Julliard- Celebration fo BeethovenThe series of six concerts to be given by the Juilliard String Quartet, which started Friday, promises to be one of Boston's most exciting musical events this season. The ensemble will perform the 16 Beethoven string quartets, with the op. 130, Grosse Fugue to be repeated on April 26th.
Friday's program was judiciously constructed to reveal the incredible diversity of Beethoven's quartets, a form which bears some of the most powerful impressions of the composer's musical development. The program opened with op. 59 #1, one of the Rasumovsky quartets, and continued with op. 130 in B flat major, the Grosse Fugue.
Op. 59 #1, although written 20 years earlier than op. 130, is often less melodious, rhythmically more complex, even startling, than its successor. The quartet was completed in 1807, upon commission from Count Rasumovsky, and belongs to Beethoven's "middle period". The composer wrote about this time: "Now I really know how to write quartets".
This was also a period when Beethoven seemed obsessed with the sonata form, a heritage from Mozart and Haydn which he had worked extremely hard to master during his early period (period of the op. 18 quartets).
The opening movement, Allegro, is in sonata form. The vastest of all four movements, it opens with a melodic introduction and continues with a vast development section, also including a fugue.
The Allegreto Vivace is the epitomy of rhythmical inventiveness. It is followed by the Adagio, a beautiful, lyrical part in F minor. Above this movement in the manuscript, Beethoven scribbled: "A weeping willow or accacia tree on my brother's grave." Without being thematic, how well the movement reflects these words!
For the finale, Allegro, Beethoven found a Russian theme, which he rewrote at a much faster tempo, and developed into a very complex piece. All this was in honor of his patron, Count Rasumovsky.
All the superlatives deserved by the music should be repeated with respect to the performers. What the Jordan Hall audience witnessed on Friday was playing of an originality, and intensity rarely encountered.
The op. 130 -- written together with the late quartets -- was for a long time neglected as a chaotic, rambling work. This, indeed, was the fate of many of the composer's late works, the Ninth Symphony being another example. Today, however, the admiration the quartet receives is hardly rivalled. If there will only be one quartet you will know intimately, make it this one.
The first movement, a dramatic Adagio ma non troppo -- Allegro, is a study in quartet orchestration. In the rich interaction between the instruments, the performers had a rare opportunity to demonstrate their virtuosity as an ensemble. Indeed: the clarity and the richness of the playing never fell below the exigencies of the music. We listened to a wonderfully transparent, incredibly compelling musical treasure.
The movement is haunted by a five-note call, a call perhaps of despair, yet wonderfully complete, self-containing. It could be the halted trill of a bird, the beginning of a dance, a cry of anguish, yet is probably none of these -- or all of them.
The second movement whizzes by in two minutes, a Presto dance. Beethoven often used dances and songs in his quartets, mainly in order to light their abstract character. This movement was particularily effective, its energy projecting forth long after its end.
The third part, a pastoral Andante, continues with another dance, this time a longer and more developed one. The main motif, a syncopated sigh, was beautifully played. The dialogue of the violin with the cello was heart-breaking.
After the Cavatina, the quartet ended with the Grosse Fugue, the most difficult of the two endings Beethoven wrote for it. The Fugue, a monumental work, brings together all the elements of the piece. It is characterized by a four-note motif which also appears in other quartets, most notably in the opening of op. 132, in A minor. Dance, impressionistic, abstract passages build up the fugue, demanding the maximum from the performers as well as from the audience.
The former, at least, did their best, and their best left nothing to be wished for.