Individual yet unified approach to BeethovenThe Juilliard String Quartet visited Boston for the second time this season, presenting a program representative of Beethoven's major quartet-writing periods and styles. They played quartets op. 18 No. 2 (1800), op. 59 No. 3 (1807) and op. 127 in E flat major (1824).
The quality of the quartet's playing on Friday came as no surprise to their devoted audience. Be it throughout the bright op.18, the demanding op.59 or the tormented later piece, the players remained one with Beethoven. It is difficult to characterize their playing as "romantic" or "restrained" or "expansive", or with any other adjective. Suffice it to say that their playing fused with the music: it was the music. Even in the tour de force their program entailed, the performance remained flawless from beginning to end.
Op. 127 opens with a series of full chords which, in Beethoven's language, is perhaps the most certain sign of an approaching storm. From the beginning to the Finale, the music was a huge question mark. Like the mutterings of a pained man, the sentences were seldom complete. Often, they were mere shards. Each instrument was caught into its own hesitations, searches and wanderings, yet they were all united by a common thought. One sensed that thought, never being able to say what it was.
This is a very difficult piece to understand. One may listen to it as to a dialogue with death, a subject Beethoven dared to explore much more than any of his contemporaries. Three years before his death he started to write these last quartets. The music he produced was abstract, remote, tormented, received by his contemporaries as the ramblings of a near mad man.
The op. 18 dwelled in a child's world compared to the two pieces flanking it. Following the belief that everything about Beethoven must be either "explosive" or "manic" or possessed by some kind of extreme passion, the program notes say that this piece was "powered by manic energy."
This adjective is out of place here. Simplicity was the magic word in this piece, in which Beethoven and Mozart seemed to have joined hands.
Beethoven no doubt drew from the late classical tradition here. The ornaments, the march-like passages, the lyrical motifs, and the rounded-off, polished structure of each phrase bear witness to this.
The playing was effortless and simple. The performers plunged into the fast passages moved by joy, the bows as if striving to outrun the hands. The Adagio, with its middle fast part, was especially beautiful and melodious.
Full chords opened the concluding work of the evening, op. 59 No. 3. This is the third of the Rasumovsky quartets and as such bears the seal of a Russian melody in the first part.
The Andante contains the landmark this piece is no doubt remembered by: a cello pizzicato solo motif. The cello's recitatif often interrupts the music, to be joined hesitantly by the others. In its abstractness and austerity this motif puts Beethoven into the 20th century, if not beyond: it stands up to the most stringent modern standards of minimalism.
After the Minuet came a Finale of extreme technical difficulty, that could not, building on itself like a spiral, find a single pause -- until the very end. There was no time to listen to the silence of the ending as the audience broke into applause, enthusiastic cries and standing ovations.