Sunday, January 28, 2018

NEQ Reconstructs a 19th-Century Concert

NEQ members Lisa Weiss, Anthony Martin, William Skeen, and Kati Kyme (photograph by Barbara Butkus from the NEQ home page)

Yesterday afternoon at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, the New Esterházy Quartet (NEQ) continued their eleventh season of programs based on the early history of string quartet performance. The title of the program was Paris, 1822—The Baillot Quartet. The program presented selections from a concert given by a string quartet led by Pierre Baillot in Paris on February 9, 1822 (which, coincidentally, also happened to be a Saturday). As usual, NEQ leadership was shared by the two violinists, Kati Kyme and Lisa Weiss. Cello was played by William Skeen; and violist Anthony Martin served to introduce the program, observing that the concert that Baillot had organized probably ran much longer than the two hours of yesterday’s event.

It was previously observed on this site that, prior to the formation of the Baillot Quartet, none of yesterday’s selections had been performed in France. The composers of those selections (in order of yesterday’s performance) were Luigi Boccherini, Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven, all of whom were probably known by French music lovers. Baillot’s innovation was to bring the chamber music repertoire to public performance, “liberating” it from its more intimate settings.

The coupling of Boccherini and Haydn for the first half of the program provided to be informative. The Boccherini selection was the last (in A major) of the six quartets published as his Opus 32; and it was followed by Haydn’s “Fifths” quartet (named for the presence of that wide interval in his melodic lines), Hoboken III/76 in D minor. This was the second of the Opus 76 quartets, the last complete set of six quartets that Haydn published.

Back in my student days there was a tendency to dismiss Boccherini as “the wife of Haydn.” However, yesterday’s programming made it clear that, when it came to imaginative approaches to composition, Boccherini could be just as strikingly innovative as Haydn. Furthermore, as was demonstrated at the beginning of the current NEQ season, Boccherini was the cellist in what has come to be recognized as the first professional string quartet.

The major work in the second half of the program was the fifth (in A major) of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “early” collection of six quartets, his Opus 18. Because the third movement is a set of variations on a theme, NEQ chose to precede it with a set of variations by Mozart, the Andante movement from his K. 464 quartet (also in A major). This pairing called attention to the fact that both variations movements featured, as one of the variations, a “walking bass” pattern for the cello. This technique did not originate during the Classical period. One encounters it often in continuo lines of Johann Sebastian Bach, particularly when accompanying arias and duets in his sacred music. However, when poured into the new bottle of “the Classical style,” the old wine definitely packs a new punch. (It would pack an even strong one when appropriated by jazz musicians in the twentieth century!) It is not hard to imagine that Beethoven had been impressed with Mozart’s rhetorical move and decided to try it out in his own (distinctively different) way.

The overall result was that, as usual, it was an afternoon of highly engaging music from the early days of the string quartet, whose programming was seasoned with several informative tidbits.

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