by JEFF WINSLOW
Ludwig van Beethoven’s extraordinary fame rests mostly on works he wrote in his mid- to late 30s. Even if you’re not a classical music fan, you probably know parts of his third (“Heroic”) and fifth (da-da-da-DAH) symphonies. If you are, you undoubtedly know his “Waldstein” and “Appassionata” piano sonatas, his violin concerto, and his last two piano concertos. String quartet lovers have his three “Razumovsky” quartets, informally named after the generous patron who commissioned them. They’re the only string quartets in the pantheon, but they fully measure up to their fellow icons.
The Dover Quartet, Chamber Music Northwest Protégé Project Artists just a few years ago, have since catapulted themselves toward a different pantheon after sweeping the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition, winning First Prize and all three Special Prizes. Who better to bring Portland audiences Beethoven’s mid period string quartet masterpieces, as they did at CMNW’s July 11 concert at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium? They showed such mastery that even a critic could just relax and luxuriate in Beethoven’s endlessly inventive music.
The opening passage set the tone for the entire concert: a long, exciting build of melody that starts low in the cello and ends high in the violin, accompanied by the rest of the strings drumming away on just one chord and then just one other like a woodpecker attacking its two favorite larders, it nonetheless exuded a warm lyricism throughout. The Dover didn’t highlight the strangeness of such breaks from what had hitherto been the traditional quartet paradigm, a musical conversation between friends. (The musicians of the premiere wondered if Beethoven was playing a joke on them, holding the real quartet back until after everyone had had a good laugh.) Instead every detail was presented fluently, gracefully, expressively, forcefully when needed, with complete faith in the composer. Symbolic of their attention to detail was violist’s bow, strung with bright red hair to match her dress. And yet the details never got in the way of the music.
They could summon the whirlwind when called for too. The finale of the second quartet usually reminds me of a horse at full gallop, but the Dover put such a snap in the rhythm that for once it carried an even greater sense of urgency. And for the finale of the evening, the frenetic final movement of the third quartet, the violist set such a pace in her opening solo that the first violinist cracked a hint of a smile. Yet even on this wild ride, which no doubt challenged even their superlative abilities, they retained an amazingly singing tone.
From Excellence to Exploration
A few years after writing those Razumovsky quartets, Beethoven turned 40, and though he had his detractors, his reputation as Europe’s greatest composer was largely secure. He was never rich, but he was well enough off. What does a composer in that position do next? He started taking his time, writing less and exploring more. His music’s genial moods became ever more expansive, and its stormy moods ever more agitated. Three other works published nearly together demonstrated his changing aesthetic the previous Wednesday at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre, when three disparate groups performed the op. 95 string quartet, the op. 96 violin and piano sonata, and op. 97, the “Archduke Trio.”
Op. 95 is one of Beethoven’s shortest string quartets, but it still packs a punch. The opening movement is especially tightly wound. The young Zorá Quartet, appearing in their CMNW debut after racking up a pile of prizes including grand prize and gold medal at the 42nd Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition, may have been out to prove a point. They took off so fast they left rubber on the road, in the form of some surprisingly sour notes in the first few gestures. But assurance soon took command of the wheel and we were treated to a breathless ride through an intricate musical landscape.
Beethoven may have written a series of snapshots, but they were all in hi-def as the Zorá held us in rapt attention. And continued to hold us, through the following slow movement, haltingly lyrical, almost philosophical. The quartet suddenly roared into the rambunctious scherzo, tires screeching (a closely spaced diminished 7th chord), and this time there were no slip-ups. They hugged the road, every curve a thrill. As the subsequent twirling finale zoomed to a brilliant finish, it was no wonder they’ve taken home so many prizes.
A young Protégé Project pair, violinist Benjamin Hoffman and pianist Yevgeny Yontov, gave nearly as engaging a performance of Beethoven’s last violin and piano sonata. Here he is all smiles, friendly, mischievous and tender by turns. I wished for more mischief in the rustic-sounding finale, which climaxes in a patented Beethovenian moment: just when you think he’s wrapping it up, the music takes off in the wrong key, faster than ever. And the scherzo (which Gustav Mahler apparently liked well enough to lift a bit for his song “St. Anthony Preaches to the Fishes”) could have used more bipolar contrast between phrases. But the laid-back opening movement and the tender slow movement were as lovely as could be. Beethoven repeatedly shifts the limelight between the two musicians, and Hoffman and Yontov took his cues adroitly – no hogging by Hoffman or holding back by Yontov, even with the piano lid fully open. Schoolmates in their Yale days but on stage together for the first time, they were particularly exquisite in an undulating passage early in the opening movement, where they almost seemed to be playing the same instrument. Such moments can never be achieved by pianists who “play it safe,” staying deferentially in the background.
Beethoven’s expansive side was again well served when Yontov joined violinist Brandon Garbot and Portland favorite Hamilton Cheifetz on cello for the iconic “Archduke Trio.” The rich, flowing harmonies of the opening movement and the sublime musical vistas of the slow movement fully lived up to Beethoven’s extraordinary visions. The two fast movements didn’t make as strong an impression, chugging along rather squarely and predictably. I missed the combustive energy of the Zorá Quartet, hugging the curves in the road. Still it was clear enough – while Beethoven may have slowed down a bit after he passed 40, his musical imagination just kept on getting richer.
Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist who serves on the board of Cascadia Composers.