Beethoven Quartet Cycle (Concert 4), Miró Quartet @ Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth

November 12 | Reviews

By Gregory Sullivan Isaacs for Onstage NTX

Photo by Alton Adkins

On Friday evening, Concert 4 of the Miró String Quartet’s journey through the musical evolution of Ludwig Van Beethoven—by way of hearing his string quartets in order of composition—brought us to works written in the last years of the composer’s life. Presented by the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth, the evening was once again attended by an enthusiastic audience (many of whom are coming to each concert as the event continues through the weekend).

The versatility of the Miró, one of the top-ranked such groups performing today, has been just as noticeable as the composer’s stylistic progression. From the earliest period’s Haydn-esque roots, through the middle years of emerging romanticism, right up to his experimental late works, their playing has presented and reflected the composer’s growth.

This is one of the great challenges of performing the entire canon. Most players work better in one musical language and style than in others. In playing the entire series, the performers not only need to be stylistically comprehensive by themselves, but also as part of the ensemble. The ability of the Miró to accomplish this elusive goal by both merging and maintaining their individuality is why this series of concerts is proving to be so revelatory.

The program opened with the String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132, written in 1825, two years before Beethoven’s death. At the time, he was suffering from a serious ailment he feared would be fatal. However, he recovered enough to write the quartet—and tellingly, he gave the third movement the title of “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen a die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” (“Song of Thanksgiving to the Deity from a convalescent in the Lydian mode”). Quite specific, don’t you think?

The composer most likely chose the Lydian scale because music written in it can sound brighter, lighter, and happier, as well as full of piety when compared to the major scale.

In the hands of the Miró’s deeply personal and emotional performance, the third movement became the spiritual heart of the quartet and was perhaps the most memorable playing of the concert (and maybe of the entire series).

The structure of this third movement is complex. Beethoven alternates slow chorale-like sections with faster ones that he named "Neue Kraft fühlend" ("feeling new strength”). But you didn’t really need to have this spelled out; the expressivity of Miró’s performance plainly told the tale. Also, the clarity of their playing revealed more detail than is usually heard. They inexorably built the music to an intense climax and then, as if it was too much to bear, let it disintegrate to embers.

The second and last piece on the program was the String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130—historically famous for the ruckus it caused among the musicians preparing for the work’s 1825 premiere. They pronounced the last movement, a long and complex fugue, too difficult to learn and too oversized to balance with the other movements. With much regret, Beethoven agreed to ditch the Grosse Fuge and write a replacement. He later published the fugue separately as Op. 133.

On this program, the Miró wisely chose to play the quartet as originally written and restore the fugue to its rightful location.

To many listeners, this quartet is tuneful, technically impressive, and packs an emotional wallop of great intensity. But like an iceberg, only a small percentage of its total mass is visible. For one thing, instead of the traditional three or four movements, it sports six.

As bookends, the quartet opens with a movement written in a greatly advanced sonata form and ends with the aforementioned Grosse Fugue. It also has two movements that fit the description of a scherzo. (Two?) The first is a scherzo in the typical three-part design. The other one has the same framework but is cast as a German folk dance with a bucolic middle section. Even odder, the fifth movement is called “Cavatina: Adagio molto espressivo” (a simple song: slow and very expressive) and is operatic in nature.

Here, the Miró Quartet once again demonstrated their remarkable flexibility. Their playing easily adapted to the musical character of each of these disparate movements. In other hands, this quartet can come off as extremely arduous and complex work. Not so with this performance.

In some ways, the Miró’s unique approach enhanced the overall effect off the entire quartet. Rather than striving for a typical interrelated quartet format, this performance resembled an assembly of individualistic movements, such as you would find in a Baroque suite.

On Sunday afternoon, November 13, the Miró Quartet will bring this exceptional series of concerts to a close. They will present Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131 and his String Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135. However, this monumental series of concerts will end with a lagniappe. They will play the Finale that was written to replace the rejected Grosse Fuge. The series wouldn’t be complete without playing it, but the question is where to put it on the program. Perhaps presenting it as a coda to the entire series is the best place.

An aside: This unusual music is the product of a composer beset by total deafness, disease, old age’s infirmaries, as well as unresolvable emotional issues that were taking their toll. He was, in fact, one of several famed composers who lost their hearing but continued to write music. Also on the list are Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884), Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924), and Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958.

In Beethoven’s case, while deafness was an almost unbearable curse, it apparently freed his imagination from the limitations imposed by what he was hearing through his ears and the inescapably embedded sound of Western music’s traditions. Thus, Beethoven started to hear only with his mind, which allowed him to produce music that sent classical music reeling into the 20th century. An aside: I wonder if Beethoven was, at times, fearful of where his musical innovations might lead. Furthermore, I think that he might have given us a warning. The last movement of his Ninth Symphony opens with cacophony in the orchestra, until the bass soloist stands up and forcefully intones: “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” (Oh friends, not these sounds).

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