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Notes from the 2011 Salzburg Festival ( 15 )

Chamber Concert • Beethoven, Ives

I still remember my first encounter with the Zehetmair Quartet: A cold January Sunday in 2003 at the National Gallery of Art, performing moving Schumann, strong Bartók, and exceptional Cage during which I sat up like electrified. Then as now the Quartet (Thomas Zehetmair, Kuba Jakowicz, Ruth Killius, Ursula Smith) perform their repertoire from memory… one of the exceptions where even I can appreciate the act of playing without a score. Not for the circus-trick element involved, but because it signifies an internalization of—and dedication to—the material that, for a quartet, is truly extra-ordinary.

The program at the Grand Hall of the Mozarteum on Monday, August 15th, with Beethoven’s late string quartets opp.131 in c-sharp minor and 135 in F, looked good, especially as the two works were bridged by a performance of Charles Ive’s Concord Sonata played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard. The Ives fulfilled its promise, the Zehetmair Quartet strangely not. The opening of op.131 hesitant, made it difficult for the ears to follow the line. Dynamic differentiation was kept to a minimum until the end of the first movement and, most surprising, intonation and entries were rarely clean. There’s always the question of whether one might mistake some curious interpretive choice for a bad performance, merely because it does not accord one’s own expectations… But by the time of the third movement I felt fairly safe in ruling that out. This just about above-average performance (to the extent one hears op.131 often enough in concert to establish a meaningful ‘average’) was considerably less than I had hoped for.

available at Amazon
C.Ives, "Concord" Sonata & Songs,
P-L.Aimard et al.

What to write about the Concord Sonata, this bold and terrific work; massive and challenging as Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata (and referencing it, too)? There are too many facets, ups, downs, lefts and rights in it to list them all and still be meaningful. Hearing is where it’s at. (More about the Concord Sonata on ionarts here.) Playing it is certainly a full-contact sport, involving all of Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s body in the first movement—which the French pianist mastered with brawny excellence. Positively indulgent, actually. That first movement, “Emerson”, was smooth as pebbles and weighty as boulders with a Steinway stress-test thrown into the bargain. The sonata can be—and was—completely mesmerizing before bubbling away into marches and Yankee-doodling. Are the ‘serious’ bits in sent-up by the trivial or are they a send-up of the listener and his ideas of the serious? Whatever the case, one scarcely stops marveling at all the things happening before it’s over.

After the second intermission back came the Zehetmairs with op.135. The primarius was harsh in his attacks, strident at the expense of accuracy, and certainly sparse with any semblance of beauty. Hushed pianissimos were hesitant, quick and loud accents ugly. In late Beethoven, at least the latter may well be intent and the first three movements were in any case considerably better performed than op.131. The result was befuddlement on my part: Was I meant to hear it like this; meant to endure it for some higher artistic purpose I could not perceive? The encore, the second movement of Schumann’s Piano Quintet (due to the amiable desire of “we wanted to play something all-together”), suggested it was just an off-night; all the extensive preliminary tuning didn’t help to get this to sound right, either. Not that it could dim the evening’s joy the Ives Sonata had brought.

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