Guarneri Quartet kicks off U of C Presents Series

By Christian Kraus

Many silly things have been written on Beethoven’s Quartet in A minor. Most (in)famously, numerous 19th century commentators made much of Beethoven’s supposed illness at the time of its composition, and in projecting what may be true of the slow movement onto the quartet as a whole, viewed it as program music on a sluggish process of sickness and healing. Detailed references to musical illustrations of frozen trembling and the groaning of the sufferer marked the more hilarious side of such readings, while others preferred to bathe in the supreme ‘harmoniousness’ of the minuet, or alternatively the ‘wonderful unity’ of the piece in toto. In general, one was often content with consecrating Beethoven rather than to try to make sense of him.

But Beethoven’s late style bars the naïve and unengaged listener from entering. It is music of the highest level of reflection: complete technical mastery, along with an equally intense consciousness of genre, history, and social signification, leads to a doubly ironic and highly self-conscious pastiche style long before the advent of modern art. If Beethoven never literally quotes the old masters, he nonetheless is a virtuoso of stylistic imitation, as most impressively demonstrated in the diabolic Diabelli variations. Inscrutable absurdity and multiple shades of irony find their way into the late work and yet at once open the path for supreme seriousness and pure transcendence.

Perhaps it may indeed be worthwhile to consider the A minor Quartet as a musical essay on the absurd. Little seems to make apparent sense—the abyss of silence in the first movement’s development, the odd canon that follows, the jarring contrast of aristocratic elegance and rustic gaiety in the minuet, the gawky opening of a march movement that otherwise baffles the listener with its forced symmetry, the open-ended juxtaposition of cliche endings in the finale. The ‘new strength’ of the slow movement is degraded, led ad absurdum by the titanic force of the concluding scene of light, and the organization of the work as a whole seems to present the listener all but an unhappy blend of irreconcilable opposites. By the way, what good was the healing if all that follows is more absurdity and neurosis?

As if Beethoven had anticipated his later appropriation by the bourgeoisie and its cult of interiority, his work ridicules the listener who only wants to hear the beautiful passages. That listener is presented with the ponderous amiability of the minuet, and the banal joviality of the trio and the march; beneath the surface, however, trembles the sardonic laughter of the titan. And yet les extrêmes se touchent—in their intangibility is their tacit agreement that this music must contain nothing that can simply be ‘understood’.

The Guarneri Quartet, at any rate, seemed to have paralleled the work in the level of reflection. They withstood common temptations in late Beethoven bravely. Explorations of Beethoven’s most minute meandering, attempts to render audible intricacies that can only be grasped analytically, mannered retardations in the name of an exaggerated love for detail—all the usual traps were avoided and contrasted with the adamant firmness of tempo and emphasis of macrostructure that are both good old interpretive virtues and acquired extra significance in the context of this work.

For as Joseph Kerman, author of the best monograph on Beethoven’s string quartets, wrote about the first movement: “No other piece by Beethoven carries a sense of suffering so close to the skin and treats the experience so deeply and so objectively. One can speak of objectivity because for once Beethoven seems to be dealing with pain itself, rather than with attitudes or responses to pain.” Indeed, in the rendition by the Guarneri, pain manifested itself on the level of reflection, as it were: there was a refusal to break with the linearity of the temporal movement, against which the music itself automatically asserted its fragility and inner disruption. The objective and inexorable character of suffering was underscored by the apparent impossibility to alleviate the pain by the subjectivity of the interpreter.

However, strictness of tempo was by no means a kind of interpretive autopilot. The Guarneri’s most significant break with this rule produced one of the memorable moments of the evening. Their approach to the finale was highly inspired and refined. From the first note on, the movement was shaking with the jarring interjections of the second violin, the hobbling quirk of the cello, the hysteric brittleness of the melodic line. The Guarneri played these passages in a almost conversational manner, producing a cacophony of disharmonious voices, a schizophrenic simultaneity of lament, defiance, and growing doubt. This was grand espressivo playing, congenial to what the old Beethoven may have imagined, all delivered at breakneck speed and with unusual precision. Only before the final recapitulation of the main theme, before the frantic presto, did they slow down, fully aware of the significance of a passage that many other ensembles simply overlook. There, after a series of violent outbursts, the almost primitive thematic material disintegrates into a faint reminiscence of the second movement, after which the theme returns, but this time prefaced by a doubtful reflection. The Guarneri finely stretched the melodic line to demonstrate how all the insecurity and neurosis of the first movement resurfaces, how the music talks to itself, deliberating about its uncertain future.

