May 19, 2016
(++++) A CYCLE FOR OUR TIME
Beethoven: The Early String Quartets. Cypress String Quartet (Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violins; Ethan Filner, viola; Jennifer Kloetzel, cello). AVIE. $26.99 (2 CDs).
Beethoven: The Middle String Quartets. Cypress String Quartet (Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violins; Ethan Filner, viola; Jennifer Kloetzel, cello). AVIE. $39.99 (3 CDs).
Beethoven: The Late String Quartets. Cypress String Quartet (Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violins; Ethan Filner, viola; Jennifer Kloetzel, cello). Cypress Quartet. $39.99 (3 CDs).
Twenty years is, or is not, a very long time in musical life, depending on how you define the two decades. The Budapest String Quartet lasted half a century (1917-1967), but metamorphosed substantially over the years – which leads to the old philosophical conundrum that asks, if you start with a wooden boat and replace its planks one by one over the years, until eventually not a single original plank remains, is it still the same boat? Other quartets have also shown impressive longevity, but the Cypress String Quartet, which has remained intact for the full 20 years of its existence, is impressive for retaining the same membership from start to finish. And it is concluding its remarkable two-decade run in a style befitting an ensemble that takes its name from Dvořák’s set of 12 love songs for string quartet, Cypresses, created in 1887 from his 1865 set of 18 love songs (some for tenor, some for baritone). That is, just as the Dvořák work from which the quartet sourced its name has great beauty and a complex history, so the quartet itself offers performances that mix lovely sound with amazing precision of playing and a highly personal but always justifiable view of the music it performs. The sonic beauty comes both from the players’ skill and from their instruments, which include Stradivarius (1681) and Carlo Bergonzi (1733) violins, a recent excellent viola by Vittorio Bellarosa (1947), and an Amati cello (1701). The dazzling ensemble work comes from Cecily Ward, Tom Stone, Ethan Filner and Jennifer Kloetzel themselves.
It is altogether fitting that the Cypress String Quartet has chosen to end its many seasons of excellence by completing the recording of a Beethoven cycle that began in 2012 with its self-released recording of the late quartets and continued in 2014 with AVIE’s release of the middle group. The decision to start with the enormous difficulty and complexity of the late music and conclude with the comparative simplicity and straightforwardness of the Op. 18 quartets seems odd on its face, but the Cypress String Quartet brings it off with great beauty and a real sense of élan. One of the difficulties of playing comparatively early Beethoven lies in trying to perform the music as if the composer’s later works had not yet been written – a real problem when it comes to, for example, the first two symphonies and the earlier piano sonatas. The Cypress String Quartet turns this concern on its head: the players find in the Op. 18 quartets many of the signs of the mature Beethoven, treating them as an alloy of Classical-era poise with proto-Romantic emotion and the kind of dramatic expressiveness that pervades Beethoven’s music. Far from throwbacks, the Op. 18 quartets emerge in this reading as genuinely transitional works, their cohesive musical arguments beautifully reflected through ensemble playing that is remarkably well-controlled and that highlights, again and again, musical details that collectively stamp these quartets as masterful productions bound only loosely to the Haydn works that in some ways they closely parallel. This becomes very clear from the start – literally from the opening of Op. 18, No. 1, when the initial unison declaration contrasts exactly as it should with the fragmentation that ensues. Coupled with this quartet’s deeply felt second movement, this performance encapsulates the Cypress String Quartet’s always-excellent balance of technical skill with emotional involvement. And so it is throughout the early-quartets recording. For another example, the performers throw themselves into the rhythmic uncertainty of the Scherzo of Op. 18, No. 6, turning the movement into a combination of challenge and fun, and then move to a “La Malinconia” finale in which they have clearly taken to heart Beethoven’s admonition that the movement must be played with the utmost delicacy.
