“….And we shall be changed” – the New Zealand String Quartet’s completion of its 2020 Beethoven journey

The New Zealand String Quartet presents:
VISIONARY – Beethoven 250th Anniversary
BEETHOVEN – String Quartets:
Op.130 in B-flat Major – original version with the “Grosse Fugue” finale –
later published separately as Op.133 (1826)
Op.131 in C-sharp Minor (1826)

The New Zealand String Quartet
Helene Pohl, Monique Lapins (violins) / Gillian Ansell (viola) / Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

Hunter Council Chamber, Hunter Building, Victoria University of Wellington,
Kelburn Parade, Wellington

Friday, 25th September, 2020

The listings in both the printed programme and the advance publicity suggested that we would get to hear BOTH of the “finales” of Beethoven’s String Quartet Op.130  at the culminating concert of the New Zealand String Quartet’s series presenting all of the composer’s String Quartets. TWO finales? Well, after the first performance of Op.130 in 1826, the general critical reaction regarding the original “Grosse Fugue” finale was one of disbelief and misunderstanding, so much so that the composer’s publisher urged him to compose an alternative conclusion for the work, and publish the “Grosse Fugue” as a separate piece, Op.133.

Tonight’s programme listed all six movements of the revised version (the new finale being an Allegro in B-flat), and then listed the Grosse Fugue as a separate, stand-alone item. But then, as ‘cellist Rolf Gjelsten proceeded with his spoken introduction regarding the delightful disparities in the makeup of Op.130, he ignored any descriptive mention of Beethoven’s alternative Allegro and straightaway spoke of the “Grosse Fugue” as if it was the “finale” the quartet was going to play – and so it proved, to my surprise and immense pleasure.

Some commentators have recently advocated that the most satisfactory solution when presenting this augmented assemblage is to play the original version immediately followed by the alternative finale – though one might consider such a plan as consigning the unfortunate Allegro very much to the realms of an “appendage”, this course at least follows the thread of compositional events and allows listeners to directly “experience” the disparity between what one might respectively call vision and pragmatism.

Out of curiosity I checked to see what the NZSQ had done when previously performing this work – and to my surprise discovered that it was not I. but my Middle C colleague Lindis Taylor who had been fortunate enough to gather these particular cherries, last time round! ….https://middle-c.org/2012/09/fancy-having-such-a-quartet-in-our-midst-the-last-of-the-glorious-beethoven-series/…in my defence I should say this all had happened (to my great astonishment) no less than eight years previously! – but I was at least able to ascertain that the Quartet indeed played the original version on that occasion as well!

I well remember upon first hearing this work over forty years previously, via one of the first recordings to present Op.130’s original version and jettison the alternative version of the finale entirely (the 1973 LaSalle Quartet on a Deutsche Grammophon LP), how remarkably “listenable” the work’s interior movements seemed to me to be, compared with those of some of the other late quartets I’d encountered at that time. It’s actually this accessibility that’s given rise to the most puzzlement among commentators, who have fallen back on descriptions of the work such as “an altogether strange miscellany of movements”, “a hotch-potch of character pieces”, and “an emulation of the baroque suite, with its contrasting dances”, all of which reactions have a validity of sorts without, it seems, managing to get to grips with the business of defining the indefinable.

Obviously, critical discernment has “walked the walk” regarding Beethoven’s late works over the duration – the composer’s own response to contemporary opinions – “they are not for you, but for a later age” – resonates more tellingly and fruitfully with ideas such as Rolf Gjelsten’s “essay in disruption” comment regarding the quartet as a whole, hinting at the subversion of association lurking beneath the bright-eyed exteriors of each of the pieces in question, and placing their assemblage into the category of a delicate balance between disparate elements. He also mentioned the context of comparison with the work’s very different concert companion this evening, Op.131, a piece whose structure set contrasting episodes into an organic whole, with transitions enabling the work to be presented in a continuous flow.

And so we began with Op.130, the sounds emerging easily and fluidly, as if beamed from a kaleidoscopic structure slowly revolving, until the crisp incursion of a dancing allegro, as taut as a well-controlled spring but with an impulsive kind of energy, quickened our blood and sharpened our senses, ready for the rest of the movement’s working-out of the two, quite separate premises, here  given the utmost character and focus, in the players’ intensity of attack and depth of perceived emotional response. A mercurial, furtively-scampering Presto followed, dissected mid-way by a madcap violin roller-coaster ride (with fearless playing from Helene Pohl!). Its closely-accompanying companion, an Andante con moto, cleared its throat and sang a tender song as time ticked away underneath, the lines seemingly at the mercy of spontaneous impulse, with everything almost surreal in its variety (heartfelt sighings next to mischievous pizzicati), the playing always alive to possibility – as conductor Otto Klemperer once said, “not the themes but their working-out, is the essential thing in Beethoven”.

I’ve always enjoyed the seemingly artless Alla danza Tedesca, but never quite registered the richness of the instrumental exchange to this degree before, and especially the tossing of the line between the instruments at one point near the conclusion, as each plays only one bar of the theme at its “turn” – a representation of sudden discontinuity and evanescence of feeling? The melody came back at the end, but a sense of something “dismantled” remained, perhaps for the Cavatina that followed to put to rights – here was the most serene ambience imaginable, the flowing, murmuring lines touching a couple of release=points, then delving into darker places in the “Beklemmt” (oppressed, anxious) sequence before returning to its former lyrical warmth.

