Thursday 26 February 2015

A remarkable sequence - Beethoven quartets and Ruth Padel's poetry

Endellion String Quartet
Endellion String Quartet
Beethoven String Quartet in B flat major, Opus 18 no. 6, String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op. 131, Ruth Padel Beyond the Dark: Seven Moments from the Life of Beethoven; Endellion String Quartet, Ruth Padel; Aspect Foundation at the Twentieth Century Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 25 2015
Star rating: 5.0

25 years of Beethoven's quartet writing in a sequence of music and new poetry

Beethoven's six string quartets opus 18 are the first major works for string quartet which Beethoven wrote. He was 30 when he finished them and they are certainly mature works, though his views on the quartet form would continue to develop. He was already showing signs of deafness and the sequence of quartets would continue through his trials with his deafness right to the final group of remarkable late quartets (Opus 127 to 135) which he wrote in the years 1824 to 1825. It was this span of 25 years of music making which came under examination in the Aspect Foundation's latest concert at the Twentieth Century Theatre in Notting Hill. The Endellion String Quartet played Beethoven's String Quartet in B flat major, Opus 18 no. 6 (from 1800) and String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op. 131 (from 1825) and between them Ruth Padel read her new poetry sequence, Beyond the Dark: Seven Moments from the Life of Beethoven which took its inspiration from Beethoven's life in those 25 years and particularly the string quartets, and which had been commissioned by the Aspect Foundation.

Ruth Padel
The Endellion String Quartet (Andrew Watkinson and Ralph de Souza, violin, Garfield Jackson, viola, David Waterman, cello) celebrated its 35th anniversary last year. Their recording of all Beethoven's string quartets and quintets was issued in 2008.Their playing reflected this experience, with the four players operating with an intimate familiarity. It would be easy to comment that they showed an easy familiarity and functioned like a well-oiled machine, but there was nothing easy about their approach to Beethoven as the group explored the quartets' deepest regions, and certainly there was nothing machine-like about the performances as the four players lived and breathed the music together. But this was not an evening all of angst and deep searching, there was lots of vivacious energy and some supremely vibrant music-making which took you on a journey.

Beethoven's String Quartet in B flat major, Opus 18 no. 6 still owes a debt to Mozart and Haydn and the outlines of their quartets are visible in the work, but Beethoven is constantly breaking free of the earlier models. Cellist David Waterman described the opening Allegro con brio as 'wonderful to play and hopefully wonderful to listen to' and it certainly was. A movement full of energy, the players brought a real smile to the music and enjoyed the interplay of parts. They used a highly energised sound, with quite a lot of attack at times, and underlying the joy there was a sense of solidness, a sense of the benefit of the weight of experience.

The Adagio ma non troppo was fluently flowing, a graceful, grazioso movement which was given a perky rhythmic undertow before moving into the more hauntingly misterioso minor, though this mood did not last. The skittering Scherzo: Allegro was full of unexpected accents and deliberately off-beat rhythms and the players brought this to the fore, creating strong rhythmic counterpoints. In the trio, Andrew Watkinson brought a wry smile to the furiously busy first violin part. The finale, titled La Malinconia, starts with an Adagio introduction before the Allegretto quasi Allegro movement proper. The long slow and serious introduction was intense and tightly wrought, with the players constantly turning the screw on our expectation that the tension would be released till finally we relaxed into one of Beethoven's country dance finales. But even here, the texture had a complexity which was clearly enjoyed by the performers  and Beethoven introduces brief excursions into the minor and again plays with expectations. The players delight was clear when we reached the fast and furious closing pages.

This was not the poet Ruth Padel's first appearance at an Aspect Foundation event. Previously, for them, she had written a sequence of poems to be read between the movements of Haydn's Seven last words. Before reading her new poem, Beyond the Dark: Seven Moments from the Life of Beethoven, Ruth Padel introduced us to the inspiration behind it and took us through seven moments in Beethoven's life from 1800 to 1826, illustrated with images of the people and places involved (including his brothers and the various women with whom he was romantically involved). Central to her inspiration were the four interlinking voices of the string quartet form, as well as the seven movement of the quartet Opus 131 with which the concert concluded. The poem was in seven sections, one for each of the moments and the writing wove four very different voices (including Beethoven's own writings) into a dazzling meditation on the creative process.

Not every poet reads their work well, but Ruth Padel does and she conveyed her new piece with clarity and expressiveness, bringing out the richness of the writing and the allusiveness of the text. As yet unpublished, I look forward to encountering the work again (Incidentally, my own setting of Ruth Padel's poem Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth is being premiered on 3 July 2015 by Alistair Dixon and Chapelle du Roi).

Beethoven's String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op. 131 picks up the sequence of string quartets following on from Opus 130 which originally had the Grosse Fugue as its finale and Beethoven began Opus 131 with a fugue (a somewhat unprecedented move) and reserved sonata form for the last movement. Whereas his three previous quartets had all been a commission for Prince Galitzin, the quartet Opus 131 was written under its own sheer momentum. It is technically in seven movements, which play continuously, but movements three and six are short and simply form introductions to the following ones so that the work functions very much in five movements (as the quartet which followed was to be too).

The opening fugue, Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo was strong and intense with the interlinking lines bringing out something yearning and disturbing. The Allegro moto vivace was wonderfully impulsive with the sustained line given a lovely lilt, and the melodies off-beat stresses hinting at the fugue subject. The short third movement was more of a recitative with cadenza for first violin, leading to the Adndante ma non troppo e molto cantabile. This long movement started with a grazioso melody, beautifully sung which the players exchanged in dialogue and collaboration. The movement was a set of variations, but anything less showy could not be imagined as Beethoven used the form to explore a series of darkly serious moments. The changes between variation gave the piece a restlessness and sense of searching, as if the music could never settle. The mood of the final variation was broken by the brilliant Presto which again combined skittering music with heavy accents, plus the odd stuttering to a halt. It was a curiously serious and intense scherzo. The calm and thoughtful dialogue of the sixth movement led to the the sonata form finale, Allegro. This was a dark and concentrated movement, with the players bringing out the intensity of the musical material and really digging into the strings. Sonata form it might be, but we had left classical poise far behind and this was deeply searching and dark. There was a wonderful strenuousness about the performance, but moments of elegance to and a great feeling of strength.

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