Tokyo String Quartet’s Late Beethoven Reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Thursday, January 13, 2011. Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto.

Quartet in E-flat, Op.127 (1824-25).

The first movement opens with a majestic declamation that dissolves into a slow, flowing introduction. The ensemble’s sound is  rich, yet each part has a halo of space around it. The tempo is tender, with a bit of sparkle that sets off the sweetness of the theme in Martin Beaver’s first violin. The dark harmony from Clive Greensmith’s cello remains well forward in the mix, perhaps in honour of Beethoven’s patron who was a cellist. This study in contrasts that so disappointed Beethoven’s 1825 audience and mystified his musicians seems perfectly understood, at least by the players, tonight.

The Adagio, a theme and variations, is at first crying-sad. The second variation bounces along over a martial beat struck staccato by the cello. When the lyrical sadness returns, it seems to hurt even more. The remaining four variations alternate these moods, generating a  compelling gravitational pull, as if in imitation of Beethoven’s will to harness to a single yoke his pain and his power.

His melancholia resolved, musically, at least, Beethoven writes a Scherzo and Finale that skip, race and dance. The Finale begins with a nod to the sweet and tender first movement before setting off in a vigorous, propulsive fling of high spirits that invokes the gaiety of Haydn and Mozart.

String Quartet in B-flat, Op. 130 with Grosse Fuge ending, Op. 133 (1825).

The  B-flat is a kind of monster with five movements and a Finale that is almost half as long as the previous five combined. It is flooded with fresh melodies, “intoxicated with fantasies” (as a contemporary put it) and riddled with original technical effects. The first four movements certainly reflect what historians define as a period of enthusiastic energy due to remission of the multiple pathologies that were bringing Beethoven towards his personal finale.

The first movement contrasts tempi and metres: an Adagio in 3/4 followed by an Allegro in 4/4. The moods—vigorous and tender, extended and broken—are suspended in classical balance that displays the rich colours of this ensemble of players.

The Presto follows, fleet and light-footed. It climbs and slides like Puck in an aerial jig that winks out so whimsically the audience had to laugh.  The Scherzo starts out sighing in counterpoint of first violin and cello, expands into a lighthearted, delicate weave of clearly distinct voices that seems to be narrating a ballad or tale of enchantment. The unnameable wonder of childhood is in it, as well the most amazing musical variations. The folkloric mode continues in the fourth movement, a quick-step dance tempo, that brings us further into the iconic world of merry-go-round magic.

From this emerges the Cavatina, first in the lower instruments.  Kazuhide Isomura’s viola,  Kikuei Ikeda’s 2nd violin and Greensmith’s cello play strongly separated themes that suggest the mythical melody of the Scherzo, but slower and swelling with tears. Beaver’s first violin enters its staccato melody in a stammering, choked voice. The harmonies that develop have a funereal drone. One thinks of the sweet sadness that comes during reflections on a life that is ending. One thinks of William Wordsworth’s phrase “Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

It is well-known that the concluding Fugue is so overwhelming that Beethoven’s publisher convinced him to take it out, publish it as a separate piece (Op. 133), and to replace it with a more normal sounding Allegro. The Tokyo String Quartet played (and recorded) Beethoven’s original configuration.

The Grosse Fugue has music that suggests the harmonies of Newtonian space: clockwork wheels that power gears that power smaller and larger wheels; pistons, axles, rods and driving wheels. In the quiet solo voices you can hear the buzzing of flies in empty rooms, wierd, lonely, freaky, dissonant interstellar frequencies, and the strong, obsessive rhythms of human religious rituals. And, as John Keats might have it, beyond Beethoven’s final “Heard melodies are…those unheard…[played] Not to the sensual ear, but…to the spirit ditties of no tone.”

On April 14, 2011, The Tokyo String Quartet return to Music Toronto. They will perform the remaining three Opus numbers that complete Beethoven’s final cycle of String Quartets.

Comments are closed.