Arts & Events

New Esterházy Quartet Plays Beethoven’s Late Quartets at Berkeley’s Hillside Club

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday August 28, 2015 - 04:28:00 PM

Locally based, The New Esterházy Quartet offered on Wednesday, August 26, at Berkeley’s Hillside Club the first of three concerts dedicated to Beethoven’s Late String Quartets. This series of concerts presents a wonderful opportunity for Bay Area listeners to hear an internationally acclaimed string quartet perform the monumental late quartets of Beethoven’s mature musical genius. Moreover, Berkeley’s Hillside Club, now nearly 100 years old in its present form, having been rebuilt in 1924 after the disastrous fire of 1923, is a small, 100-seat concert hall with excellent acoustics, and it offers the best possible venue for listening to chamber music. I cannot insist strongly enough on this point. Chamber music should not be played in cavernous auditoriums such as Zellerbach Hall, where I happened to hear the Takács Quartet play Beethoven’s Quartet in B-flat, Op. 130 last December. That experience was less than satisfying. (See my review of Dec. 14, 2014 in these pages.) 

This same Beethoven quartet, as performed by The New Esterházy Quartet in their opening concert in the current series, could hardly have been more rewarding. In the intimate confines of the Hillside Club, there was an immediacy and presence that was totally lacking when I sat near the back of Zellerbach Hall for the Takács Quartet. But that was not the only difference. I faulted the Takács Quartet for playing the opening movement of Op. 130 in far too light-hearted a manner. By contrast, The New Esterházy Quartet faithfully rendered all the brooding recollections of sorrow and suffering that underlie Op. 130’s opening Adagio. This is essential, as it fore-shadows the utterly wrenching despair of the work’s fifth movement, the remarkably somber Cavatina. Beethoven’s friend Karl Holz reported that the composer “wrote the Cavatina (‘short aria’) amid sorrow and tears; never did his music breathe so heart-felt an inspiration, and even the memory of this movement brought tears to his eyes.”  

Even in the intervening movements prior to the Cavatina, The New Esterházy Quartet’s interpretation allowed room for hints of the emotional struggles to come. Granted, the work’s second movement, a brief Presto, evokes the simple rewards of joyful music-making. However, the heavy-duty workout required of first violinist Kati Kyme in the Poco scherzoso movement suggests there are underlying issues. More-over, the next movement, designated alla danza tedesca, suggests the melancholy hidden beneath a joyful German country dance, which the composer appreciates but cannot enter into wholeheartedly in a naïve and spontaneous manner, for in his lonely isolation he lacks the sense of community such a country dance presupposes. The tragedy of the ensuing Cavatina, according to J.W.N. Sullivan, is the “yearning for the unattainable, for that close human intimacy, that love and sympathy, that Beethoven never experienced.” 

One would do well to recall that Beethoven’s original final movement for Op. 130 was the monumentally somber and demanding Grosse Fugue (usually listed as Op. 133). Although the New Esterházy Quartet decided to play the alternative finale Beethoven wrote at the urging of his publisher, who wanted something lighter and more accessible than the Grosse Fugue, (which The New Esterházy Quartet will play on Sunday, Aug. 30), the very fact that they had faithfully rendered all the brooding and sorrowful qualities in this work’s first and fifth movements, and had also hinted at the sorrows underlying the intervening movements, made their decision to play the straightforwardly affirmative finale perfectly acceptable, even rewarding. Whereas in the Grosse Fugue Beethoven went back to Bach and the basics of classical music to work out in extremely intellectual fashion the emotional issues underlying the earlier movements of Op. 130, in the alternative finale, marked Allegro, he opted for a more Classical approach that sings its affirmation in a tuneful rondo form. 

Critical response to Beethoven’s B-flat Quartet has generally been mixed. Maynard Solomon refers to it as “the most enigmatic of the late quartets.” Paul Bekker, writing in the early 20th century, found the B-flat Quartet “a suite, almost a pot-pourri, of movements without any close psychological interconnection.” On this latter point I totally disagree. To me, the psychological progression from the melancholy underlying the “alla danza tedesca” movement to the heart-wrenching suffering of the Cavatina offers the hidden key to the emotional issues at stake in this Quartet; and they are issues of loneliness and isolation. This is Beethoven, near the end of his life, looking back in anguish at all his failures to find love, and anguishing as well over the sense of isolation stemming both from his deafness and from the immense distance between his own exalted notion of music and the more pedestrian expectations of his public 

At Wednesday’s Hillside Club concert, the B-flat Quartet was not the only work performed by the New Esterházy Quartet. They opened the program with the first of Beethoven’s Late Quartets, the E-flat Quartet, Op. 127. For this work, Lisa Weiss played first violin, later trading places with Kati Kyme for the B-flat Quartet. Anthony Martin is heard on viola, and William Skeen on cello. The E-flat Quartet is Classical in structure with only four movements. It opens with heavy chords, marked Maestoso, and they are majestic indeed. The opening Allegro unfolds with lilting lyricism, which Joseph Kerman sees as the guiding impulse of this Op. 127 Quartet. The second movement, marked Adagio, opens slowly and offers ornamental variations that transform the original theme into something new. The third movement, marked Scherzo, offers the work’s only contrasting elements as it proceeds in fits and starts, and bumps its way along amidst pizzicato plucking from the first violin and viola. The finale, marked Allegro, opens with an upbeat ‘walking tune’, then offers dance rhythms that border at times on the fantastic. Toward the end, this robust sonata movement undergoes surprising key changes before returning to the home key of E-flat and rounding off this work in exultant fashion. 

The second in this series of concerts at Berkeley’s Hillside Club devoted to Beethoven’s Late Quartets is on Friday, August 28, at 8:00 pm, featuring the A-Minor Quartet, Op. 132 and the Quartet in F, Op. 135. The third and final concert is on Sunday, August 30, at 4:00 pm, featuring the Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131, and the Grosse Fugue, Op. 133.