Last night violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violist Ethan Filner, and cellist Jennifer Kloetzel, the members of the Cypress String Quartet (CSQ), gave the first San Francisco performance of their three Salon Series concerts for this season in the Joe Henderson Lab at the SFJAZZ Center. As the operative noun of the venue suggests, SFJAZZ conceived this setting as a place as conducive to talking about jazz as for playing and listening to it. (It has also been used for a four-day Poetry Festival organized by SFJAZZ Poet Laureate Ishmael Reed.) This is entirely consistent with the way in which CSQ uses the Salon Series to combine a full recital with opportunities for the individual performers to offer verbal perspectives on their efforts.
Ironically, none of those perspectives addressed the title of the full series, Slavic Soundscapes. Rather, much of the focus was on the framing of the entire program by two of the string quartets from Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Middle Period,” composed between 1806 and 1810. The evening opened with Opus 74 (“Harp”) in E-flat major, published in 1809, and concluded with the second (in E minor) of the three Opus 59 quartets dedicated to Count Andrey Kirilovich Razumovsky, all of which were composed in 1806. CSQ has had an intense interest in the Beethoven canon since their founding in 1996; and in 2012 they released a three-CD box set of the six quartets from the “Late Period.” Last night’s program was thus arranged in the context of their current preparations to record all of the “Middle Period” quartets. (For the record, however, I used my preview piece for this recital to identify the Slavic connotations of both of these quartets.)
Both of these quartets were given highly engaging accounts for which the somewhat dry acoustics of the Joe Henderson Lab well served CSQ’s respect for the intricate details of their respective scores. I found it interesting, however, that Ward chose to introduce the Opus 59 quartet with an extended riff on how difficult it was. I would not dispute any of her observations; but I would suggest that the core of those difficulties (which caused some to dismiss the piece as unplayable in Beethoven’s time) had much to do with making significant departures from what string quartet players expected to do in those days. (The workplace anthropologist Graham Button refers to these as “immutable work practices,” emphasizing that it is hard to change what you get used to doing.) Those departures involved unconventional approaches to both harmonic progressions and thematic material that can play havoc with the techniques the performers use to establish consistent intonation; but it also included departing from expected structure by, for example, giving the scherzo movement a five-part structure, rather than following the traditional ternary form that had been around for centuries.
Without dismissing the impact of Ward’s plea, I would observe that, for all of the unexpected thorns in this quartet that can stab unwitting performers, there is an underlying rhetoric of prankishness that pervades the entire quartet and takes Beethoven’s capacity for wit, first cultivated through his encounter with Joseph Haydn, to a new level. My choice of noun comes from Walter Kaufmann’s translation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols or, How One Philosophizes with a Hammer. The Preface for this book has the punch line:
Nothing succeeds if prankishness has no part in it.
Indeed, this proposition is reinforced by the book’s subtitle.
This book has been as provocative to many readers as Opus 59 has been to string quartet players. However, I would suggest that taking a prankish stance to the whole affair provides a context in which all those thorns of grammatical and structural oddities (or aggravations) can be blunted. If we can imagine Beethoven arching one of his eyebrows above an eye with a slight twinkle in it, in contrast to the scowling figure we encounter in so many portraits, we may be willing to grant that the overall tone of rhetoric signifies more than all those frustrating lower-level details. The spirit of prankishness provides a guiding light to the complex labyrinth of all those marks Beethoven put on music paper.
That spirit can also be found in Opus 74. Indeed, it is often far more explicit, as in the plucked “harp” melody that blithely bounces from one instrument to another. Thus, having established the humor of the situation in the exposition of the first movement, Beethoven prepares the listener to follow him as he takes it over the top in the bridge leading to the recapitulation. This emerges as even more of a belly-laugh moment than the off-key entry of the horn in the recapitulation of the first movement of the Opus 55 (“Eroica”) symphony in E-flat major, which also dates from 1806.
Both of these quartets also revisit another one of Beethoven’s favorite rhetorical devices, which is the impact of silence. This may well be another device he picked up from Haydn; but he pursued it in much greater depth throughout his career, going all the way back to the Opus 2 piano sonatas (which he dedicated to Haydn). Both quartets on last night’s program have silent moments that resonate (so to speak), often with greater impact than full-strength dynamics. This is where those dry acoustics of the Joe Henderson Lab had their greatest impact, and CSQ showed a keen sense of how to exploit those conditions to the fullest. The result was that, whatever frustrations Ward may have expressed, both quartets made for engaging performances encouraging listening experiences grounded in an exciting sense of discovery.
That rhetoric of silence also played a major role in the one composition performed between the two Beethoven selections, Béla Bartók’s second string quartet. This is highly expressive music in which each movement has its own unique character type. Ironically, Stone’s introductory remarks complemented Ward’s in recalling that his first encounter with Bartók’s music (as a student) was extremely negative. Fortunately, he got beyond his initial aversion.
In many respects one may say that, through this quartet, Bartók was finding his way into a new language of expression, departing from conventions as Beethoven had done during his “Middle Period.” Yet, as I observed, he shared Beethoven’s respect for how silence can often have more impact than sound. However, Bartók tends to be more inclined to expressing tragedy through silence, as in the heartbreaking conclusion of the final movement of the second quartet. This is all the more profound, since it is preceded by a scherzo that seems to be carrying on Beethoven’s torch of prankishness. Thus, what sustains this quartet, and what CSQ captured so admirably in their performance, is its recognition that human nature encompasses a broad spectrum of moods. Music theorists can go to town in teasing out the structural details of this score, but what matters most is the skill with which Bartók conveyed through music the complexity of his own humanity.
(It is worth noting, as a sidebar, that, following Beethoven, the nineteenth century never produced a composer who achieved Beethoven’s either the depth or breadth of expression through the string quartet genre. The twentieth century produced two of them. Bartók composed only six quartets, but they remain as significant in the literature as the full Beethoven canon. The other composer is, of course, Dmitri Shostakovich, whose fifteen quartets constituted “the story of his soul,” in the words of his widow, told by a man for whom setting such matters into words would have been a dangerous activity. Shostakovich will “have his say” at the next Salon Series concert in January.)