Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), the first SFCM quartet-in-residence, the Thalea String Quartet, gave a full recital. The members of this ensemble are violinists Christopher Whitley and Kumiko Sakamoto, violist Luis Bellorin, and cellist Bridget Pasker; and those who attended the debut of Eric Dudley conducting the Conservatory Orchestra during Kick-Off Weekend already at a foretaste of the scope of their talents. That evening these four musicians were leaders of the four string sections, and Dudley provided them with the opportunity to play as a string quartet during the second variation in the final movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 55 (“Eroica”) symphony in E-flat major. Bellorin introduced last night’s program by suggesting that they had chosen compositions that featured interactions among the four players; but their capacity for interaction during the Beethoven symphony was sufficiently compelling that Dudley could set down his baton.
However, in addition to providing further opportunities to appreciate and enjoy such interaction at its finest, the program prepared for last night also had at least the suggestion of a narrative element. The beginning selection was Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken III/75 quartet in G major, the first of the Opus 76 quartets that he dedicated to József Erdődy, one of the Hungarian nobles close to Haydn’s patron Nikolaus Esterházy. This was followed by Anton Webern’s “Langsamer Satz,” one of the first works composed (in 1905) under Arnold Schoenberg’s supervision as a teacher. The program then concluded with Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 80 quartet in F minor, his intense reflection on the death of his sister Fanny. This amounted to a journey from Haydn’s playfulness through Webern’s deeper passions (the music was supposedly inspired by a long walk he took with the woman he would later marry) and culminating in tragic loss. This may not have led to high spirits at the end of the evening, but the journey was definitely a compelling one.
Thalea was clearly right at home with both the high spirits and the intimacy of Haydn’s quartet. By the time Haydn wrote his quartets for Erdődy, those close to the Esterházy court were well aware of the composer’s imaginative capacity for wit. They probably all smiled knowingly at the Menuetto movement, knowing full well that Haydn was thinking “I defy you to dance to this!” Regardless of the label Haydn assigned, this was a clear sign of the scherzo moving in to displace the minuet. On a broader scale that matters more is that each movement takes its own unique rhetorical stance, almost suggesting that this one quartet is a narrative unto itself. Thalea was as sensitive to those shifts in rhetoric as one could wish from a performance of this piece; and it definitely served them well as an attention-grabbing opening selection.
From that introduction the audience could be led into the more intense expressiveness of rhetoric during the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. “Langsamer Satz” suggests that Webern was aware of the path that Schoenberg had traversed in his earlier work. Perhaps he had chosen to approach Schoenberg as a teacher because he saw him as a kindred spirit. Thus, without demeaning what Webern had submitted to his teacher, it is easy to imagine that it was written by a young man who had been very deeply impressed by his teacher’s Opus 4 string sextet, which he had entitled “Verklärte Nacht,” named after an intense poem by Richard Dehmel. One gets the impression that Webern understood how Schoenberg had deployed and resolved the ambiguities of dissonance in that piece of chamber music, and he was ready to present his master with some strategies of his own. However, as impressive as all of that underlying logic may be, Thalea’s performance internalized their grasp of it, focusing, instead, on presenting the audience listeners with the breadth of rhetorical stances that his relatively short piece assumes. The contrast with Haydn was unmistakeable, but so also was the more intimate sense of personality behind one of Webern’s earliest serious efforts.
However, that intimacy turned much darker during the second half of the program. The Opus 80 quartet was composed about four months after Fanny’s death on May 17, 1847. Mendelssohn gave it the title “Requiem for Fanny;” and it would be the last major piece that he composed. Less than two months later, he, too, would die.
From the listener’s point of view, this is music with an almost desperate sense of urgency that distinguishes it from Mendelssohn’s other minor-key compositions. Those who are not locked entirely in the classical repertoire and are willing to allow “enlightenment through anachronism” might even wish to associate this music with one of the recordings of Robert Johnson (the notorious bluesman who is said to have made a pact with the Devil). Johnson’s “Hellhound On My Trail” could not better describe the mood that pervades Mendelssohn’s Opus 80 quartet.
Thalea had no trouble unleashing the hellhounds in their approach to this quartet. If Haydn had composed a Menuetto that was not a minuet, Opus 80 has an Allegro assai that is a scherzo only in its ternary structure. Indeed, the syncopations of this movement are so disruptive that it took Thalea a bit of time to adapt the listener to what was transpiring:
What emerged was a ternary-form movement in which things only began to become clear with the final repetitions. By the time the entire quartet had run its course, it would not have been surprising to learn that many in the audience were as exhausted as the players. This was music of desperation, and Thalea should be recognized for not shying away from the raw qualities of its rhetorical stances.