After disconcerting the listener with a panoply of styles and sounds over the previous five movements, Beethoven then  proceeded to complement/renounce/obliterate all that had gone before in the quartet with the outlandish “Grosse Fugue”, a movement the composer subtitled “tantôt libre, tantôt recherchée” (sometimes free, sometimes studied) – as he had done with the forms used so far in the quartet, Beethoven here stretched and distorted commonly regarded “fugal” practice in a way that defies analysis except in the most specific terms – more impactful to instead quote Igor Stravinsky’s comment that it was “absolutely contemporary music that will be contemporary forever”. As previously mentioned, its abrupt appearance surprised some of us, due to the listing of the “replacement” allegro in the printed programme as the work’s sixth movement!

Once we had recovered from the shock of that opening unison flinging its challenge upwards and outwards, we set ourselves to make the journey with the players. As was the quartet’s custom all but the ‘cellist stood to play, something which I’d always thought gave the ensemble an “edge” in readily conveying that very important gestural component of the music, and particularly so with this composer’s work. Such a choreographic rendering of the music visually emphasised parameters of movement and stasis, energy and stillness, strength and grace, all of which were components of this extraordinary piece. Rather than a distraction, I’ve always found the group’s responsive physicality “added value” in my appreciation of how they interpret the notes – and in terms of involvement and commitment they never disappoint, and certainly didn’t here.

Of course, the fugue’s revolutionary explorations, exhortations, propositions and implications made the perfect foil for the work the composer himself indicated was his ”favourite” of all his quartets, the C-sharp Minor Op.131, which we heard after the interval. Completed in 1826, it was one of a trio of works which began with the Op.132 “Heiliger Dankgesang” quartet (published out of order), and continued with Op 130 and its “Grosse Fugue” finale, before this one, Op.131, rounded off the group. Beethoven’s very last compositions were one further String Quartet (Op.135) and the aforementioned single “Allegro” movement written for Op.130.

Cast in seven movements which were individually numbered in the score but intended to be played without a break, the first movement of Op.131 was a slowly-evolving fugue described by various commentators in term such as “most melancholy”, “most moving”. “superhuman” and as having “extraordinary profundity”. The NZSQ players caught a distinctive expressive quality with their lines, individual sounds at once warm and spare, and evolving constantly like light, the upper reaches having a radiance as well as an occasional edge, the lower tones sometimes warm, sometimes grainy, refusing to “settle” on a constant state, as if delineating a process rather than a product. The mood brightened with the D-major Allegro molto vivace, the players gently “dancing” the gregarious folk-like theme  until a violin flourish announced the fourth movement, a set of variations marked Andante (ma non troppo e molto expressivo)!

The violins charmingly shared the opening theme, setting the tone of spontaneous creation as the viola joined in, the subsequent episodes appearing wind-blown at times, delivered with a wry grin and a raised eyebrow at others – the players tossed the melody about, their tones engagingly varied, ever leading the ear on, viola and cello teasingly exchanging philosophies, leading the music upwards towards the violins, who at one stage punctuated the swaying rhythms with startling pizzicato notes – but how beguiling were those upwardly gliding amalgams of thirds and solo lines whose highest note transfixed the ensemble’s attention, and brought forth repeated clusters of entranced luminosity! – receding then into chant-like murmurings as the cello grumbled its approval. It was music that beguiled our senses and transported our imaginations to realms seldom visited.

And then, as happened with the concluding moments of the titanic Grosse Fugue, the composer’s sense of fun suddenly energised the ethereal realms, even if the individual flourishes made by each instrument weren’t uniformly note-perfect in some instances – the ensuing accelerandi, and the almost fairground-like processionals brought us back in touch with terra firma via a couple of piquant landing-points. They were mere symbolic gestures, as the cello lost no time in calling us to order for the scherzo!

This had tremendous energy and drive, the ebb and flow nicely controlled without the rhythms being over-regimented – a mixture of precision and flexible spontaneity, with great, stinging pizzicato notes at the transitions, and an ear-catching dynamic variation of the penultimate statement of the main theme – almost like a sotto-voce whisper, and terribly conspiratorial-sounding! – it was almost a Monty Python “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” moment when the sequence returned at the end! The sequences were then broken up into fragments, and the momentums curtailed, the attentions suddenly turned in a new direction, by way of an Adagio quasi un poco andante! One might have thought this would blossom into  another full-blooded slow movement, but we got instead a couple of minutes of exquisitely-voiced expressions of the utmost melancholy and sorrow, something that was then as peremptorily cast aside as it was deeply-felt in sound and concentrated effort!

With the music’s return to C-sharp minor at the finale’s beginning, we were in tonal terms returned by the composer to where we came from – and the playing here vigorously and unequivocally put across the composer’s message telling us to stand steadfast and hold our own, defying our troubles and sorrows.  Not only did the finale share the key of the opening movement but its second subject presented a sterner, more assertive “next-of-kin” thematic version of the work’s opening fugal melody,. The “quick march” of the dotted rhythm shared the argument with flowing solos from the violin and viola, and sequences of running passages without any let-up in the tempo. And the players managed the music’s “resolution” towards C-sharp major at the end with a beautifully-detailed sense of inevitably that afterwards lingered in the mind all the more naturally and profoundly – as would any like kind of journey encompassing similarly vast territories…….

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