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A deep dive into Beethoven’s String Quartets

The New Zealand String Quartet’s Beethoven cycle 2020

30 September 2020, by Elizabeth Kerr (Five Lines)

As musicians the world over planned celebrations of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, the New Zealand String Quartet decided to embark on their third complete cycle of the master’s sixteen string quartets and to take programmes to audiences in intimate venues around the country. They began in Wanaka in July and will finish in Kerikeri in November.

Of course very little in the performing arts in 2020 has turned out as planned and as I wrote in Happy birthday, Ludwig! in May, Beethoven’s birthday celebrations during a pandemic could have been a disaster. But like many other ensembles, the NZSQ has proven determined to find ways to pay homage to their musical hero.

So far they have played 18 concerts, some with socially-distanced audiences of 100, some with joyous full houses. There are at least nine more to come in Auckland, Otago, Taupo, Kerikeri and Warkworth. Tour management has had be speedily virtuosic. Date and venue changes, postponements or cancellations have affected 18 concerts. In Christchurch the programme was repeated so no-one missed out. An Auckland concert was moved to Hamilton on the day to avoid cancellation. Meanwhile, scheduled international tours in the Netherlands and Germany are currently in limbo, for obvious reasons.  

Carefully curated programmes combined two or three quartet masterpieces in revealing juxtapositions with titles like “Innovator”, “Immortal”, “Visionary” and “Maestro”. The complete cycle was generously offered to Wellington audiences in six concerts around the region, and a bonus seventh was added for those turned away by level 2 restrictions. The Wellington series also began with an illustrated lecture which proved as inspiring as the concerts themselves, taking a chronological approach through the Quartets while locating them cleverly in Beethoven’s turbulent life story, his musical development and influences and the wider European political and social context. These four musicians have limitless enthusiasm for this great music and with carefully chosen examples and fascinating commentary they provided many insights into Beethoven’s compositional approach.

Revelations about the architecture of the works and the ways this changed throughout his life were wonderfully interesting. I was not aware, for instance, that when composing the “late”, more contrapuntal quartets Beethoven began sketching them on four staves instead of two, demonstrating how far he had shifted from the “melody and accompaniment” texture of his earlier Haydn and Mozart-influenced quartets.

The word profound comes easily to mind when thinking about Beethoven’s oeuvre and this series was indeed a “deep dive” into remarkable depths. But Beethoven was also humorous and mocking, even mischievous at times, and the Quartet entered fully into the musical jokes. His ambivalent attitude to his patrons and audiences, often bemused by his modernity, sometimes led to musical parody. When Prince Razumovsky, who commissioned the three famous middle period quartets that bear his name, asked for “Russian” elements, a tongue-in-cheek Beethoven took a hapless little folk tune in the slow movement of Opus 59 No 2 and, as violinist Helene Pohl explained, bullied it irreverently in every possible guise and had it “chasing its tail in insane canons till he pile-drove it into the ground”.

Explaining Beethoven’s genius is a task too complex for most of us to attempt. But we were offered the idea that each of the sixteen String Quartets has a different personality or character and that this extraordinary variety and contrast is one example of that genius. Certainly these concerts provided ample evidence of that range.

The New Zealand String Quartet in performance “…loving intensity, emotion and perfection of ensemble.”

After highlights too numerous to mention, two movements in particular have stayed with me, both from “late” Quartets.  The first was played on a Saturday afternoon at the acoustically warm St John’s Church in the middle of Wellington city. As rays of sun slanted in through the upper windows the Quartet presented the programme they called “Universal” to an intimate “distanced” audience of 100.

It ended with the Quartet Opus 127 in E flat, a key often associated with heroism and triumph for Beethoven. I found the tender and introverted slow movement truly magical, variations marked Adagio that move from molto cantabile (singingly) to molto espressivo (expressively) played with such loving intensity, emotion and perfection of ensemble the audience held its collective breath, tears not far away.

My second unforgettable movement was predictably the notorious Grosse Fuge Opus 133, the Great Fugue that is the original finale of another late quartet, Opus 130. That whole six movement work, which baffled audiences in Beethoven’s time, is a wild ride of sudden changes and surprises, bizarre fragmentation and headlong surges of activity. The Quartet reveled in the composer’s eccentricities which they emphasized with exaggerated effects. The programme note for the Grosse Fuge quoted Stravinsky’s famous words suggesting it will remain “contemporary forever.” So excessively modern did it seem in Beethoven’s day that he was persuaded to write a more conventional ending to Opus 130, and this substitute Finale was performed alone at a Paekakariki concert a few days earlier. In its exaggeratedly conventional approach Beethoven seems to mock his audience for being intimidated by the Grosse Fuge.  

In the 6th Wellington concert the Quartet played the Fuge as the finale to Opus 130 as Beethoven originally intended. As in the whole cycle, in this performance the NZSQ revealed both their profound understanding of Beethoven’s music and their affection for it. The composer’s ferocious musical intelligence has produced a work full of daringly strange harmonies and counterpoint. It is enormously vehement and at times furious, perhaps understandably given the circumstances of Beethoven’s life. This marvellous performance matched the work in impassioned engagement and left the audience thrilled and emotionally exhausted. 

Beethoven scholar Joseph Kerman wrote of the composer’s late works “There is something very moving about the spectacle of this composer, having reached the heights of subtlety in the pure manipulation of tonal materials, battering at the communications barrier with every weapon of his knowledge.” As cellist Rolf Gjelsten commented “our challenge is to deliver these works to you employing all the technical, musical, intellectual and spiritual weapons at our disposal. 

The curation of this series, including the lecture and engaging spoken introductions at concerts, was itself a masterly mega-composition. Which brings me to the point of all these performances of Beethoven in this celebratory year - anyone can sell tickets when  ‘BEETHOVEN’ is on the poster but musicians and their audiences deserve to end 2020 with a deeper appreciation of what the Quartet describes as “some of the greatest achievements of western music”.

The Wellington series ended with a much-deserved standing ovation – applause not only for the journey through six remarkable concerts but for the insights and understanding the Quartet has offered with such generosity and joyful enthusiasm along the way. Find details of up-coming Beethoven concerts by the New Zealand String Quartet here. There are more Beethoven-themed stories on this site: Happy birthday, Ludwig!,  Riffing like Beethoven, Beethoven Again! and Houstoun Plays the Seducer.


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