadily increasing intensity. A concert this size requires not so much the husbanding of energy as the slow ignition of a large fire, and in a hall this tiny it doesn't require much dynamic contrast to have an effect. If the performers' fortissimos rarely sounded any louder than their fortes, the fortes were loud enough. They may have been exhausted by the end, but no reflection showed in the music. The ensemble began No. 1 hesitantly, almost passively, and built slowly up from there. This was particularly noticeable in the cello: Robinson seemed to be trying to swallow the notes of the distinctive pianissimo rhythm that opens the Allegretto second movement and was civilized rather than lusty in the Russian folk tune (a tribute to Razumovsky) of the finale.

But there were also gutsy, forward-moving moments in the work, especially in the slow movement. The quartet took no break after finishing it, but sat down to begin No. 2 immediately after the applause for the first work had ended — almost, as my neighbor remarked afterwards, as if the score had been marked attacca. This work was marked by breathless runs in the first movement, some gorgeous playing by Chan in the sempre p e dolce parts of the slow movement, a heavily-accented scherzo (there's another Russian theme in the trio section), and a clomping, rhythmic finale that could pass for a Dvořák furiant. By the time we broke for intermission, I found myself convinced that the Razumovsky quartets are not three works, but one gigantic piece in three parts. The music we'd heard so far seemed to be begging for a satisfying conclusion.

A true culmination

The achievement of this conclusion made for a particularly richly satisfying performance of No. 3. The first movement was strongly accented, and the Andante nicely expressive with those strong pizzicato cello notes. But the final two movements, which are tied together, were what really fulfilled the promise of the earlier music. Beethoven builds both of these out of deliberately banal material piled up into monumental structures, trusting the performers to provide the passion and commitment required to make this music work. All the tension built up through the evening was resolved in the fugal intricacies of the Allegro molto finale.

There was no encore. After such a journey, what more was left to be said?

[email protected] is not finished with Beethoven — two more ensembles are performing the five late quartets this week — and neither was I. On Sunday I went to St. Mark's in Palo Alto for a free concert of two young ensembles playing the “late middle” quartets. This was another highly worthwhile experience. The Kashii Quartet gave a serious, sure-footed performance of the light, sometimes insouciant, Op. 74, while the Attacca Quartet did their considerable best to bounce energetically through the dense, intricate Op. 95. Both groups are technically highly accomplished, but I suspect an exchange of assignments might have better suited their collective personalities.

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

©2005 David Bratman, all rights reserved