To borrow from Henry James, there are times when Beethoven has nothing to say to us, and those are our worst moments. Chamber Music Northwest and the Miró Quartet are in the midst of two performances titled Beethoven’s Progression – the program opened Monday night at Reed College and repeats Tuesday evening at Lincoln Performance Hall – that give a look into the composer’s evolution, contrasting his early and most popular septet with a later, largely shunned string quartet. Part of a season-long exploration of Beethoven’s music, it’s also a preview of Shifrin and the Miró’s collaboration with actor Jack Gilpin on the world premiere this Friday of playwright Harry Clark’s theatrical work An Unlikely Muse: Brahms and Mühlfeld.
In our times the artist who perhaps most resembles Beethoven is painter Chuck Close. Close suffered a spinal artery collapse in his late 40s that has left him mostly paralyzed. His early works are large photorealistic portraits that dive straight into the psychology of his subjects: forceful and assertive observations about the conflicts between body, heart, age, and desires that fluctuate in the human mind. After Close’s accident he stayed with the canvas, but used his limited mobility not only to break down into atomic precision the colors in their composition, but also to dig the knife deeper into the mindsets of his subjects.
Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat Major, Op. 20 and String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 127 give us a similar handle on the composer. The Septet begins as a playful match among strings, woodwinds and horns. Beethoven takes a cavalier delight in matching tempo wits with Mozart, the older master’s snappy rests with the strings that take us from lullabies to the sound of young girls learning how to be coy. Where Mozart makes bubbling play with his sounds, knowing he is creating delight for us mere mortals, Beethoven is looking at the intellect that could create such revolutionary nuance.
Beethoven in this younger stage is not the brain, but more the sonic sketches from a nervous system. Listening to him at this point in his career is like a form of meditation: he turns off all your thoughts, but gives you new jumps and threads between synapses. As Beethoven’s composition grows, he whips out the counterpoint he learned from Haydn and begins a competition with Mozart. The strings make a match with the rest of the septet, who start with clever quotes of Mozart’s charm and the caramel sweetness; David Shifrin’s clarinet glides through the notes with the love that the puckish Viennese had for the instrument. In the second movement, Adagio cantabile, the strings take on more Hadyn and begin to duke it out with the rest of the septet on Mozart’s side of the game. Jennifer Frautschi’s violin begins to make an entrance and her concentrated passion with the instrument flourishes in unexpected ways. The tempos pick up, and echo through the chamber like the pulse of a river, only stopping here and there like currents hitting a stone, so we can take in the next phrases. By the sixth and final movement, the strings have won. Frautschi’s bright and vivacious touch of her bow against the strings soars through the notes of an intricate architecture, and in split seconds end with an edge like an ice skater carving a full stop. Her solo held us captive and took everything out of the room, except her and her oneness with the violin. After two applauses, even David Shifrin said “Wow” onstage.
As the current saying goes, never follow a child or Michelle Obama on stage – or in this case, Jennifer Frautschi. The Miró Quartet, while globe-trotting handsome chamber music superstars, had their work cut out for them. But they approached the stage with their familiar mirth, beginning with the Maestoso-Allegro and bringing Beethoven’s famous sturm und drang into the house. While we didn’t quite know it as we wandered with the septet in and out of minutes of small ecstasy, we needed to hear Beethoven’s consummate tension. String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 127 is not one of the fully abstract compositions that Stockhausen would mine: in contrast with the septet, in the quartet we hear and learn about the real man behind the composer. In these four movements Beethoven has articulated a path past the nervous system and found emotional wells that counterpoint his initial explorations. Silence becomes as important as sound. Striking rests and stops made athletic demands on the Miró Quartet, and as their bows reached again, Beethoven’s inspiration from pastoral scenes or shooting comets was burned out into a crystalline furor. Sound became sound in its own universe, independent of the instruments, as models of what is possible.
Beethoven was furious at the failure of String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 127. By this time he was deaf, and in rehearsals he conducted by carefully looking at how the string musicians were bowing. It’s possible that since he relied so much on his sight, stringed instruments were some of the few that gave him enough visual cues in working out the pieces. Just as Chuck Close would do with pigments in another century, Beethoven took sound down to core elements and made not abbreviations, but a new topography in his art.
As the Miró Quartet drove through the variations, the Adagio showed a composer who had gone from clever competition to an individual who had experienced love, regret, disillusionment, and anger, and had continued to create with an uncompromising drive. The Scherzando vivace movement is the sound of being irritated, the gnawing feeling when in a split second something goes wrong and it could take days for life to get back to an even keel. Frautschi’s violin in the septet was clear and precise; Daniel Ching’s held the old soul of a man who had walked a few miles: his sound was golden and a bit tarnished, as the music called for. Joshua Gindele’s spirited entrance, as he plucked out the few pizzicato notes, brought us back to earth for a time and made a little levity out of the serious composition. The Quartet captured with a deep and hardy sound the volatile emotions on hand. Over the evening the audience was taken on a rollercoaster of time and temperaments, as only Beethoven could write, and the Miró Quartet was thanked with three returns onstage for the applause and a standing ovation.
There’s not a great historical record of past people’s emotional lives, and archaeologists look in uncommon places to find signs, like graffiti and midden buried under feet of earth. How did our ancestors feel when they lost a child, about a failing romance, about a friend betrayed them? Beethoven is one of the best examples of an interior honesty, which he pushes onto the floor and gives to us with a ferocious agility. Chamber Music Northwest, in this year’s lineup heavily stacked with Beethoven, helps fill in some of those blanks.