Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Fugue Rules at Last Night’s Calidore Recital

Calidore String Quartet members Jeremy Berry, Estelle Choi, Ryan Meehan, and Jeffrey Myers (from a concert announcement by Peoples’ Symphony Concerts)

Last night in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances (SFP) continued its Chamber Series programming with a return visit from the Calidore String Quartet. The ensemble, consisting of violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violist Jeremy Berry, and cellist Estelle Choi, made its SFP debut this past January, providing the “opening act” for a program developed in partnership with pianist Inon Barnatan. That program was devoted entirely to Johann Sebastian Bach; and it began at the end of Bach’s life with Calidore playing six of the pieces collected in the BWV 1080 The Art of Fugue, five four-voice fugues and one two-voice canon. For the remainder of the program, they provided “orchestral” accompaniment for Barnatan’s performance of four keyboard concertos.

Calidore definitely knew how to bring clarity to the individual threads of Bach’s tightly-knit counterpoint. As a result, I, for one, welcomed the program they prepared for last night, which was framed by two significantly different takes on fugal writing, one by Joseph Haydn and the other by Ludwig van Beethoven. The Haydn selection was the Hoboken III/32 quartet in C major, the second of the Opus 20 collection of six quartets often known as the “Sun” quartets. This is one of three quartets in the publication that concludes with a fugue. Hoboken III/35 ends with a fugue with two subjects in F minor, Hoboken III/36 has a fugue with three subjects in A major, and Hoboken III/32 has four of them in C major.

Those who are big on fugues will be quick to note that four is a healthy number of subjects to juggle. Indeed, in his monumental study of the life and works of Haydn, H. C. Robbins Landon was quick to observe that, “strictly speaking,” this was actually a double fugue with two countersubjects in which each subject-countersubject pair made simultaneous entries. Needless to say, this does not make the juggling act any easier. If anything, the superposition of subjects poses a real challenge to the listener determined to sort out the content. Fortunately, Calidore brought to this Haydn movement the same clarity they had mastered for their BWV 1080 performances, thus providing a thoroughly engaging conclusion to one of Haydn’s most adventurous quartets.

The fugue at the other end of the program was Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 133 “Große Fuge.” This was played as Beethoven had originally conceived it, as the final movement of his Opus 130 quartet in B-flat major. In other words it served as the last of an ambitious array of six movements, each with its own distinctive rhetorical stance.

That makes for a lot of listening, enough to impose more that a little strain on even the most attentive listener. The fact is that each movement lays out so much for the listener to negotiate and relish that the onset of fatigue is not only forgivable but, for the most part, inevitable. Personally, I happen to find the fifth-movement Cavatina one of Beethoven’s most sensuous expressions through music; but much of that beauty often goes unrecognized simply because of that fatigue factor.

Mind you, Beethoven knew how to seize the attention of any listener that might have dozed off during that Cavatina. The fugue itself is preceded by an aggressive introduction that prepares the listener for a roller-coaster ride through counterpoint nothing like anything conceived by either Bach or Haydn. Indeed, we are gradually homing in on the two hundredth anniversary of the composition of this fugue; and it still has the provocative power to disorient and disturb.

Nevertheless, those disquieting qualities will only register with the receptive listener. As a result, I feel a need to cast my lot with Beethoven’s publisher, Matthias Artaria. He was the one that advocated detaching the fugue as a “stand-alone” composition, replacing it in Opus 130 with a finale that would go down the ear more easily. (Hence the separate opus number for the fugue.) The performance of Opus 133 deserves attention at its sharpest, particularly when that performance benefits from the skills of a group like Calidore that can bring so much clarity to counterpoint at its richest. For that matter, following it with an encore selection in the form of the second movement from the Opus 74 (“Harp”) quartet in E-flat major definitely pushed too-much-of-a-good thing beyond the limits of reasonable endurance.

The only real lapse in clarity last night came at the middle of the program with the performance of three “essays” composed by Caroline Shaw, all of which were given first performances by Calidore. Choi made a game attempt at introducing this work. Sadly her account rambled uncertainly around reminiscences of past encounters with Shaw and muddling a few of the facts that were clarified in Shaw’s notes for the program book. Those notes, on the other hand, had a lot more to say about the composer’s reading habits than about the music itself. It was as if Shaw had been enamored of the concept of the essay enough to try to translate it into musical terms. However, the discourse structure itself made for a poor fit; and even the most attentive listener had to contend with three exercises in trying to make sense out of what was little more than wistful rambling.

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