Ultimately, perhaps the most adequate reaction to such music is bewilderment. In late Beethoven, more than anywhere else, music unfolds itself as the strangest of the strange, the denotation, as that which forever shakes the ground on which we move, as that which is ever-present as an alienating force in our lives. Should we be laughing at the late Beethoven more, then? Should we be cracking up in the concert hall, openly express our amusement about this oddball of a genius? The dignity and seriousness of the Guarneri Quartet precluded all such sentiment. No single interpretation can exhaust the universe of possibilities, which is, as always, infinite.

But if they did succeed in communicating the more earnest moments; their best moments occurred, of course, in the slow movement, the famous Heilige Dankgesang, the “Holy Song of Thanksgiving by a Convalescent to the Divinity.” Juxtaposing another pair of polar opposites, Beethoven contrasts an archaic, otherworldly prayer tune in old church tonality to a vivid and virtuosic section titled Neue Kraft fühlend (‘Feeling new Strength’). The Guarneri’s playing was an example of concentration, intensity, and refined togetherness. Rarely have I heard the movement played better.

Towards the end of the piece, the prayer tune dissolves into various counterpoint lines but in turn gives birth to a majestic climax, a shrill ascension into the outermost realms of musical expression. If a speculative metaphor may be appropriate, the ascension is that of the human being out of the Platonic cave, the ascension to the unbearably bright light of truth, to Aletheia, which reveals itself in precious moments like these. Spiritual healing, if anything, is at stake in this movement, and a sanity of a metaphysical kind is reached. But only for an all too brief moment, so goes the pessimistic message, after which we climb back into the cave. There, all is darkness, perplexity, and ambiguity.

But let me not forget that the Guarneri played more than Beethoven’s late masterpiece. The first half of the concert included the Third String Quartet by one Viktor Ullmann, a little-known Czech composer who died in Auschwitz in 1944. Amazingly, Ullmann preserved his artistic productivity upon his incarceration in the Terezin concentration camp in 1942; in addition to the quartet, an opera and piano sonatas as well as a number of concert reviews have been preserved. The quartet blends fin de siècle sentiment with impressionist harmonies and occasional allusions to the music of Bohemian nationalism. Short and diverse, it avoids the kind of late-romantic morass that characterizes many lesser works of the time. The piece begins somewhat nervously, if in full sound; it later gives way to somewhat bizarre dance-like interludes and a pale fugal episode, before returning to the virtuosic and full-blooded opening theme. It is a strange piece, considering the circumstances of its composition. Neither does it conjure some musical utopia, nor does it seem overtly haunted or terrorized by the horrors of Nazism. Perhaps it seeks a way out precisely by forgoing such obvious alternatives. We owe the Guarneri our respect for presenting with such competence an otherwise neglected work.

Their Haydn quartet, too, was finely played, if marred by some difficulties in the opening bars. Perhaps intentionally, the Guarneri Quartet played it inoffensively and agreeably, a warm-up before those more deeply searching and obscure pieces. The slow movements were delivered with a noble yet elegiac simplicity.

Due ovation for the Guarneri after such a performance, and they expressed their gratitude with a lovely short encore: the slow movement from Mendelssohn’s early quartet op no. 12, composed in 1829, only years after the Beethoven. It was a more optimistic and romantic voice of a younger generation. Some reconciliation for us listeners who embarked on our way home amazed, perplexed, enlightened. More late Beethoven can be heard on November 1, when Pieter Wispelwey and Dejan Lazic come to perform all of the titan’s cello sonatas.