It's a sad fact that I don't get out much these days to crowded events, because my back completely freaks out if someone so much as bumps into my wheelchair...
But when I heard that the Tokyo String Quartet was in town and was doing 131, my heart went pitter-patter and the three of us scored some tickets to this Arizona Friends of Chamber Music offering, which quickly sold out (we saw several empty seats -- but not many).
I downed my meds and prepared to be bumped. Bonk. Big green apples landing on my head.
Incidentally, the above link to "131" will take you to what I consider to be the finest recording, not only of this particular quartet, but of the entire cycle, by the Amadeus Quartet in the early 60's.
For years, I had to satisfy myself with my cherished 10-LP box, which I reverently managed to keep click-and-pop free for all these years.
But now the PTB have made me repurchase it on CDs. And you kids (and grown ups) who've never owned a turntable can now avail yourselves of this incredible set...
I say this all to set the stage for my manic passion for Opus 131. To miss a local live performance of this greatest masterpiece would be unthinkable. So off we went to the Leo Rich Hall at the Tucson Convention Center...
HAYDN: String Quartet in F Major, Opus 50, No. 5 ("Der Traum")
WEBERN: String Quartet, Opus 28
WEBERN: Rondo (1906)
BEETHOVEN: String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Opus 131
[The link to the Haydn is a budget Naxos recording. The Kodály Quartet is well up to the task. The Webern links take you to the recent Complete Works, Boulez conducting the orchestral stuff. The set is a joy filled with quality performances, recorded beautifully -- well worth the price.]
From the opening notes of the Haydn, the boys were in the groove. This quartet is full of Beethoven-ish playfulness (where do you think LvB got it from?) and the TQ made the music come alive, providing a silky texture when called for -- at other times, fusing their four voices into one intense musical thought.
The poco adagio, for example. The sweetness never became too sugary, and they held back just enough to leave an ethereal impression.
I could quibble with a bit of inappropriate Romantic inclinations at times in the finale -- but all in all, it was wonderful.
I was completely psyched for Opus 28 and I was not disappointed!
They attacked this difficult music aggressively and confidently. Every pizz was in place and, again, they made a wonderful unison sound -- this was delicate musical communication, and they pulled it off flawlessly.
The Rondo (1906) is an early work which has several very melodic moments -- including a very clear statement of what would later turn up as Bernstein's "There's a place for us..." (at about the 5:00 minute mark). Having prepared them ahead of time, Joannie and Rebecca got a kick out of that.
Intermission and more bumping. Having noticed that there would be plenty of light for me to score-read, I studied my 131 score in excited anticipation. [by the way, you can't beat the price for this Dover edition of the complete quartets!]
The start of the second half of the program seemed to be delayed. Finally, they came out and began.
I admit to disappointment at their choice of tempo. I might have been able to live with this very fast Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo if they had achieved the level of in-the-moment intensity that the Amadeus project at a true Adagio.
Yes -- ma non troppo (not too much) -- but in this case, it felt like quarter note after quarter note with little emotional involvement.
I have no definite information about this -- but my guess is the initial delay might have been due to some kind of problem with Martin Beaver's E string. When we arrived hereI definitely got the feeling that something was wrong -- this delicate duet sounded just slightly out of tune.
I don't know what happened here:but they weren't together, and I heard none of the subtleties of the cresc. and dim.
Things immediately got better. The second movement was delightful, moving along with spirited energy.
However, in the transitional third movement, Mr. Beaver's E string betrayed him again in this lovely run:Not only that, but the all important movement to the new dominant (E Major going to A Major) was shaky and unconvincing.
The long Theme and Variations (fourth movement) was pretty fine. I liked the march, and the famous "weird trill" section.
The Allegretto (open-string double-stop section) was too fast and had zero intensity (see Amadeus for the way I hear Beethoven's thinking).
The 9/4 section had some more problems, intonation and otherwise.
The big ornamented theme restatement (2nd and viola) was splendid.
The fifth movement was pretty excellent. My only quibble is that the sul ponticello marvel was not quite as pronounced as it might have been. Again, I think Amadeus nails this idea better than any quartet I've ever heard.
In 131 performances, what will happen by the time we arrive at Movement Seven is predetermined by the quartet's ability to stay focused on the myriad sweeping emotional arcs which have challenged them heretofore.
This is the "March to Death" -- but of course, it's not so simple. Life is sweet and wonderful, and the soaring, passionate second theme sets off the march with burning sweetness -- bittersweet, sorrowful, nostalgic -- even stubborn.
Forgive the genre switch:
"Please don't cry/
We're designed to die..." [WILCO: "On and On and On" from Sky Blue Sky]
That's how I feel about this movement.
And I'm sorry to say that the Tokyo lost it at the crucial moment:The march -- persistent and threatening -- is suddenly interrupted by the non ligato pp section.
Played correctly, the perfectly executed dim. to pp should just start a cascade of shivers down your spine. They failed.
They brought it all home and, overall, I'd say it was a pretty good performance (despite my nit-picking above!).
Although the Haydn was the epitome of quartet playing, in the Beethoven I felt that they weren't quite as connected.
In particular, I thought that Beaver and Ikeda did not blend their tone and timbre well. (It's possible that this was a result of problems that Beaver was experiencing, I don't know.)
Isomura, the violist, had a fine tone -- but my violist daughter agreed with me that at times he could have been more assertive.
Greensmith, the cellist, seemed the most intense of the four.
Concert experience: way above average!