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18.4.10

Op. 130

available at Amazon
Beethoven, Complete String Quartets, Alexander Quartet

(released on January 12, 2010)
Foghorn Classics CD1996, CD1999, CD2002
522'11"

Online scores:
Beethoven, op. 130 | Große Fuge, op. 133

available at Amazon
J. Kerman, The Beethoven Quartets

Preview on Google Books
It has been a string quartet kind of week in Washington, beginning with the Del Sol Quartet (another group mentored by the Alexander Quartet in San Francisco) at the National Gallery of Art last Sunday, which we had to miss (Joan Reinthaler reviewed it for the Washington Post). Then there was the Henschel Quartet at the Library of Congress, the negative review of which (by Robert Battey for the Post) I am having trouble squaring with more positive reports of their playing. If, as guest quartets at the Library of Congress often do, they played on historical instruments lent from the LoC collection, that could account for an off-night -- again, I was not there, so I am in no position to contradict. As previewed earlier this week, the Alexander Quartet appeared with their former students, the Afiara Quartet, at the Library of Congress on Friday night in an intriguing program of contemporary music (reviewed by Joan Reinthaler for the Post). That evening, we had a conflicting date with the Takács Quartet and Joyce Yang instead. Still haven't had enough? There was the Axelrod Quartet tonight at the Renwick Gallery (April 18, 7:30 pm) and the Quatuor Diotima at La Maison Francaise on Monday night (April 19, 7:30 pm). More thoughts on that last one tomorrow.

Also as previewed earlier this week, the Alexander Quartet was back at the Library of Congress yesterday afternoon for a special lecture-concert on one of the great works of the string quartet literature, Beethoven's op. 130. As Joseph Kerman put it, in his book on the Beethoven quartets, op. 130 is "a mercurial, brilliant, paradoxical work, toying with the dissociation of its own sensibility and toying with the listener's limping powers of prediction. Force jostles with whimsy, prayer with effrontery, dangerous innocence with an even more dangerous sophistication" (p. 304). Robert Greenberg, who has published his lectures about Beethoven's string quartets with the Teaching Company, spoke about the work's "storyline" as a sequence of non sequiturs, a "potpourri" of six movements that was "about non sequitur." This is another way of saying something else that Kerman observed about op. 130, that it was a work in which "the play of contrast is pushed [...] to a point at which the sense of continuity becomes, if not a matter of doubt, at least a recurrent subject of ironic inquiry" (p. 304).

For Greenberg, the "issue" of the work was that, in Beethoven's initial conception, the Große Fuge that was its final movement was the culmination of the whole work, the one movement he wanted the audience at the premiere to call to be encored (it was not, while several others were). Although Beethoven rarely listened to anyone else when it came to making musical decisions, he allowed his publisher to convince him to publish the quartet with a lighter rondo tacked on as its final movement, one of the last compositions he finished before his death. The fugue was published on its own, under a separate opus number: Beethoven's manuscript of the Presto second movement was on display in a case outside the auditorium, along with first editions of both op. 130 and op. 133. Some of Greenberg's ideas seemed unsubstantiated, like his claim that the double theme of the first movement sonata form represented the "contrast of body and soul, of contemplation and physical activity." However, the theme of duality is important in the work, from that double theme, to the dual-nature middle movements (2 and 3 as one movement, 4 and 5 as another, both combining song and dance), to the double fugues of the last movement.

After a brief intermission, the Alexander Quartet, who had provided a few not particularly enlightening excerpts of live music during the lecture (not through their fault but because they were not particularly connected to any of Greenberg's points), gave a beautiful rendition of op. 130. They played not on their normal instruments -- a matched set of instruments made by Francis Kuttner in imitation of Stradivarius models -- but on actual Stradivarius instruments from the Library's collection. Greenberg noted the difference in sound during his lecture, but as we have noted before, sometimes these instruments can be difficult to handle, and the Guarneri del Gesù, formerly owned by Fritz Kreisler, often seemed to be trying to buck first violinist Zakarias Grafilo, especially in treacherously exposed places on the E string. Things had settled down for all the players by the fifth movement, where a lush glow of sound emanated from the quartet, leading us into a masterful, full-bodied performance of the fugue, presented here as the quartet's sixth movement. The rondo movement that replaced it was offered as an encore, which is the reverse of how they presented the movements on the eighth disc of their new Beethoven set.

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