MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Juilliard String Quartet’s Moving Late Beethoven at Meany Center

Juilliard String Quartet, The Juilliard School, Wednesday, May 4, 2022. Credit Photo: Erin Baiano

Soon after I wrote about the Juilliard String Quartet (JSQ) for Strings magazine on the occasion of its 75th-anniversary season last year, Roger Tapping’s illness worsened; the beloved violist, who had played with the ensemble since 2013, died in January 2022. One of the programs the JSQ had planned for the anniversary centered around Beethoven’s Op. 130 Quartet in B-flat major and had already been postponed from its originally intended performance during the 2020 homages to the composer. That program, titled “Cavatina,” was finally presented on November 15 at the University of Washington’s Meany Center for the Performing Arts.

Molly Carr, who had been mentored by Tapping, was welcomed into the ensemble in May as the late violist’s successor. They are currently in the midst of a West Coast tour for the first time in this new formation: Areta Zhulla and Ronald Copes, violins; Molly Carr, viola; and Astrid Schween, cello. With this personnel, the JSQ will bring the “Beethoven “Cavatina” program back home to New York at the end of the month at Alice Tully Hall — exactly a year after it had originally been scheduled.

The concept behind “Cavatina” involves an intriguing blend of an enigmatic and unfathomably profound repertoire monument — for some, the most excellent of Beethoven’s quartets — with music by a living composer who has a valuable perspective to offer on his predecessor.

The JSQ juxtaposed Beethoven’s massive work from 1825-26 with a pair of string quartets by the prominent German composer Jörg Widmann that they had commissioned as commentary pieces on Op. 130; they concluded the challenging program with a performance of the Op. 133 Grosse Fuge, which Beethoven initially intended to serve as the finale of Op. 130.

Ronald Copes offered a brief but eloquent introduction to the project that explained its newly acquired layer of significance as a memorial for their late colleague Roger Tapping. During its first decades starting in the mid-20th century, under founding member Robert Mann’s guidance, the JSQ had firmed up its reputation as an intellectually inclined, Modernist powerhouse, its Beethoven refracted through the lens of Bartók, for example. In some ways, this performance suggested a radical reset — and an attempt to recreate the sheer strangeness and enigma Beethoven’s late quartets must have posed to his contemporaries. The musicians emphasized the principle of contrast — so astoundingly different from High Classical contrast — that makes Beethoven sound perennially experimental.

This was especially evident in their pacing of the pauses and unison attacks in the long first movement and the eccentric humor they brought out in the dance movements. The fifth-movement Cavatina became the axis around which this gigantic quartet revolved, and it inspired the most directly emotional playing I’ve heard from the Juilliards. Copes memorably described the heartbreak in this music as “Beethoven trying to control the sadness.” Their account, unsentimental but not stoic, was exceptionally moving, the players breathing together as one organism. The return to earth in the later, more modest finale Beethoven designed for Op. 130 brought to mind the mechanism of release Bach inserts in the Goldberg Variations, near the very end of the journey, with the Quodlibet: a new acceptance of the reality of ordinary life, which of course can never be perceived in the same way after what has just been experienced.

The evening’s second half presented the two new Widmann quartets. I couldn’t determine where these were first premiered — apparently at some point earlier this season — but the commission had been a special passion project of Roger Tapping. The first, Widmann’s Quartet No. 8 (Beethoven Study III) is in three movements and explodes into life as a meditation on the energy and strangeness of Op. 130. What Widmann accomplishes isn’t a sterile deconstruction or postmodern round dance about a defined parameter but a provocative reimagining. As the JSQ attempted through their primary account of Op. 130, Widmann’s musical response seeks to recreate the utter weirdness of Beethoven’s late quartets when they were first introduced. Pleasures abounded in the JSQ’s performance, such as listening to Widmann’s rethink of the core principle of variation with a “permanent calling into question of assertions.” The final movement ended with the sound of an impossible lightness, like a balloon let go to drift upward into invisibility.

Widmann has actually composed five quartets he calls “Beethoven Studies” (his String Quartets Nos. 6-10), which are somehow tethered to Op. 130. The last of these (Cavatina — Beethoven Study V), also commissioned by the JSQ, concludes this cycle with a reflection on Beethoven’s Adagio movement — “one of the most emotional movements ever written by Beethoven,” as Widmann puts it, with a certain degree of understatement. In contrast to the structural intricacies and playful games of his Quartet No. 8, he lets loose in this single-movement work with “a free form of ardent singing and flowing,” in the composer’s words, “marking the conclusion of the cycle which grapple so vehemently and sensuously with the cosmos of Beethoven’s quartets.”

Beethoven was famously persuaded to publish the Grosse Fuge as a standalone piece, replacing it with a much shorter, dance-like, and definitively lighter-hearted finale — the revised finale we had heard on the first half of the program (which is the last piece of music the composer completed before his death in 1827, aside from various sketches). In their rendition of the Grosse Fuge that concluded the program, the JSQ lost some of the focus that had made Op. 130 so riveting. Perhaps this was in itself an interpretive choice, but to this listener the unrelenting, raw thrust of Beethoven’s writing gave way to unexpectedly smoother edges.

Filed under: chamber music, review, string quartet

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