The early-quartets release neatly ties up a Beethoven cycle that is very much of the 21st century even though the Cypress String Quartet plays primarily on historic instruments. The exceptional ensemble playing and clarity of lines in the fast movements are thoroughly contemporary, although this does not mean the performances are in any way rushed: the faster movements of the three Razumovsky quartets, Op. 59, for example, are quick but scarcely speedy. The players’ willingness to make a strong contrast between fast movements and slow ones also has a modern edge to it – the Razumovsky quartets are, again, good examples of this. But the Cypress String Quartet never seeks modernity of approach for its own sake. The heroic sweep of its playing, the constant ebb and flow of tension, the careful, incremental buildup of emotional impact, are all characteristics that the Cypress String Quartet shares with other first-rate ensembles that have produced outstanding Beethoven cycles. The care with which these performers seek out the overall structure and intended impact of Bethoven’s quartets is remarkable. Thus, the “Harp” quartet, Op. 74, gets an emphatically lyrical interpretation here, a sense of looking ahead to the Romantic era, albeit in a touching rather than deeply felt sense. The “Serioso,” Op. 95, on the other hand, gets a reading as serious as its title (which, unlike “Harp,” comes from Beethoven himself). Drama pervades this performance, but as in the “Harp” is not overdone or pushed too hard in a Romantic direction: there is nothing self-consciously gloomy here, but much that is expressive and a great deal that is entertaining despite the music’s underlying gravity.
The Cypress String Quartet’s late-Beethoven release takes some chances – indeed, recording this part of the Beethoven cycle before the others was chancy in itself. Somewhat surprisingly, there is absolutely no lack of maturity here, no sense that the performers tried to ascend these heights perhaps a bit too soon and would have done better to record the 16 quartets chronologically, as is more typically done. Indeed, there is truly remarkable attentiveness in these performances to Beethoven’s phrasing, articulation and dynamics, an understanding that even these astonishing quartets contain movements that require a very light touch indeed (for instance, the Presto of Op. 130 and Vivace of Op. 135). Furthermore, there is tremendous drive and excitement in this performance of the Grosse Fuge, with the players showing the work’s rhythms to be genuinely obsessive (and, tellingly, offering the Grosse Fuge before the alternative finale rather than afterwards, as many quartets used to and some still do). The real question for listeners in this late-quartet recording is whether they will feel that the quartet members, in their determination to deliver masterful performances, may have overthought elements of the music. The finale of Op. 127, for instance, although beautifully played, is a bit lacking in expressivity, and the theme and variations of Op. 131 seem rather carefully artful – a studied simplicity might have served the music better. But not much better, and in many ways that is the point. Any performance, any recording of Beethoven’s quartets can be nitpicked by those so inclined, and every lover and admirer of this music will have an internally idealized version of it that results in all performances seeming, as in Plato’s famous cave metaphor, like reflections of an ideal rather than the ideal itself. And so be it. One of the great joys of the Beethoven quartets is that they are amenable to an infinite number of interpretations, with well-thought-out ones like those of the Cypress String Quartet standing among the very best without being considered, or needing to be considered, the last word. One example among many here: the vision of the players for the Op. 130 quartet, including the Grosse Fuge, is of pervasive dance. This is a fascinating way to see the quartet (and even carries through to the alternative finale). This view sets this music in the historic line of Baroque suites, especially Bach’s, while at the same time giving it a cohesiveness that those suites never had or were intended to have – and a stylization of the included dances that looks forward to the 20th century and beyond. Is this the “right” way to see this music? No, but it is a right way, and that is true of every single one of the Cypress String Quartet’s Beethoven recordings. Each of them is beautifully played, attentive to Beethoven’s tempo and dynamic markings, clear and intense and transparent in sound (abetted by the recordings themselves, all of which are very fine). And each of them offers these musicians’ wholly personal, wholly convincing views of music that every listener will ultimately experience in his or her own wholly personal way. The completion of the Cypress String Quartet’s Beethoven cycle is not only the capstone of the cycle itself but also an absolutely fitting, crowning achievement of the quartet’s remarkable two-decade performing history.