Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Juilliard String Quartet Seminar: Beethoven, Brahms and Bartók

On Friday, I went to Paul Hall to hear another end-of-term recital, this one the highly prestigious Juilliard String Quartet Seminar.  Coached by the entire Juilliard String Quartet (Joseph Lin, Ronald Copes, Roger Tapping and Astrid Schwinn), four ensembles took the stage over the course of two hours, all of them giving peerless performances of quartets written by masters of the genre - Beethoven, Brahms and Bartók.

The first ensemble to come onstage was the Verona String Quartet, consisting of Jonathan Ong and Dorothy Ro, violins, Abigail Rojansky, viola, and Warren Hagerty, cello.  They proceeded to perform Beethoven's String Quartet No. 4 in C minor, Op. 18, No. 4 (1799-1800).  This was actually the last of the six to have been written and the only one to have been cast in a minor key.  Some musicologists believe it incorporates material Beethoven had composed while still in Bonn.  The only evidence I could find for this, though, was that no preliminary sketches for the work were ever located among the composer's papers.  While Beethoven was not above recycling his youthful compositions - two passages from the opening movement of the 1785 Piano Quartet in C Major, WoO 36, No. 3, for example, reappear in the first movement of the C major Sonata, Op.2, No. 3 - I do not believe that to have been the case here.  At the time Beethoven composed the Op. 18 quartets he was still standing very much in the shadow of Haydn and Mozart and was here attempting to take his place beside them in a genre at which they had excelled.  Beethoven was accordingly exceedingly careful in writing the quartets and worked to the very best of his ability.  They are at once excellent examples of the Classical string quartet and at the same time, in the La Malinconia section of the No. 6, anticipate the Romanticism of the composer's middle period.

The next work was Brahms's String Quartet No. 3 in B-flat major, Op. 67 (1875) as performed by the Callisto String Quartet.  The musicians were Paul Aguilar and Rachel Stenzel, violins, Eva Kennedy, viola, and Hannah Moses, cello.  This was Brahms's third and final quartet.  Unlike the two minor-key pieces that comprise the Op. 51 published two years before, this is a fairly lighthearted cheerful work.  That may have had something to do with the ease with which Brahms composed it in only three months after having agonized over the Op. 51 quartets for roughly twenty years.  The quartet is also notable for the emphasis placed on the viola, particularly in the third movement, this even though the work was dedicated to an amateur cellist.

After a brief intermission, the Belka String Quartet - Beatrice Hsieh and Charles Gleason, violins, John Grigsby, viola, and Daniel Blumhard, cello - performed Bartók's String Quartet No. 3 (1927).  Next to Beethoven's late quartets, I've always considered Bartók's set of six the greatest in the repertoire.  So much attention has been paid to Bartók's pioneering work as an ethnomusicologist that his place as one of music's foremost modernists is sometimes overlooked.  The Quartet No. 3 was the first written after the conclusion of World War I when Bartók's field research had in any event been curtailed by the collapse of the Hungarian empire.  By then Bartók's personal life and career had both taken new directions.  He had divorced his first wife in 1923 and then had quickly married one of his piano students only a few days after having proposed to her.  Around the same time, he concluded his controversial ballet, The Miraculous Mandarin, as well as his two violin sonatas.  It was against this background that he composed the No. 3, the shortest of his string quartets and in many ways the most inventive.  For one, it consisted of only one movement divided into four parts.  The one movement structure necessarily cut back on the amount of thematic material and this in turn allowed for more effective concentration so that the music seems to explode in a single burst. At the same time, Bartók employed a number of instrumental techniques - including pizzicato, col legno and glissando - to compensate for the lack of thematic variety.

The program closed with one of the Razumovsky Quartets, Beethoven's String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59, No. 3 (1808)  It was performed by the Vera String Quartet consisting of Pedro Rodríguez Rodríguez and Patricia Quintero García, violins, Inés Picardo Molares, viola, and Justin Goldsmith, cello.  Although the Razumovsky Quartets were composed only five years after those of the Op. 18, they are completely different in character and outlook.  While the earlier works are those of a protégé attempting to find his own voice, the later works display the self-confidence of a master who knows what he is about and is not unduly troubled if his listeners have difficulty following him.  Count Razumovsky was an accomplished amateur violinist and maintained a permanent string quartet that featured Ignaz Schuppanzigh as first violinist, but even so one has to wonder if he felt he had gotten more than he had bargained for when he first heard the works he had so generously commissioned.  First, there is the dissonance with which the first movement opens before finally "finding" the home key.  That must have been as disconcerting to early audiences as the fugal writing in the final movement.  It's worth mentioning that the third movement is a minuet, a form that was already archaic in the early nineteenth century.  It's as though Beethoven were here giving a final nod here to his Classical roots before moving on once and for all.  In any event, the quartet provided the perfect ending to a brilliant recital.

The most polished performance of the afternoon was to my mind that of the Verona Quartet who are this month ending their stint as Juilliard's Graduate Resident String Quartet.  In that position, as Lisa Arnhold Fellows, they assisted the Juilliard String Quartet in providing chamber music education to students.  I had an opportunity to briefly chat with cellist Warren Haggerty at intermission regarding Beethoven's quartets and found him an extremely knowledgeable and engaging person.  I sincerely appreciate the time he took to share with me his thoughts on the music.

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