Last night Music at Kohl Mansion (MAKM) launched its 38th season, consisting of prerecorded videos, each of which will be given two “live” streamings. The opening concert presented a single composition, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 130 quartet in B-flat major in the version that the composer originally wrote, with the Grosse Fuge as the last of its six movements. The performers were the members of the Alexander String Quartet (ASQ), violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarbrough, and cellist Sandy Wilson. This was probably the group’s final performance with Yarbrough, who is about to be replaced by David Samuel.
The program amounted to a “follow-up” to the second of the two Beethoven Marathon recitals that ASQ recorded last month for San Francisco Performances (SFP) for viewing through the Front Row: 2020 Online Concert Series video archive. For that recording ASQ played the seven-movement Opus 131 quartet in C-sharp minor. The Opus 130 performance was a lengthier enterprise, particularly due to the fact that the duration of the fugue is about fifteen minutes, longer than any of the five preceding movements.
ASQ has been playing the Beethoven quartets (and recording them) for well over a quarter century prior to my settling into writing about music as my “retirement gig.” They used the SFP marathon to offer representative samples from the three periods that partition the entire canon: early (Opus 18, published in 1801), middle (primarily the three “Razumovsky” quartets, composed in 1806), late (the five quartets composed between 1824 and 1826, shortly before Beethoven’s death in March of 1827). However, there is so much innovation across those last five quartets that it is understandable that a “farewell gesture” to Yarbrough would involve another quartet from the late period.
What is particularly distinctive about Opus 130, however, is how it reminds the listener that, even during the final (and often stressful) years of Beethoven’s life, his sense of humor was as sharp as ever. Each of the first four movements has its own generous share of playful surprises, almost as if each of the four instruments had its own prankish dispositions. There is probably a bit of humor, albeit more subtle, in the fifth movement, which Beethoven labels as a cavatina. Its Wikipedia page identifies the cavatina as “originally meaning a short song of simple character;” and I have always felt that the perfect model for a cavatina is “Porgi amor,” sung by the Countess at the beginning of the second act of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 492 The Marriage of Figaro.
Beethoven’s cavatina, on the other hand, is anything but short and hardly “of simple character.” It is one of the longer of the five movements that precede the fugue, and the interplay of the four instrumental lines makes for some of the composer’s most sophisticated polyphony. From a rhetorical point of view, this is the music that brings an interlude of calm following the more raucous humor of the first four movements while bracing the listener for the shock of the fugue that is about to follow, a movement that departs from any expectations of fugue even more disquieting than Beethoven’s departure from cavatina conventions.
What makes ASQ performances so engaging is that, collectively, they know how to escort the attentive listener through the wide breadth of rhetorical diversity that Beethoven brought to all of his music. The late period quartets make it clear that, through all of that breadth of diversity that permeated his work as a composer, Beethoven was as inventive as ever in his last years, if not more so. One could almost say that their MAKM recital came close to serving up the same elements of surprise that would have jolted those listening to the earliest performances of the late quartets.
That said, it is worth observing that the video work did not do ASQ any favors. Unless I am mistaken, they recorded Opus 131 for SFP with a fixed camera in Herbst Theatre. However, the frame provided a consistently informative view of the entire group. As a result, one could readily grasp the many different approaches to polyphony that emerged in Beethoven’s writing. The attentive eye could easy follow how thematic motifs could be both shared and handed-off.
The video treatment at Kohl Mansion, enabled by the Sun Valley Music Festival Crew, was, on the other hand, overly burdened with multiple-camera busy-work. Furthermore, in all probability none of the members of that crew had even a vague sense of what was in the score being performed by ASQ. As a result, the eye was almost always forced to look at one or two players, while the ear was being directed to the players that were “out of frame.” As might be imagined, the Grosse Fuge was the primary casualty, but many of Beethoven’s wittiest turns of phrase in the first five movements were similarly undermined.
Those that attend performances frequently are well aware that watching contributes as much to the experience as listening does; let us hope that basic video technique will improve over the course of the remaining concerts in the MAKM season.