New Zealand String Quartet triumphantly reaches the heights of Beethoven’s Late Quartets

Beethoven string quartets, Concert No 5

Opus 135 in F; Opus 130: Finale in B flat; Opus 132 in A minor

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

St Peter’s Village Hall, Paekakariki

Wednesday 23 September 7:30pm

Violist Gillian Ansell opened the concert with cheerful and interesting remarks about the significance of Beethoven’s last quartets, written well after the last piano sonatas, the Missa Solemnis, the Choral Symphony, and the Diabelli Variations.

Quartet in F, Opus 135
This concert included the last that he wrote, Op 135, and the second, written for his patron Prince Galitzin, Op 132 which contains the remarkable Heiliger Dankgesang. In between was the last movement of Op 130, which Beethoven had written after being asked to discard his original last movement and to replace it. The original movement was published separately as the Gross Fuge, Op 133. Op 130 was to be played in the final concert, with that original ‘great fugue’ as its final movement, a practice that I imagine is not very frequent.

While it is common to consider the four movement quartets, Op 127 and Op 135 as generally more conventional than the other three which have more movements, that is only an observation that can be applied to Beethoven. All are incomparable with any string quartets written before or, I believe, after.

So Gillian’s comments suggesting a lightness of spirit can apply somewhat to the other four late quartets. However, considering the state of Beethoven’s health, the singularly rich and humane spirit of the first movement of Opus 135 is astonishing. The players, with their capacity to capture the richness of the Allegretto and even more remarkably, the joyous Vivace that followed, is impossible to reconcile with Beethoven’s state of health and closeness to death (only five months later). The real profundity of musical inspiration arrives with the deeply contemplative Lento assai, third movement, in five flats (D flat major), a fairly remote key. Their playing was a model of restraint and simplicity, with a profundity that’s without self-pity.  The last movement is famous for the inserted words that relate to an argument Beethoven had with a court official about subscription costs that Beethoven expected to be paid. Beethoven declared: Es muss sein, ‘it must be’. The music is laden with heavy bow strokes as well as a distinctive comic touch.

The substituted Finale of Opus 130
Monique Lapins, second violin, spoke articulately about the next piece, the Finale of Op 130, described above. It’s obviously very different from the Grosse Fuge that it replaced, and perhaps doesn’t justify a stand-alone performance. It opens with a series of cheerful downward passages and a charming tune; it’s remarkable in that it’s the very last music that Beethoven wrote – a month or so after Op 135 and just four months before his death. So the substitute finale, in its singularly positive spirit, is hard to believe; though a lightness is there, it’s not hard to hear Beethoven’s defiant determination to sustain his spirit till the end.

Op 130, with its original finale, the Great Fugue, was to be played in the sixth and last concert.

Opus 132, the last for Prince Galitzin
Op 132 was the third and last of the quartets that Beethoven composed for Prince Galitzin, and its middle movement makes it one of the remarkable quartets. This time, the work was the subject of an illuminating commentary from Rolf Gjelsten. It opened quietly, inspiring a stilled and rapt anticipation; but the first movement’s Allegro soon generates a more normal emotion and through repeated changes of mood, holds the attention. It is a very remarkable movement which has attracted a great deal of scholarly analysis. Yet even repeated hearings never seem to exhaust its mysteries; in fact the more one listens and reads analytical studies, the more one has to accept its unorthodox complexity. Its ten minutes is never enough time to assimilate its musical character; nor do repeated hearings.

Unconventionally, the second movement is a minuet and trio and it’s in A major instead of the opening key of A minor: and its shape created more repetition of the musical ideas. Superficially the second movement is conventional, but its very repetition and its uncanny departures from the expected, like the heavy thrusting of the cello half way through, insist on its uniqueness.

The middle movement, the remarkable Heiliger Dankgesang, is about a quarter hour long, and the extreme slowness – molto adagio – makes its leisureliness inevitable, yet never seeming excessive. Certainly, the quartet’s performance generated an extraordinary, mysterious spirit, at times, while the intervening Andante passages reawakened a slightly more normal musical awareness. The four players created a spell-binding intensity that could only be described as uniquely sublime.

The last two movements are rather more ‘normal’. The 4th, Alla Marcia – Piu allegro – attacca, is a dance-like episode that doesn’t fail to demonstrate the quartet’s persistently remarkable character. Though nothing is as unexpected (to those who didn’t know the work) as the half-minute of tumbling, semi-chaotic sounds, Piu allegro, that finish the movement, and could almost be heard as the start of the last movement, Allegro appassionato, triple time. Though the last movement would be heard as a remarkable episode in almost any other quartet, in comparison to the first and third movements it is almost conventional.

No doubt there are always listeners who look for details and stylistic aspects to find fault with, but we happen to have, in Wellington, a quartet that has all the musical skills and comprehension needed to illuminate what even the most hypercritical listeners expect and find fulfilling. This was a wonderful performance.


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