Perfect but Flawed
Alice Tully Hall
Ludwig van Beethoven: Quartets Nos. 2, 11, and 13
Edward Dusinberre and Karoly Schranz (violins)
Roger Tapping (viola)
Andras Fejer (cello)
“If you are a musician you will appreciate the importance of this announcement…if not, just ask any real musician, and you will be convinced.”
Brochure of the 92nd Street Y, 1938
Nat Brandt, in his “Con Brio”, a delightful memoir about the Budapest Quartet, points out that the above advertised performance of the complete cycle of the 16 Beethoven string quartets with the Grosse Fuge was the first ever in New York. That the residents of the western hemisphere’s most cosmopolitan and cultured city had to wait for 110 years after the death of the composer for this celebration to occur is perhaps disappointing, but not surprising. The performance of any one of these works is daunting; to attempt them all is to challenge heaven itself.
The Budapest owned these pieces, performing them as a cycle more than any other group and recording them no less than three different times. Sensitive to the critical charge that they were just “too perfect”, the quartet had a mutually agreed upon policy that too much practice was a bad thing: in order to keep a work fresh and an individual performance spontaneous, the four consistently left a little something for the actual event (even personnel changes did not alter this philosophy). However, when the subject was Beethoven, there was a sea change. No matter how many times they rehearsed these masterworks, there were always revelations for their highly trained ears, nuances emerging from the shadows, beauty and power, heartbreak and heroism born anew. Beethoven himself assured the spontaneity of the concert; the real trick was to try and keep up and communicate music that, increasingly, was written for the deaf man’s own cerebral and emotional enjoyment, the individual sonic moment almost a surrealistic afterthought in a kaleidoscopic inner world of excruciatingly lovely and disturbing dumbshow.
Now a very brave quartet originally from Hungary is presenting their own traversal over six concerts at Alice Tully Hall sponsored by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Takacs himself (Gabor Takacs-Nagy) had moved on, but the ensemble that he founded is thriving. For the past few seasons, they have been living with these quartets and taking them on the road, presenting series elongated over several years in various US cities. For this month of January, they are all ours.
Unfortunately, all of the hype and expectation did not insure a magnificent concert experience. The sold-out crowd was indeed feted with playing of a high order of competency, but the underlying cross-currents of emotional conflict, the majestic Beethovenian challenging of the gods, the intimacies of the deaf man’s innerlichkeit, were somewhat muted in an initial session much more notable for dexterity than inspiration. This first installoment, with representatives from all three periods, to wit numbers 2, 11 and 13, was praiseworthy from a technical perspective, but ultimately irrelevant to a total musical experience. If I were a chamber music coach, I would rush my students to hear these master craftsmen; but if I were trying to interest a neophyte in the sheer joy of listening to Beethoven, I would just as eagerly keep them away.
Frederick L. Kirshnit