Late Quartets of Beethoven
Fanfare Magazine, Nov/Dec 2008, Lynn René Bayley
Although I’m very fond of the Emerson String Quartet’s traversal of the complete Beethoven quartets, I admit that there are some performances of the middle and late quartets that eclipse theirs. My favorite versions of the middle quartets are those by the Tokyo Quartet (RCA), while in the late quartets I am equally enamored of the performances by the legendary 1961 Yale Quartet (originally Vanguard) and the digital recordings by the Vermeer Quartet (Teldec, 1988, possibly the most underrated set of the quartets ever marketed).
Therefore, in the late quartets especially, the Colorado has some very formidable competition indeed. The Colorado String Quartet tears into these works with a combined tension, cohesion, grace, and complete understanding of the music that I haven’t heard since the Yale Quartet. All written repeats are observed, which may or may not thrill the completist, but Colorado refuses to let them sound “the same” when these passages are repeated. No, indeed. On the repeats, there are slightly different colors, accents, and shades of color. They are not only master architects, but master painters. Their palette of sound has a hidden layer of hues that no one else has discovered or used.
If you don’t believe me, just compare their op. 130 to the Vermeer recording. Good as the Vermeer is, they just go one layer deep. Colorado plunges the musical scalpel in till Beethoven’s very soul is laid bare. The range of colors they discover, particularly at 9:10 into the first movement, simply does not exist in others’ recordings. When I saw that their performance of the second movement ran at 2:04 compared to Vermeer’s 2:00, I thought, “Ah-ha, they’re a shade slower.” Oh my God, no. Playing all the repeats, their tempo is exactly at the metronome marking. I’ve never heard any quartet, not even the Yale, play it this fast. The Schneider brothers’ tongues would be hanging out in sheer admiration of their fleetness, their precision, and their feeling. Feeling, even at this speed.
Trust me. In the Vermeer recording, the original ending—now known as the Grosse Fugue—is given after the published finale. The Colorado says pooh, go for the jugular first. This Grosse Fugue will push your mind and emotions to the limit. The ghostly, dead-sounding viola scrapes leading into the fugue proper make us realize how deeply Beethoven was “feeling” his mortality at this time. He didn’t want to go. This Grosse Fugue claws frantically, desperately, with every ounce of passion to life, knowing that the battle is a losing one.
The way the Colorado plays it, it bears a close resemblance to Berlioz’s “Ride to the abyss” in La damnation du Faust. Beethoven’s mind was already over that abyss. Perhaps that was why he agreed to his publisher’s demands to the more audience-friendly finale published as part of the quartet; but the Colorado also gives this much cheerier (and simpler) movement life and drive.
By the time you’ve recovered from op. 130/133, it’s time to discover that, in their hands, op. 127 is no less intense, despite its slightly more cheerful cast. The Colorado’s gradations of tone and volume are part of that color palette I mentioned earlier, and they pull out all the stops in the very first movement of op. 127. The Adagio is played with such deep, almost inexpressible sadness that I found it impossible to go on to the third movement when it was finished. I discovered, much to my surprise, that I was in tears, despite the cheery middle section. The sprightly Scherzo is taken with the coiled springiness of a cat in mid-leap, the finale with elegance as well as optimism.
For me, Beethoven’s last two quartets, like his last two sonatas, are like the closing of a door on life. You’d better be in a good mood when you listen to this music; unlike the sonatas, which float ethereally up to heaven, the quartets are incredibly sad. They are his equivalent of Mahler’s Ninth and 10th Symphonies. He’s still trying to smile, but it’s a dark night of the soul. The cheer seems forced, almost artificial; he knows the end is near, and he’s still not quite sure how he’s going to handle it. Colorado’s performances, here, are exactly on the knife-edge, the complex and sometimes mixed emotions perfectly intertwined with the notes and phrases.
The sound of the Colorado’s instruments, particularly in the dry recording space of the Sosnoff Theater at the Fisher Center of the Performing Arts in New York State, is leaner, less lush than that of the Vermeer’s. If tonal opulence is a particular requisite of yours, Vermeer’s is still the preferred set; no quartet has ever combined intensity with richness of sound quite like they did. But if it’s the music and what the music says that interests you, well, this is the only set of the late quartets you’ll ever need. Buy it, and marvel. These four women bring Beethoven to intense, blazing life.
It was a delightful program, and something of a relief, because the Colorado was a last-minute replacement. Originally, Cuarteto Casals was scheduled to appear for the Cleveland Chamber Music Society, but a death in the family of one of the players forced the group to withdraw over the weekend. The Colorado and oboist Thomas Gallant came, well, gallantly, to rescue.
No work in the chamber-music repertoire for oboe arguably is greater than Mozart’s Quartet for Oboe and Strings, K. 370, which posed a slight problem for the night’s other piece for the charismatic reed instrument, Josef Fiala’s Quartet No. 2 for Oboe and Strings. Fiala was an oboist, composer and friend of Mozart’s who spent time in the latter’s hometown of Salzburg, Austria.
Fiala’s second oboe quartet is a perfectly amiable work, with four movements in which the oboist negotiates wild cascades and sings sweet tunes. Gallant was a superb soloist, with a timbre of poignant focus – quite unlike that of most American oboe players – and the ability to traverse any technical obstacle as if it were the easiest endeavor.
Mozart’s quartet inhabits an altogether more exalted world – one of thematic enchantment and heartfelt utterance. The operatic Mozart is here in the long lines of the slow movement and the winsome antics of the outer movements. Gallant played with masterful subtlety and exuberance. His stylish partners ware violinist Julie Rosenfeld, violist Marka Gustavsson and cellist Diane Chaplin. In the program’s other works, violinist D. Lydia Redding, founder of the Colorado, joined her colleagues. The ensemble established its name while in residence at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Formerly in residence at Oberlin College, it is now on the faculty at Bard College in New York.
The group made a devastating thing of Shostekovich’s Quartet No. 11, in which the Russian composer memorializes a friend. The seven movements explore desolate and angry terrain, with many moments in which time is suspended. The Colorado players were in keen control of the score’s emotional contrasts.
Beethoven’s Quartet, Op. 59, No. 3, allowed them to go to different extremes.The musicians immersed themselves in narratives that stretched the medium in ways no other composer could fathom. The performance had a few loose ends, but it mostly was suave and fleet.