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They made the complexities of Beethoven’s counterpoint seem easy

Planet Hugill, Robert Hugill

Late Beethoven alongside Thomas Adès from the Solem Quartet at the latest of the imaginative concert series from Spotlight Chamber Concerts at St John’s Waterloo.

For the Solem Quartet’s concert as part of the Spotlight Chamber Concerts at St John’s Waterloo on Friday 11 December 2020, the quartet combined Beethoven’s String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 130 with Thomas Adès’ The Four Quarters.

Thomas Adès’ The Four Quarters was written for the Emerson Quartet and premiered at the Carnegie Hall in 2011. The work is in four movements, Nightfalls, Serenade: Morning Dew, Days and The Twenty-fifth Hour and takes the listener through the diurnal cycle though, as we might expect from this composer, in an indirect and abstract way.

Nightfalls began with music on two different planes, quiet bright violins in a regular pattern (short, short, long) and far below these, dark viola and cello in slow harmonies. It sounded as if it had always been going on, highly evocative and magical. Throughout the movement there was a sense of the two planes coming together, coalescing and then receding, with moments of polyphonic textures coming alive with passion resulting in an intense, concentrated and thoughtful movement.

Serenade: Morning Dew was more of a scherzo with furious, brilliant pizzicatos, the players bringing an amazing sense of intensity that was almost anger to the music.

Again there was complex, polyphonic part-writing, and the complexity remained even when moving from pizzicato to arco. Days was quiet and intense, intertwining lines circling round a repeated note figure on the second violin which brought intensity. The repeated note increasingly dominated and took over the rhythm leading to powerful repeated chords, then everything unwound in highly transparent textures. Finally, The Twenty Fifth Hour, the time outside time, where we returned a high circular motion evoking the opening of the work and reminding me, somehow, of the dancing of the Sons of Morning in William Blake’s Job. The music, however, developed into something stronger and very much full power before gradually unwinding.

Beethoven’s Opus 130 quartet was written in 1826 … The composer’s conception of the form had changed, and listening to the Opus 130 quartet we are aware of how far Beethoven had taken the form from the late quartets of Haydn in just 25 years.

For Opus 130, Beethoven takes the form of a serenade by using six movements rather than the usual four, but there is nothing light or conventional about this music and throughout the performance I was struck by Beethoven’s restlessness of form. Even in movements which fit a securely conventional form, the composer never settles for long and one idea is constantly interrupting and disrupting another. You can understand why contemporaries found it puzzling, the music is a world away from the Beethoven of the Razumovsky Quartets (written in 1806) where he manipulates standard forms but always remains within them (just!).

We began with a slow introduction to draw you in, but even here Beethoven disrupts things and the fast and furious Allegro kept interrupting before it settled down into a perkily characterful movement. Yet the restlessness remained and the two compete with the players bringing a very strong contrast between the two.

They made the complexities of Beethoven’s counterpoint seem easy and obvious, making this a dialogue between friends, disagreements yes but never serious.

The Presto was not quite a Scherzo, more tightly controlled and fast, full of strong contrasts and furious energy, and the questing here even seemed to stretch to the musical structure itself as the players brought out the sense of drama. The Andante was at first graceful, but then something more characterful with a feeling of emotional dialogue in the strong contrasts. There were moments of civilised music making, but never for long with strong interruptions.

The Alla danza tedesca was a world of lyrical charm, with a more pointed enervating middle section. But we didn’t stay in this graceful world long, and the Cavatina was quiet and intense, the players bringing tension in the way they held the long lines. There was an almost hesitant quality to first violin Amy Tress’ solo moments, the feeling that the form has not quite settled. Originally Beethoven wrote a mammoth final movement, a huge fugue but that seemed too big to Beethoven’s contemporaries and it became a separate work, the Grosse Fugue Op.133, and he wrote a new, shorter movement though never heard the work in this revised form. I have heard the revised finale described as a short, light contredanse, but as played by the Solem Quartet this was anything but light. True, there was an endlessly inventive, rather perky dance with moments of sly wit, but the form was again constantly questing and each time the dance settled it would develop into something more challenging, complexity or passion would break out before the dance returned.

In this music, Beethoven seems to be searching for a new type of form. Perhaps, as commentators say, his deafness led him to new areas. Or perhaps his illness led him to feel that he simply did not have time to stick to conventional niceties, but needed to explore territories of his own. The music certainly divided Beethoven’s contemporaries, one said ‘we know there is something there, but we do not know what it is’ whilst the composer Louis Spohr referred to ‘indecipherable, uncorrected horrors’. Quite simply, Beethoven didn’t just break the rules, he made new ones and damned the consequences.

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