Looking Backward, Looking Forward
Tisch Center for the Arts
Ludwig van Beethoven: Quartet # 16
Anton Webern: Six Bagatelles
Hanns Eisler: String Quartet, Op. 75
Johannes Brahms: Quartet # 2
We critics rhapsodize unashamedly on the late quartets of Beethoven, holding them up as the greatest collection of works in all of Western music The final opus is uncharacteristic, however, as it harkens back to the world of the meister's teacher, Papa Haydn, and the rudiments of the conversational string quartet, although relating its "table-talk" episodically. It seems that Beethoven was seized with an attack of nostalgia even while composing works designed only to please his own inner ear and not to be restricted by the borders of good taste imposed by the physical, acoustical world of the hearing population. The resulting last quartet is a look back from the added perspective of the most progressive composer in history, a true iconoclast and rugged individualist. The Leipzig Quartet, three of whom abandoned their safe places as first chair players at the Gewandhaus, produced a fine, if not sublime, performance of this unique piece before the most sparse crowd that I have ever seen at the venerable 92nd Street Y on Saturday night.
The quartet is an accomplished chamber group, but is lacking that gorgeously blended sound which ultimately distinguishes the great from the merely very good. Their mastery of the form was more apparent in the forward looking Webern, whose idiom is a specialty of this young group (they are self-proclaimed advocates of the Second Viennese School). The recently departed Felix Galimir used to talk about playing these miniatures for Webern himself and stressed the necessity to imbue each note with as much symbolic freight as possible. This is aphoristic writing at its zenith, each musical second chockablock with feeling and significance. The Leipzig performance was truly impressive and heartily appreciated by the small crowd (I still glow with joy when this happens after so many years of public disdain for these great composers).
Hanns Eisler was an uncompromising man and had the distinction, along with Brecht, of being thrown out of two countries with very differing political systems (Nazi Germany and McCarthy's America) for his outspokenness. Studying briefly with both Schoenberg and Webern, he was a futurist at heart but produced works, such as his Op. 75, which were actually anachronistically melodic and even tuneful. This is serialism of the people with jaunty ditties which one can go out whistling and deserves more frequent listenings. Again the Leipzigers were in their element and did us all a service by resurrecting this important, quintessentially '30's style reminiscent of Weill and Korngold.
The most futuristic look on the program, however, may very well have been by that seemingly conservative melodist Johannes Brahms. Almost always classified as a reactionary (fallout from the Brahms-Wagner feud no doubt), Brahms is seldom thought of as a modernist and experimenter, but this quartet is rife with unusual lengths of themes and radically syncopated meters as well as a very colorful blending of tonalities producing a sunny "Italian" feel. This performance was adequate but not expressive enough for my taste and my mind wandered after a while and was not grabbed by the beautiful sonorous combinations included within these pages. Ultimately these fine young musicians, living the life that their orchestral colleagues can only imagine, are not quite ready to be considered great chamber musicians, but after some time together, this may correct itself naturally. Like so many chamber groups, they can play all of the notes, what's missing is that gold which the great musical alchemists can summon once they have the formula that turns the actions of the fingers into the food of the heart.
Frederick L. Kirshnit