Arts & Events

Takács Quartet’s Beethoven Cycle Closes with a Rousing Finish

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday April 14, 2017 - 08:14:00 AM

On April 8-9, the Takács Quartet brought to a rousing close its cycle of the complete Beethoven string quartets. Begun last October, this Beethoven cycle comprised six concerts, all in the excellent acoustic space of UC Berkeley’s Hertz Hall. How lucky we are to have the opportunity to hear a world-class string quartet perform all sixteen of Beethoven’s String Quartets plus Die Grosse Fugue. This latter work, catalogued as Op. 133, was performed by the Takács Quartet on Sunday, April 9, as it was intended by Beethoven as the final movement of the Op. 130 String Quartet. However, at the urging of a publisher the composer saw fit to write a less demanding, more accessible finale for the Op. 130 Quartet. Yet what more fitting ending could one imagine for a cycle of the complete Beethoven String Quartets than the Grosse Fugue played as the finale of Op. 130?  

We’ll take up the Takács Quartet’s performance of Op. 130 and Die Grosse Fugue towards the end of this review. First, however, we turn our attention to Saturday evening’s program, which included Op. 18, No. 6, Op. 135 (the last of Beethoven’s String Quartets), and Op. 59, No. 3 (the last of the so-called Rasumovsky Quartets). The String Quartet in B flat, Op. 18, No. 6 was written in the years 1799-1800 as the final quartet in a group of six, all composed in the Viennese Classic style with four movements. This work’s first two movements cast an affectionate look backwards at Beethoven’s great predecessors, Haydn and Mozart. Ebullient and mellifluous themes are stated, developed, and recapitulated. At the end of the second movement, two gentle pizzicato chords in viola and cello, played here by Geraldine Walther and András Fejér, make for an understated close. The two final movements of this quartet definitely look forwards to the experimental style of Beethoven’s late quartets. The third movement, a scherzo, offers a syncopated theme and obstinately dislocated off-beat accents. It also offers acrobatic turns by the first violin, brilliantly performed here by Edward Dusinberre. The finale, entitled “La malinconia” (“melancholy”), begins with a slow introduction that Beethoven instructed must be played with the utmost delicacy. The predominant dynamic marking is pianissimo. A bit later, a country dance breaks out, and melancholy turns to gaiety. However, the music of the slow introduction returns to throw a cloud of melancholy over the gaiety of the country dance. But this mood is quickly overcome by a giddy, almost manic cheerfulness as the work races to a conclusion, expertly performed by the Takács Quartet. 

Next on Saturday’s program was Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Major, Op. 135, his last string quartet. This marked a return to the high-Classic style that Beethoven had left behind in the highly experimental Op. 130, 131 and 132 String Quartets. There is indeed something almost Haydnesque about the F Major Quartet. The viola introduces the opening theme, though in fragmentary form. The other instruments pick up this theme but simply add more fragments, approaching the home key only obliquely. Nonetheless, the overall mood of this first movement is one of iridescent cheerfulness. The second movement, marked Vivace, continues in a cheerful vein. Yet, suddenly, in what seems to be an exuberant scherzo, the viola and cello saw away at a small, brutal figure over and over again, at fortissimo, while the first violin undergoes wild convulsions. This seems to be an eruption of chaos in the midst of calm and restraint. Typically, Beethoven is not afraid to acknowledge the lurking chaos, but literally embraces it. The third movement is a somewhat lugubrious Lento. The fourth and final movement is prefaced by the words, “Muss es sein?” (“Must it be?”) Following this question comes the answer: “Es muss sein.” (“It must be”). Whether these words have a metaphysical connotation or, as some scholars believe, simply make a joke about the stinginess of one of Beethoven’s Jewish patrons who balked at paying the price of a ticket, we’ll never know. Perhaps both meanings were intended. In any case, the finale proceeds to a cheerful, playful close. 

After intermission, the Takács Quartet took the stage to perform the String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3, the last of the Razumovsky Quartets. Without doubt, the most striking feature of this quartet is the second movement, an Andante. This movement, with its slow melodic repetitions is almost hypnotic. In his film Une femme mariée (A Married Woman), Jean-Luc Godard used this movement to accompany images of languid foreplay between a married woman and her lover. Godard filmed semi-abstract images of hands caressing bare torsos, over and over, as the lovers repeat gestures they – and we -- have already performed innumerable times. In these images set to this music, unhurried lovemaking involves a suspension of time. It’s as if these gestures, and this music, could be infinitely prolonged. Yet Godard also picks up on the element of melancholy in Beethoven’s music; and as the music and gestures repeat themselves endlessly with slight variations, we are aware of an undercurrent of melancholy. It may be beautiful, and it may be tender, but it also may be a bit mechanical, an infinite repetition of the same gestures and music, over and over and over. Nonetheless, this movement was a particular favorite among audiences in Beethoven’s day, and it remains a deeply moving musical experience for us today. There is more to say, of course, about this Op. 59, No. 3 Quartet; but in a double-barreled review covering two concerts and five quartets, we’d better leave further comments on Op. 59, No. 3 for another time. 

