Saturday, August 3, 2013

String Quartet Concert

I usually don't do reviews of concerts because it is not terribly interesting as a rule. I saw a concert last night that sparks some thoughts, though. The concert was part of our chamber music festival for which I write program notes. So I know the music going in. Following will be my reflections on the concert given last night by the Daedalus Quartet.

First of all, why is it that biographies of classical musicians these days strive to be as uninformative as possible? After reading a typical one, such as the one on the Daedalus Quartet website, about all you know is that they have received some good reviews and played a lot of places. Sometimes we hear about competitions they have won or recordings they have made. But there is nothing about who these musicians are, where they were born, where they grew up, who they studied with and where, and what performing traditions they might be part of. They are mere anonymous international music workers. With deductive close-reading one concludes that they are a New York based quartet who have spent a lot of time as quartet in residence at the University of Pennsylvania. Way back in 2007 the New York Times gave them a pretty good review. Let me quote one paragraph from that review:
Beethoven’s String Quartet in A minor (Op. 132) got off to a promising start; the musicians embraced the episodic strangeness of the opening movement and frolicked in the rustic bagpipe impressions of the second. The famous “Heiliger Dankgesang” hymn of the central movement initially seemed too chaste, but grew to an impressive intensity by the end. Ebullient renditions of the two final movements were occasionally blemished by shaky intonation; still, over all this was a respectable account.
Last night's concert contained three works: a very, very early quartet by Joseph Haydn, the op 1 no 3 in D major, the Quartet No 1, also in D major, op 25, by Benjamin Britten and the main reason I attended, the late Quartet in E flat, op 127 by Beethoven.

The Haydn was a charming piece given a light and charming performance. One thing that particularly struck me was the tone color the quartet produced: it had a real 18th century flavor. Excellent performance of a diverting piece. The Britten was also quite impressive. They found an entirely different tone color for it, more intense and crystalline. The ensemble was excellent and they played with real conviction. So I was quite looking forward to the Beethoven. Alas, the whole performance seemed to go astray. The too-light playing of the cellist became more and more a problem. The interpretation sounded as if they were playing Mendelssohn instead of Beethoven. Everything was fussy and they never seemed to find either sufficient punch or a solid rhythmic foundation. By "fussy" I mean that every phrase was shaped too much, the dynamics swooped in and out too much and too frequently. Those powerful little motifs that Beethoven uses to tie everything together always seemed to have the wrong emPHAsis. They seemed to abhor accented and shortened notes, wanting everything to be smooth and legato.

I imagine the NYT reviewer heard much the same as I did, but was reluctant to do more than hint at it. The Daedalus Quartet, excellent musicians, seem to have a real problem with Beethoven. They just don't seem to 'get' him. There is always a bit of the wild man in Beethoven and Daedalus are too genteel with him.

Here is a clip of the Daedalus Quartet playing a movement from Haydn's op 1 no 2:

I don't know if this is indicative of anything, but there seems to be no clip on YouTube of the Daedalus Quartet playing Beethoven. Here they are playing the Quartettsatz by Schubert:

And here is the first movement of the Beethoven Quartet in E flat, op 127 played by the Quartetto Italiano, for comparison:


Rickard Dahl said...

Ah the performer descriptions. The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra writes about conductors and soloists in pretty much the same style. Basically: played with (or conducted) these and these orchestras, positions, awards, recordings, what critics think and so on.

Bryan Townsend said...

A while back I had a lot of fun parodying these performer biographies in this post: