Friday, March 8, 2013

The Performer or the Repertoire?

I forget which critic it was who said that he would pay to hear such-and-such an actor read the phone book aloud. There are a very, very few performers that I might say the same about. I would happily have attended Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing pretty much anything, for example. But more and more, I don't go to a concert to hear a particular performer--I go to hear a particular piece of music.

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:


Craig said...

A very interesting topic today!

The best string quartet concert I have attended was the Emerson SQ playing (in the first half) the last quartet of Shostakovich and (in the second half) the last quartet of Beethoven. It was an exhausting night, but wonderful all the same.

I was about to raise a protest on behalf of Schubert to your claim that nineteenth-century composers wrote boring string quartets, but I see that you made an exception for him. I bide my peace.

As to the performer/composition question, I am drawn sometimes by one and sometimes by the other. There are a handful of performers for whom the prospect of hearing them sets my pulse racing -- the Hilliard Ensemble, Marc-Andre Hamelin, Ensemble Clement Janequin, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Andras Schiff, and a few others. I don't particularly care what they are performing; I want to hear it! But most of the time it is the music that draws (or deters) me.

I have noticed from the way the local symphony and opera company promote themselves that they believe that most people are attracted more by the performer than the music itself. Their promotional materials are full of the faces of stars, or would-be stars. It makes a kind of sense, too, in a context where we have so many opportunities to hear the pieces that we love. "Why should I pay money to hear this performance?" "Well, so-and-so is playing it." For better or worse.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Craig!

I have not had the priviledge of hearing Emerson live, but their recordings, especially of Shostakovich, are my favorites. Yes, I had to revise my thinking on Schubert. His is the finest post-Beethoven chamber music in the 19th century.

I would want to add Grigory Sokolov to your list.

Oh yes, this is my underlying beef: it is always the performers that are being promoted, but I go to hear the composers. I suppose the logic behind this is that at a time when you can hear anything at home from YouTube or iTunes, it is only the experience of seeing a particular performer live that will really pull a crowd...