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The Alexander String Quartet informatively juxtaposes early and late Beethoven

The members of the Alexander String Quartet: Zakarias Grafilo, Frederick Lifsitz, Paul Yarbrough, and Sandy Wilson
The members of the Alexander String Quartet: Zakarias Grafilo, Frederick Lifsitz, Paul Yarbrough, and Sandy Wilson
by Rory Earnshaw, from the Alexander String Quartet Web site

Yesterday evening’s recital in the Salon series of concerts presented by San Francisco Performances at the Hotel Rex featured the Alexander String Quartet. The program they prepared coupled one of Ludwig van Beethoven’s earliest published string quartets (the sixth, in B-flat major, in his Opus 18 set) with his final published quartet, Opus 135 in F major. One might think that this would be a program of the contrast of extremes; but, as Paul Yarbrough observed in his brief introductory remarks, it was also a study in parallels.

The parallel that Yarbrough emphasized concerned they way in which darkness intrudes on the usual optimistic rhetoric associated with the major key. In the Opus 18 quartet, it appears as the opening Adagio of the final movement, where it is given the title “La Malinconia” (melancholy) and it subsequently returns to interrupt the sunny rhetoric of the Allegretto quasi Allegro that follows. In Opus 135 it also introduces the final movement (this time Grave, ma non troppo tratto); and it also interrupts the following Allegro. However, this time both parts of the movement are based on a “motto” theme that reflects a fragment of text. The introduction asks the question “Muss es sein?” (must it be); and the Allegro replies with strong affirmation “Es muss sein!” (it must be). One may imagine that this was Beethoven recognizing that he would not live much longer, but it could just as easily be the culminating philosophy of a man who had lived a full life and could embrace acceptance of whatever would come next.

While this was the only example of a parallel between the two quartets that Yarbrough gave, there is another that is just as likely to strike the attentive listener. Both the Scherzo of the Opus 18 quartet and the Vivace movement in Opus 135 are highly syncopated, so much so that they almost lack a clear sense of rhythm in all but a few sporadic bursts. When he was composing Opus 18, Beethoven was probably familiar with the many cleverly eccentric ways in which his teacher, Joseph Haydn, could make use of syncopation; so the Opus 18 movement could well be one of the many examples of Beethoven trying to outdo his teacher. By the time of Opus 135, however, he did not have to think about outdoing anyone else; so it is likely that he returned to this example of “extreme syncopation” simply for the pleasure of seeing where it would lead him.

A cynic might read those last two paragraphs and conclude that Beethoven was playing the same tricks at the end of his life that he was when he was first trying to establish his reputation. I prefer to think that, like any good “maker,” Beethoven had a “toolbox.” Over the years of work, he would inevitably add tools to the box; but he would never discard any. Thus, as he saw the end of his life approaching, it is understandable that he should open up the box and dig out some of his “older friends” to refresh his memories of “the feel of using them.” In other words, while Opus 135 may not have been conceived as a reflection back on Opus 18, it could still have provided an occasion to do new work with old tools.

Those who read this site regularly know that, once again, I am writing about Beethoven as a working musician, not to be confused with that ghastly scowling statue in the Beethovenplatz monument that was completed in 1880. As I see it, the world spent the entire twentieth century in the thrall of an almost (perhaps not almost, after all) hero-worship of Beethoven; and, more than a hundred years on, it is damned well about time we get over such foolishness. The fact that Beethoven was a consummate craftsman, always challenging himself as much as he challenged those who would play his music, should be sufficient to establish his greatness without trying to add apotheosis to the mix,.

From that point of view, I would say that the Alexander String Quartet provides us with a healthy standard for approaching Beethoven in the 21st century. They understand their history, they appreciate the value of working with well-edited editions, but, most of all, they bring a fresh immediacy to their performances. This delivers, loud and clear, the message that the very act of making music must always rise above even the most intense acts of studying it. In that context the Salon Room of the Hotel Rex was an ideal setting for those acts of making music, providing just the right level of intimacy through which the nuances of an in-the-moment experience could best be appreciated.

This kind of recital does more to honor Beethoven than any oversized monument ever will.