Beethoven string quartets in the 21st century
A fortnight ago for the first time in my life I came away from a string quartet concert feeling angry, and I've only just calmed down sufficiently to write about it. It would be unkind to name the group concerned but you ruined my evening, Doric Quartet, so there!
The final item was Beethoven's Op.131 which the cellist introduced as one of the greatest works ever written. Normally I'd agree with him but this performance had everything I hate - indiscriminate use of acidulous, vibratoless tone, great bulges on long notes, every sforzando like a small explosion (even at the back of the hall I was wincing), tempi all chosen to be slightly different from the norm, marked tempo variations where none are indicated in the score, zero sense of repose and intimacy, "value added" in every bar, all apparently about "listen to us, aren't we original?".
Having since heard some other recent performances of late Beethoven on the radio and the web I see this as an encroaching trend. Whose idea? On the web site of the Elias Quartet an article by Professor Clive Brown entitled "Performing Beethoven’s string quartets in the twenty-first century: received tradition and historical evidence" sums up the issue as follows: “How, then, can a modern string quartet meet the challenge of exploring the musical expectations that lay behind Beethoven’s notation while simultaneously conveying the music to its listeners in a manner that not only connects with their modern sensibilities, but also stimulates them to see the music in a new light?”. So it seems he's advocating an unholy mishmash of HIP with trendy crowd-pleasing innovations. Some performers now seem to feel it necessary, not only to abandon anachronistic habits of style and interpretation but introduce speculative ones of their own in the belief (or hope?) that this might get them closer to “authenticity” while at the same time connecting with “modern sensibilities” and revealing the music “in a new light”.
Of course we simply don't know what Beethoven wanted or expected to hear. Take the matter of strict tempi; even in HIP circles nobody messes too much with the tempi of Beethoven's symphonies, because the role of the early 19th century conductor was simply to get the band going and keep it together. Expressive rubato simply wasn't a possibility, and in the piano sonatas you won't find many present-day pianists indulging in it either. Why do accomplished string quartet players, who in the past have shown almost religious devotion to the letter of the score, now feel it necessary to go practically to the opposite extreme?
I don't suppose there are many HIP musicologists or practitioners reading this, but does anyone actually enjoy hearing Beethoven played this way?
I don't see how it's rude to give a poor review of a professional performance.
The Doric is a fine quartet.
"And according to the photos, I guess being good-looking is mandatory these days."
there is nothing new anyone's going to say about vibrato on this forum so I'll skip that.
Is this possibly related to grantsmanship? A composer I recently talked to bemoaned the need to use non-conventional scales, non-melodic forms etc as that was the only way to get funded. Perhaps there is the same thing in funding for chamber music that you have to 'give a fresh interpretation' to be funded.
Speaking of vibrato, I heard the Arnold Rose Quartet do 131 recently. The first movement had a very 19th-century approach to tone color, which made it almost reminiscent of the Art of Fugue. On YouTube, if you are interested.
For a quartet to go the whole way in HIP Beethoven would they not be using plain gut strings, including the E, tuned to a pitch appropriate to Beethoven's era, whatever that pitch may have been (lower than A440)? And using bows of the era, probably not late baroque and perhaps not the new Tourtes, but possibly transitional?
Elise - that hadn't occurred to me but I'm not sure where one would go to get a grant for playing Beethoven, no matter how well in tune with "modern sensibilities" one might be. And it's not as if the Doric were playing to an audience of forward-looking Generation Y types thirsting for musical revolution. Looking around I just saw the usual crowd of ancients. At the end quite a few of them looked as pissed-off as we were.
I heard the Danish Quartet play 130 with the Grosse Fuge a year or two ago, and they were LOCKED IN.
If you look at the Doric's gruelling schedule (and they don't play the same program every night) you'll conclude they are not looking for grants. They're a working quartet, paying their way.
Christian - that sounds fantastic, I'll listen to it all tomorrow and hopefully recover my equilibrium. But imagine it 30% slower with the sforzandi played so hard the notes went flat...
One thing to remember is that Beethoven's last few quartets (and op. 131 was his last composed, in 1826), like his last few piano sonatas were probably intended to be very personal, and he did not anticipate they would ever be performed in public. They also tend to be very forward-looking and modern. So, IMHO, it is unclear that the A-415 crowd or the HIP folks could say anything really useful about them.
I would emphasize the "probably" in the last post, because it's not true.
