This was underlined for me by a concert I attended a while ago. I don't really do concert reviews on this blog (though I did, sort-of, do one recently) and I won't do one now. But I want to make some general observations about string quartet concerts. Most of the ones I have attended in the last few years have been disappointingly dull! The string quartet is probably my favorite medium in music and so many great composers have written superb music for string quartet that one would think that you would actually have to go to some effort to deliver a dull string quartet concert. Especially since all the string quartet ensembles I have heard in recent years have been very competent technically. But no, the recurring problem is that they tend to choose dull repertoire and play it too cautiously. You see, alongside the great music for string quartet is even more second-rate music for string quartet and a lot of quartets seem to think we want to hear it. No!
Many string quartets seem to have slid into a kind of "rent-a-program" mentality where they program an 18th century quartet by Haydn or Mozart, followed by a 20th century quartet by one of the safer modern composers like Ravel or Debussy. Then the second half, almost invariably, consists of one of those bulky 19th century quartets by Schubert, Dvorak or Brahms. What I usually want to do, confronted by this kind of program, is leave at intermission! Haydn or Mozart? Yes, absolutely. 20th century, yes, though the best choice would be something by Shostakovich or Bartok or someone else who is a little more dynamic. Why not the much-neglected Mieczyslaw Weinberg who wrote, good grief, seventeen string quartets? And let's face it, the 19th century was a wonderful time for opera, symphonies, tone-poems, lieder and piano music. It was not a wonderful time for string quartets. I'm sure lots of you will disagree, but, Schubert aside, is there any great music for string quartet in the 19th century? As good as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven or Shostakovich? Not to my ears. They wrote long, flabby, dreary music for string quartet in the 19th century.
The quartet concert I mentioned above gave an excellent example. The programming was a bit unusual. Instead of starting with something from the 18th century, they began with the two pieces for string quartet that Shostakovich arranged from other music around 1931. These are nice pieces, but really better suited to be encores. But then they followed this with a quartet by Carl Nielsen, the String Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Opus 13. Let's have a listen. I'll go easy on you and just put up the first movement:
That embodies what I dislike about 19th century string quartets. Rhythmically flaccid and tedious, melodically dreary, harmonically vague--do I need to go on? Listening to that is like being repeatedly dipped in a bath of warm syrup.
But then string quartet players did a very good thing: for the second half they programmed a Beethoven string quartet, the op 59, no 3 in C major. So I couldn't leave at intermission! And what a contrast the second half was with the first. These were very competent players and, finally working with a truly excellent piece of music, they came alive. The intensity and dynamicism of the Beethoven woke them up and they delivered an excellent performance.
So here is the secret of programming a string quartet concert: pick good pieces and always program a Beethoven quartet! One of the finest string quartet concerts I have ever heard (exceeded only by the Alban Berg Quartet playing ALL the Beethoven quartets one year in Salzburg) was the Endellion Quartet a couple of years ago. They played three pieces and almost followed the "rent-a-program" format: first a Haydn, but "The Joke" quartet from op 33, which is a very fine piece. Then the Shostakovich 8th Quartet, which is an incredible piece and for the second half, one of the Beethoven late quartets, probably the A minor. And the remarkable thing was that the Shostakovich, even in that august company, got the warmest response from the audience.
One year the local chamber music festival managed to put together two entire weeks of string quartet concerts without programming a single quartet by Beethoven. I'm sure they thought they were being "innovative" and "bold", but not to my ears. I stayed away from the whole festival that year!
All right, now let's hear that Beethoven. Here is the third of the three quartets that make up Beethoven's op 59, the one in C major. I'm just going to put up the last movement as it gives the best contrast with the Nielsen. Given the intensity of the opening, you wouldn't think Beethoven would be able to sustain this for seven minutes, but oh yes: