Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Cypress Quartet's "Beethoven" CD

Things have been busy – if not productive – at Dr. Dick, Inc, between Mendelssohn's World (writing 60,000 words, mostly in 2 weeks), getting caught up on composing, posting the latest installments of “The Schoenberg Code” and getting things ready to start writing a new parody, “The Lost Chord,” based on Dan Brown's latest, “The Lost Symbol.”

Meanwhile, I've been listening to the Cypress Quartet's first Beethoven CD, the start of a complete series which was released this summer and, at the rate of one disc a year, it seems, should be finished around 2015 or so... not sure I can wait that long but it's not the kind of situation where they go into a studio and – wham! - knock out all 16 quartets in a week or two.

They'll be playing on the January concert with Market Square Concerts – Saturday Jan. 23rd, 2010, at 8pm at Temple Ohev Sholom – and this week, they're playing at Lebanon Valley College's Blair Music Center, Thursday evening at 7:30. On the Annville program, they'll be performing one of the quartets from this new Beethoven CD – Op.135 – along with Griffes' Two Sketches on [Native American] Themes and Dvořák's “American” Quartet.

It was back at the very first of WITF's “Next Generation Festival” programs – was it in June of 1997? Ellen would have to help me with the date – that I first heard the Cypress Quartet. They performed Beethoven's A Minor Quartet, Op. 132, the one with the famous “Heiliger Dankgesang” (Holy Song of Thanksgiving) in the slow movement which at times can seem glacial and remote. Aside from feeling how well they were able to capture this moment of suspended animation, my fondest memory of this whole performance was watching a young boy (could he have been 10 or 12 years old?) sitting in the front row in rapt attention, leaning forward, his chin on his hand but his eyes intent on the players in front of him, then sitting back at the end, looking over at his mom with one of those wide-eyed “wow!” expressions you see too rarely combined with listeners of any age and classical music.

Obviously, these musicians had something to be able to capture the attention of this largely new audience, when you consider the reputation Late Beethoven Quartets have, usually spelling trouble for even the most experienced adult audiences' attention spans. What impressed me even more was, afterward, realizing this was the end of the quartet's very first season together. Such cohesion of concept and singular communication, translating four people into one organism, is rare in all but the most exceptional quartets who've been playing together for years, not only used to how they play individually but how they think.

So it seems natural they should begin their Beethoven Cycle not chronologically with the (supposedly) easier Early Quartets of Op. 18 but with the psychologically more challenging Late Quartets, the Himalayas of Chamber Music, beginning with perhaps the most difficult one to make work, the C-sharp Minor, Op. 130, and the very last of them, in F Major Op. 135.

I don't know if, as one reviewer said somewhere, "They have looked into Beethoven's soul," it's clear they've been looking into their own souls and finding a lot of in-put to shape their own interpretations of this music.

Let's just say – since I hate writing reviews in the first place, especially reviews of friends of mine – I like this recording a lot. I've listened to it just as I would listen to it in a concert, I've listened to it while following the score and I've compared it to a couple of other recordings I have with the Juilliard and Guarneri Quartets. In many ways, I can't really tell the difference between them: they may be a little different in the subtlety of their details, but basically, they all sound to me as of one level.

One of the great things about great art is the many different ways you can interpret it – on a technical level, on a philosophical or aesthetic level, on a personal level – and it's still the same work of art.

Basically, I listen to a recording or a performance and judge it on whether it works for me, expressing what I feel the composer was trying to say in the piece. There's not much to quibble with in the Cypress's recordings of these two great quartets.

Beethoven, for all his specificity in markings, still leaves questions that need to be settled: agreed upon if not answered. Writing the notes – and learning them – is only part of the music.

As an example, take the slow movement of Op. 135, marked “Lento assai, cantante e tranquillo [very slow, singing & tranquil].” It's a short hymn-like theme with four variations, the second, in C-sharp Minor, is marked “Piu lento [more slowly].” The last variation is similar, with a filagree over the theme's implied framework.

Of the three recordings I've listened to, the Cypress clocks in at 7:18; the Juilliard (from 1996), at 7:58; the Guarneri (a reissue of their late-1960s cycle, recorded in the first four years of their existence), at an incredible 8:42.

And yet it's all the same music, no repeats, no cuts: they're all playing the same notes. How slow is “slow”?

Even though I like the Cypress's slow movement very much, I quibble with their phrasing of the theme's second half, taking a breath between sub-groups of the phrase (m. 7-10, for you geeks with scores). The logic may be in taking a breath while dropping back from the crescendo to the initial piano [soft] dynamic but I feel by actually “breathing” there, they've interrupted the line of the phrase. Beethoven does this automatically in the hesitant C-sharp Minor variation, but they still add a 16th-note rest in their breath-taking. They don't do it at similar structural spots in the other variations, but then there are no “crescendos dropping back to piano” there, either.

The Juilliard stretches the phrasing at those points, too, but not so much: the bows don't seem to stop the sound as much, either.

Though the Guarneri's tempo is so slow it's hard to feel the subdividing 16th notes evenly, they play it “straight through” the phrase, no breathing but still stretching the tempo a tad. Curiously, they also go back to the much slower tempo of the 2nd Variation for the last one, even though Beethoven marks no change in tempo (now, that is a real quibble).

None of this “changes” the piece nor certainly “ruins” it – they're just different ways different performers hear it, at these moments in time.

It's things like this – and intonation – that keep quartets busy during rehearsals. It's not just playing the piece over and over again until you get it right: it's trying to find solutions (or perhaps a better word would be “realizations”) that make for a cohesive interpretation and overall sound. It's what makes a quartet want to come back and re-examine a piece they've played before, perhaps find new insight or try something different to see how it might work.

It's also what keeps the music from getting stale over the years. It's what keeps musicians alive by being able to look at the same landscape at different times but notice something they hadn't seen before and marvel at the richness of what could seem familiar to someone else.

Let's say I'm looking forward to hearing the rest of their Beethoven Cycle and I'm looking forward to hearing them play Op. 135 live Thursday evening at Lebanon Valley College.

I'm also looking forward, hopefully, to hearing them perform and maybe re-record them a decade or so from now: it would be fascinating to hear how their perceptions change and mature with them.

And of course, I'm looking forward to hearing them play Debussy and Barber and music by one of my favorite composers out there today, Jennifer Higdon, when they're in Harrisburg in January: should be a great way to warm up on a cold winter's day.

- Dr. Dick

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