Steve, I get it. I kinda was skeptical when I started reading your original post, but I get pretty heated about concerts I go to, especially when it's just bad but the audience is giving a standing ovation. Sometimes I wonder "Am I out of touch?", but then I realize that "no, it is the children who are wrong."
the obvious reason why the Mosaiques played on gut strings is that violinists etc in the nineteenth century did so, too, deep into the 20th C actually.
Herman, I replace my strings like every couple of months. These guys need to stop being so cheap!
Another vote for the Jerusalem Quartet's Beethoven. I love those guys! I have the big beastly (but cheap!) Dover book of the Beethoven quartet scores, and I try to play along with the easier movements. Real fun!
Christian wrote, "I get pretty heated about concerts I go to..."
I like to think it's some kind of public service I'm doing, because the marketing in classical music is so relentlessly positive, and so many are concerned about shrinking markets and attention-spans that I just don't see negative criticism anywhere, which has the unfortunate effect for me of making it seem like everyone giving public performances is playing at the same level, when there is a stark difference between performances and performers (And I try to once in a while give a second chance). My problems with this are a microcosm of my problems with capitalism, ad-culture and the widening of middlebrow culture more broadly, but I'm more invested in music.
I believe it is generally known that Beethoven wrote many of his later quartets as examples of the art of composition rather than works intended to be performed. What he apparently didn't appreciate, strangely enough for someone so strikingly innovative, is that others would not only build on his work but innovate even further -- beyond the horizon of his imagination. Late Beethoven is indeed beautiful, but it's not untouchable. The fact that we can enjoy Op. 131 should be credited, at least in part, to other more recent composers who expanded the limits of our musical sensibilities. We can appreciate late Beethoven in a much richer context than he ever could.
Heated, yes indeed, and the greater the work the more intense the heat. I thought my responses might cool down with age, but not so. A few more years and I'll be storming the stage with one intent or another.
"I believe it is generally known that Beethoven wrote many of his later quartets as examples of the art of composition rather than works intended to be performed. "
Let me add that the idea of composing a nr of quartets that move the art of the form forward is not unique to Beethoven's late quartets.
Sorry for my ignorance. I educated myself on this issue primarily through Wikipedia and such.
That's only normal, Paul.
Update on my feverish brain condition. Today I played the Danish Quartet's youtube videos of Op131 and Op74 and the contrast with the Doric a fortnight ago was complete. No quasi-HIP gimmicks, exaggerated gestures and mucked-about tempi, just fabulously concentrated playing. The scherzo of Op131 stimulated a brief burst of spontaneous applause and I nearly joined in. This actually created a useful moment for quartet and audience to regroup before the deadly serious following Adagio, and to end with the most exciting account of the finale I ever heard. The Danish Quartet came on the scene about 10 years ago but their style is firmly rooted in the best 20th century practice. I know whose camp I'm in.
Somewhat belatedly I want to horn in with some considerations that have not come up.
Couple of quick thoughts.
Good points, Thomas, except I think every quartet is honestly playing the music as they hear it. Not because they want to be "new" or "shocking" or even "different."
Albrecht and Thomas - All well said and duly acknowledged. I wasn't going to bring Haydn into the discussion but it seems many 21st century groups consider him even more suitable for "up-to-date" treatment. Strangely the same doesn't seem to be true of Mozart. Why is that do you think? During my coaching from the Delme Quartet I remember it being said that Mozart was less enjoyed by the players because he specified his wishes more precisely and left less room for creative interpretation.
Certainly Beethoven intended the late quartets to be performed to some degree. He loved this music (didn't he express at some point that 131 was his personal favorite?)
Steve, it's definitely true that Mozart, especially late Mozart -- is pretty specific, more specific than Haydn, less specific than Beethoven.
Only just picked up on this thread.
My previous experience of the Dorics was solely in 20th century repertoire and I was very impressed. I've now heard their youtube clip of Haydn op.20 no.6 and it's absolutely fine with none of the exaggerated gestures and bulging sounds I found so ugly the other week. That was recorded way back in 2014 and they've recently acquired a new second violin. I'm currently listening to the new lineup in Schubert's G major quartet from the Wigmore Hall in January this year. So far, so very good (although if Schubert had wanted the opening of the allegro molto moderato played molto adagio, wouldn't he have specified it?).
As to this scaling down the tone: An anecdote from one of my violin teachers who was a member of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra. He remembered a solo recital by the guitarist Andres Segovia. Segovia was playing in the "Grosse Tonhallesaal" (the symphony hall for 1000 people if memory serves), fully sold out obviously, all by himself on the stage. And of course a guitar has very limited sound and projection. My teacher said it wasn't a problem: the audience was quiet like he had never heard before. No coughs, no whispers, nothing. They were all mesmerized into quiet.