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Climbing Mount Beethoven

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Jul 2nd, 2018

Weigang Li, Yi-Wen Jiang, Nicholas Tzavaras, founder Honggang Li

Last Sunday at Music Mountain’s Gordon Hall, The Shanghai Quartet performed the fourth concert of six concerts featuring the complete cycle of Ludwig van Beethoven’s string quartets. They opened with String Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 74 (1809), nicknamed “Harp” because of its modest use of pizzicato. I confess I am not a fan of pizzicato as such because it is difficult to evenly sustain its dynamics which can become repetitive, yet this gamut was accomplished with expert precision. There was much drama about beginnings and halts, a kind of fragmentation that remains unusual and experimental for its day. Yet this quartet was both Classical and Romantic, especially in the extraordinary flights of heart-piercing lyric beauty conjured by Weigang Li on first violin. Perhaps Beethoven’s use of predominantly Italian material was to show Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), now living in Vienna, how much better a talented German composer can raise Italian material to new Romantic heights. Weigang Li certainly took us there.

Beethoven’s String Quartet in A major, Op. 18 # 5 (1799), while a decade older, features a similar over-going of material in his hands, but in this case of Mozart’s famous quartet in A major, K.464. My friends thought that The Shanghai Quartet had played with greater unity, an impression I embraced, yet I thought that the very nature of the preceding quartet precluded the tight unity of this composition.

There was a greater role here for cellist Nicholas Tzavaras and ample opportunity for him to shine as he did with his resonant sonorities. In the third movement Honggang Li on viola was fabulous. Yi-Wen Jiang on second violin contributed with fierce support of 1/16th notes in the second and fourth movements where Beethoven altered textures and dynamics within the Classical tradition, which he was branding with his innovations, as he was questioning those traditional structures of the Classical tradition. The polished cohesion and humor of this piece stood in contrast to the fragmentary explorations of the previously played piece. The quartet performed as more than the sum of its parts. The excited audience demanded two lengthy bows.  

Commentators agree that the Viennese audience of the day was puzzled by Beethoven’s String Quartet in E minor, op. 59 (1806); they don’t say why these quartets were not received well, but it is easy to “see” why. Commissioned by Count Rasumovsky, the Russian ambassador to Vienna, the work features Russian melodies unfamiliar to the German audience. Beethoven had a large collection of Russian folk melodies in book form and he was happy to plunder it and celebrate his patron.

The slow and tense opening of no. 2 plays with contrasting melodies: it is as if Beethoven sorts through prolific drafts of promising Slavic melodies. The following emotional Adagio, couched in a near-waltz of ¾ measure, playfully and poetically conjures the immense nighttime starry skies over the Russian heartland. Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov repossessed these melodies: Mussorgsky for the kingly crowning of the prince in Boris Godunov, and Rimsky-Korsakov in his celebration of Russian gypsy culture in The Tsar’s Bride.

The Allegretto digressively explores further Russian melodies to discover the E minor melody with great humor; The Shanghai Quartet caught that nimble humor to such extent that the audience spontaneously erupted in laughter, as if on cue. What was simply the obvious solution was before the composer pretending to be the buffoon. The concluding Presto, the depiction of a diplomatic carriage with a large team of horses racing from Vienna to Moscow with the latest diplomatic gossip to the news-starved hinterland of Moscow, supplies a simple comic unity that raises a smile, since everyone enjoys a good race.

While Beethoven began with illustrating exotic foreign material, all is reduced to an accessible motif that anyone can comprehend, even the unsteady bloke at the pony track. My Slavic friend thoroughly enjoyed the powerful unity of The Shanghai Quartet’s performance: what my friend called the “roundness” of this powerful conclusion where four instruments sounded like at least six roaring at full tilt down the homestretch.

The sold-out audience was on its feet in appreciative delirium. Even if one does not understand everything Beethoven does, his music is still accessible at some level to everyone—just like Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, or Pushkin in literature. Perhaps Beethoven is like all of those geniuses wrapped into one and that is why all music lovers want more Beethoven. There are two more performances left in this magical series at Music Mountain .