Friday evening, the Guarneri String Quartet, in their 26th year in residence at the University of Maryland, performed an all-Beethoven concert as part of the school’s Scholarship Benefit Series (postponed from Leap Day, due to a player injury). The program included the “Harp” String Quartet No. 10 (op. 74, E-flat major) and String Quartet No. 13 (op. 130, B-flat major), which featured its original finale, the Grosse Fuge. Hearing the venerable ensemble, now in their 44th year and penultimate season, should be a high priority on one’s cultural to-do list. Their final season, 2008-2009, is anticipated to be heavy.
Arnold Steinhardt, Indivisible by Four: A String Quartet in Pursuit of Harmony (1998)
The “Harp” is unique in that it lacks the torrential quality often expected of Beethoven. In its place, Classical charm filled the ideally wet, yet intimate acoustic of the Dekelboum Concert Hall, with its tall ceiling and narrow breadth. Pizzicato notes in the first movement (Poco adagio allegro) were expertly passed between the players amid gentle flutters. The movement became beautifully expansive as it neared its end, in a settled tempo seemingly neither fast nor slow. The Guarneri’s tempos are always just right. Beethoven’s good humor extended through the following three movements, in particular, the third (Presto: Piu presto quasi prestissimo), where the Quartet created a crack intensity without becoming heavy or bogged down.
Overall, the quality of the first half of the concert was not sustained into the second half. This was due to some tuning issues in the inner voices that prevented harmonies from fully locking into place and textures from sparkling like sapphires in the sun, as they had before. Additionally, the rather low-energy performance of op. 130’s six movements made one yearn for the complete Guarneri experience, such as their program of Bartók, Haydn, and Smetana last January.
Joan Reinthaler, Guarneri String Quartet (Washington Post, April 21)
Regardless, hearing the Grosse Fuge as the final movement of op. 130, instead of the easier replacement movement requested by Beethoven’s publisher, is a unique journey. The bouncy dotted theme and contrastingly piercing four-note theme are overtly kept away from each other until the very end. The point of this tour de force is finally revealed when these subjects simply, and magically, merge with the first violin and cello at the work's end. Alas, the subjects were meant to be together all along.
The Guarneri Quartet will hold its next open rehearsal, free and open to the public, at the University of Maryland next Wednesday (April 30, 5 pm).