On Sunday, April 9, the Takács Quartet performed only two works: the String Quartet in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1, Rasumovsky, and the String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130 with its original finale, Die Grosse Fugue, Op. 133. The former work, the first of Beethoven’s middle period quartets commissioned by Count Rasumovsky, clearly situates this set of three quartets as a radical rethinking of the structure and style of string quartets. As Maynard Solomon observes, “Where Beethoven’s creative laboratory had at first been the piano and then was the symphony orchestra, the focus of his experimental efforts was now transferred to the string quartet.” There is undeniably a new expansiveness here in Beethoven’s string quartets. The opening melody of the first Rasumovsky is elaborated by the cello while the other instruments offer a largely dissonant, obstinately unchanging accompaniment. It is not until 20 bars of music that we settle into the home key of B-flat Major. There are experiments in this first movement regarding an implied repeat when a reiteration of the cello’s opening bars leads not to a full repeat but rather to the development section. Likewise, the central section of the development unfolds from a mysterious pianissimo that reaches a climax on the very same dissonance with which the movement began.  

The second movement begins with the second violin introducing the opening theme, here beautifully played by Károly Schranz. Throughout this scherzo, there is a wonderful interchange of melodic material from one instrument to another, as Dusinberre passes a melody to Schranz, who passes it to Walther, who passes it to Fejér. The third movement, marked Adagio with a subheading of mesto (sad), offers one of Beethoven’s great tragic statements of grief. One of this movement’s innovations lies in the extended pizzicato with which the cello, here played with consummate artistry by András Fejér, elaborates the expressive mood of overwhelming grief. (Beethoven associated this movement with the death of his brother.) The fourth and final movement offers a Russian theme, in the original a soldier’s lament on returning from war, though Beethoven disdainfully casts aside the original’s grim mood and simply writes this music as an Allegro, thus bringing this quartet to a triumphal close. 

After Sunday’s intermission, the Takács Quartet took the stage to perform Beethoven’s monumental String Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130 with its original finale, Die Grosse Fugue, Op. 133. Maynard Solomon called this quartet “the most enigmatic of the late quartets.” Paul Bekker, writing in the early 20th century, found the B-flat major Quartet “a suite, almost a pot-pourri, of movements without any close psychological interconnection.” On this latter point I totally disagree. There is indeed a unifying principle in this Op. 130 quartet, and it is an eminently psychological one, it seems to me. It consists of an undercurrent of melancholy, of grief, that lies just under the surface of music that otherwise might seem cheerful. The first movement is a case in point. It is marked Adagio, but this is no liltingly lyrical Adagio. Rather, it is shot through with dark, gloomy recollections of sorrow and suffering. It must not be played in a light-hearted manner. The second movement, a very brief Presto, however, is indeed light-hearted. Here, after the melancholy opening movement, Beethoven allows himself the simple pleasure of joyful music-making. Note, however, that this moment is extremely brief. Next comes the third movement, marked Andante con moto. It features pizzicato plucking by the low instruments while the first violin occupies the high range in a heavy-duty workout that suggests turbulence. The fourth movement is Alla danza tedesca, a simple German country dance, a Ländler. As we listen to this music we can almost picture clod-hopping peasants and maidens in dirndls dancing in a circle. Yet at a certain point, two-thirds of the way through this movement, the pace slows down noticeably, or at least it should, and here I fault the Takács Quartet for not slowing this music down sufficiently. Why is this important? Because here, I think, we can picture Beethoven sadly acknowledging a distance he feels from this music. Not that he can’t appreciate it as music. Obviously, he can and does, even if in his deafness he can no longer hear it. However, what distances Beethoven from this country dance is its tight sense of community, an element Beethoven longed for but never achieved. And it is this recognition, I believe, that precipitates the tragic outpouring of grief and pain of the Cavatina that follows. 

Into this Cavatina Beethoven poured all the pain and suffering he had experienced in his life – the struggle with deafness, the repeated disappointments in love, and the sense of lonely isolation stemming both from his deafness and from the immense gap between his own exalted notion of music and the more pedestrian expectations of his public. The tragedy expressed in the Cavatina, according to J.W. N. Sullivan, is “the yearning for the unattainable, for that close human intimacy, that love and sympathy, that Beethoven never experienced.” Beethoven’s friend Karl Holz reported that the composer “wrote the Cavatina (‘short aria’) amid sorrows and tears; never did this music breathe so heartfelt an inspiration, and even the memory of this movement brought tears to his eyes.” 

Following this tragic Cavatina, Beethoven needed to pull himself together and write something that would embody his ability to overcome all suffering, all obstacles, and express his reaffirmation of life. What Beethoven turned to was Bach and the fugue. In writing Die Grosse Fugue, Beethoven went back to the roots of classical music and demonstrated that in his mastery of counterpoint he could indeed overcome all obstacles and reaffirm his commitment to life. As expertly performed here by the Takács Quartet, Die Grosse Fugue was a perfect climax to their cycle of the complete Beethoven String Quartets.