For several years, pianist Ian Scarfe, Founder and Director of the Trinity Arts Chamber Music Festival, has arranged occasional concerts in San Francisco to cultivate awareness of his participating musicians and the repertoire they pursue. One of the earliest of these events took place in June of 2014, when the fourth season of the Festival was previewed with an electrifying one-to-a-part performance of the first four concertos from Antonio Vivaldi’s Opus 8 collection, best known as The Four Seasons. More recently Scarfe has been offering a Midwinter Beethoven series, an annual event with a focus on the so-called “late period” in the works of Ludwig van Beethoven. This winter’s installment took place last night at the Century Club of California, the same venue that had hosted that memorable 2014 Vivaldi event.
Scarfe introduced the program by observing that the late period is generally taken to be the ten years leading up to Beethoven’s death on March 26, 1827. This interval has played a significant role in the classification of both his piano sonatas and his string quartets, and last night’s program presented one of each. In the case of the piano sonatas, there are four, each written in a successive year: Opus 106 (“Hammerklavier”) in B-flat major (1819), Opus 109 in E major (1820), Opus 110 in A-flat major (1821), and Opus 111 in C minor (1822). The late quartets also cover a span of four years, but less evenly: Opus 127 in E-flat major (1823–1824), Opus 130 in B-flat major (1825), Opus 131 in C-sharp minor (1826), Opus 132 in A minor (1825), and Opus 135 in F major (1826). (The opus numbers reflect that publication order did not follow order of composition.) There is also the Opus 133 “Große Fuge,” which began as the final movement of Opus 130 but was published separately after Beethoven wrote a shorter Finale for Opus 130 in 1826.
Last night Scarfe began the program with the Opus 109 sonata. The intermission was then followed by the Opus 132 quartet. Both of these pieces were prepared in the Trinity Alps on the farm of Ellen McGehee in Hyapom. McGehee played second violin in Opus 132, joined by Rachel Patrick on first violin, Stephen Fine on viola, and James Jaffe on cello. Scarfe also provided each of the two performances with a spoken introduction, primarily to acquaint the audience with the themes and overall structure of each piece. He also discussed the virtues of splendid isolation when working on such challenging music, but it would be fair to say that the results of that isolation were mixed.
Of the two selections, Scarfe’s was definitely the more satisfying. Even without his introductory discussion, one could readily appreciate the extent to which his performance reflected a well-conceived vision of the sonata that took in both the overall architecture and the composer’s meticulous attention to detail. Scarfe has definitely become an enthusiastic promoter of this composition; and, by the time his performance had concluded, it was easy to share his enthusiasm.
Opus 132 was more problematic; but, to be fair, it is probably the most challenging of the late quartets, matched only by the challenges imposed by Opus 133. Indeed, there is a kinship between these two pieces, which may reflect that Beethoven had been working on both of them at the same time. Opus 132 begins with a minor second (G-sharp to A) followed by a leap up a minor sixth to F, which then drops a minor second back to E. Opus 133, in turn, begins with an augmented unison (G to G-sharp, an enharmonic of the minor second), followed by the upward leap of a diminished seventh to that same F, which then drops back to that same E. In other words the Opus 133 motif is the result of lowering the first two notes of the Opus 132 motif by a semitone.
Indeed, it is that almost devilish approach to unconventional chromaticism that makes both of these pieces so challenging. Much of the effort behind making a string quartet “work” is homing in on just the right intonation by determining under which circumstances one player gets a reference pitch from another. It is one thing to try just to read one’s way through either Opus 132 or Opus 133, but getting the pitches to align properly among themselves is not always readily evident from the score pages. Indeed, depending on how the members of the quartet choose to communicate among themselves, it may be a matter of hypothesizing one approach, testing it, and then deciding whether another approach might be better.
As a result it would be fair to describe last night’s performance as a work-in-progress that definitely has the potential to continue along in the right direction. Scarfe did an excellent job of laying out the overall plan of this quartet, not the easiest matter in the world, particularly in light of the disproportionate lengths of the individual movements. Nevertheless, that sense of the entirety was definitely there last night; but this piece amounts to a textbook case of how the devil is in the details. The prognosis that those details will eventually be resolved is good; but progress may ultimately benefit from a coach with more hands-on experience with this particular composition.