Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Calder String Quartet

I finally managed to get to one of the concerts in our Chamber Music Festival last night and quite enjoyed it. I don't usually do concert reviews and this won't really be one either. I attended with a friend of mine, a very fine violinist and violist and she really liked the players, the Calder Quartet. They were excellent, both musically and technically. Sound interpretations and good repertoire. The program consisted of Arcadiana a piece in seven movements by Thomas Adès written in 1994, the String Quartet No. 2, "Intimate Letters" bLeoš Janáček and, in the second half, the String Quartet No. 14 "Death and the Maiden" by Franz Schubert.

One of the things I thought the quartet did particularly well was the fine gradations of the quieter dynamics. Nice clarity even when they were playing pianissimo. This displays both good aesthetic sense and self-confidence. So, good concert. I hadn't heard the Adès before and it was very nice indeed. Very much imbued with the music of the past--indeed, virtually every movement makes reference, overt or covert, to culture of the past, from Mozart to Schubert to the famous painting by Watteau"L'Embarquement pour Cythère". I have written before about Janáček and that piece specifically. The Schubert quartet is a fairly late work and the nickname comes from the second movement which is a set of variations on his song of that name.

The main thing that occurred to me as the concert progressed is that we have a problem with structure. Here is how I see it, as exemplified in this concert. Ever since the first quarter of the 19th century, music has had more and more problem with structure. There may be good reasons for this: the first generation of Romantics (Berlioz, Schumann, Chopin and Liszt) were overwhelmed by the upwelling of Romantic inspiration and the seeming rigidity and conventionality of 18th century forms was the first thing to go. The reward came in the form of rich, warm timbres and profoundly expressive melodies and harmonies. The cost was, yes, form or structure. Brahms made a noble attempt to resurrect the Classical idea of structure, but it was a bit of a struggle and while he may have temporarily have won the battle, the war was lost. In the 20th century a host of new ideas of structure were cobbled together and we experienced serialism, neo-classicism, spectralism, minimalism and a bunch of others with no handy moniker. But they are all attempts at creating new musical structures. Most of them not terribly successful.

Listening to the quartet concert last night, I was able to follow the history backwards, as it were, as the program was given in a reverse historical succession. The Adès, dating from 1994, may have all sorts of concealed structural links, but what you hear on the surface is a reversion to the Baroque dance suite. There is no sense of an over-arching formal principle, though there is certainly a unity of style with appropriate contrasts. The Janáček is cyclic in that certain thematic ideas keep recurring, but this, which was a common strategy in the 19th century beginning with Berlioz, is form achieved through brute force! I know because I use it myself from time to time.

And then the Schubert and one realizes that he was the last composer (with a few exceptions, I am sure) to have the capacity to use Classical form. This is an exceedingly subtle concept of form that has been mostly misunderstood ever since the first quarter of the 19th century. Beethoven and Schubert were the last to really be able to wield it. Everything, melody, rhythm, harmony, is in a subtle interrelationship and the character of the theme, its symmetry or asymmetry, dictates how, for example, the recapitulation will need to unfold and the possibilities of the development. The 19th century tried to deduce the "rules" of how to write a sonata movement, but, of course the actual sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert don't actually follow those rules! One rule was that there were two themes, a bold masculine one and a more lyrical feminine one, but most of the time Haydn used just one theme and it wasn't terribly gender-oriented! Mozart, on the other hand, tended to use a lot more than just two themes. But every movement was unique, because the large scale form and the form of the individual themes was intimately related. In all this I am merely repeating the wise discussion found in Charles Rosen's excellent book The Classical Style. Please look to it for the details.

All this was reinforced for me by the concert as the somewhat inchoate form of the Adès suite was followed by the hammered-together quartet of Janáček and finally, in the second half, we were treated to the real formal structures of Schubert. And he was really the last gasp of the Classical formal ability. Already with him there is a relaxation of the tendons so we get rather lengthy movements. But the generation after him just lost the touch entirely and tried everything including the kitchen sink as a substitute for real form and structure.

At least, that's how I see it. So you can decide for yourself, let me see if YouTube will allow me to reconstruct the concert. Alas, I can find only one movement of the Adès, "O Albion" the sixth movement:




But here is all the Janáček with the score:


And finally, the Schubert:


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