Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Transparent, pure and crystalline

Beethoven: Late String Quartets
Slowly, slowly, the melody unfolded itself. The archaic Lydian harmonies hung on the air. It was an unimpassioned music, transparent, pure and crystalline, like a tropical sea, an Alpine lake. Water on water, calm sliding over calm; the according of level horizons and waveless expanses, a counterpoint of serenities. And everything clear and bright; no mists, no vague twilights. It was the calm of still and rapturous contemplation, not of drowsiness or sleep. It was the serenity of a convalescent who wakes from fever and finds himself born again into a realm of beauty. But the fever was 'the fever called living' and the rebirth was not into this world; the beauty was unearthly, convalescent serenity was the peace of God. The interweaving of Lydian melodies was heaven.
 - Aldous Huxley, on the third movement of Beethoven's String Quartet op. 132, in his novel Point Counter Point
2020, the Beethoven Year commemorating the 250th anniversary of his birth, begins at the very apex of the composer's music, his late string quartets, played by the very fine Brodsky Quartet. This is a group that has often put together innovative programs on disc and in live performance, but here we have just the works themselves, albeit with a most substantial bonus, the 11th String Quartet, op. 95, from Beethoven's middle period. In a 1989 Gramophone review of Beethoven Quartet cycles, Robert Layton once talked about the late quartets as "the Alpine heights of the repertory which few traverse unscathed." He felt that technical finesse and superficial beauty that had pushed recordings of earlier Beethoven works forward might prove as impediments in the interpretation of these great works crafted within the composer's total deafness. Layton quotes Basil Lam, who said "in the last quartets Beethoven is as indifferent to communication as he is to self-expression." In space, no one can hear you scream.

These performances tread a middle ground between the more mystical interpretations of the Lindsay or Végh Quartets and the solid (but by no means stolid) German tradition of the Amadeus Quartet, whose early 1960s LPs were my first exposure (along with Huxley's novel) to this music. Though Beethoven had long left behind the musical tropes and attitudes of the 18th century Enlightenment, there is a residual classical feeling in much of this music, which the Brodsky performance often underlines. As Huxley says, "no mists, no vague twilights." There are no radical differences between the music on these three discs and a hypothetical average of the spectacular run of great recordings of late Beethoven quartets, from the early Busch and Hollywood sets to the Quartetto Italiano, the Cleveland and Melos Quartets. Paradoxically, this approach points most decidedly to the absolutely radical nature of Beethoven's music itself. In the rarefied air of Beethoven's music of the mid-1820s, everything has changed.

This album will be released on January 3, 2020.

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