November 23, 2022


Beethoven: String Quartets, Volume 3—Op. 127; Op. 130; Op. 131; Op. 132; Op. 135; Grosse Fuge, Op. 133. Dover Quartet (Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violins; Milena Parajo-van de Stadt, viola; Camden Shaw, cello). Cedille. $32 (3 CDs).

Eren Gümrükçüoğlu: Pandemonium; Pareidolia; Bozkir; Ordinary Things; Lattice Scattering; Xanthos; Asansör Asȉmptotu. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Edward Cowie: Particle Partita; Basho Meditations; Stream and Variations; Kandinsky; Kandinsky’s Oboe. Métier. $18.99.

     If the Dover Quartet were to be rated on the traditional corporate/academic scale, it would consistently get a ranking of “exceeds expectations” – which is quite an accomplishment, since each of the quartet’s recordings raises the expectations for the next one, and the performers then go ahead and surpass those raised expectations. This is no small feat in any repertoire, and is an even greater accomplishment when it comes to the quartets of Beethoven – which mount in subtlety, complexity, performance difficulty and needed emotional engagement by performers and audience alike from the early Op. 18 ones through the middle group to the extraordinary late quartets. What is interesting in the Dover Quartet’s cycle is how the group itself seems to change its collective personality as the music progresses. The early quartets were fleet and vivacious, lively and bubbly, thoroughly Mozartean with touches of Haydn here and there – but with the unique characteristics of Beethoven’s style clearly emerging. The middle quartets, more serious and expressive, were treated to exceptional precision of ensemble and a highly appealing balance between technical mastery and a feeling of spontaneous music-making – such a feeling really being attainable only through deep study, contemplation and rehearsal. The pervasive natural feeling of these performances – again, attainable only through careful study and attentiveness to the music – is exceptional. Each of the late quartets leaves an entirely different impression here, but in every case the audience is left with a sense of inevitability about what the Dover Quartet offers: the tempos seem just right, the ensemble passages beautifully balanced, the individual instruments’ contributions structured exactly as they should be to complement those of the group as a whole. Thus, the introspective Op. 127 is a highly moving experience and an emotionally touching one. Op. 130 is more poised and elegant, with the individual characteristics of each of its six movements brought out superbly – yet kept within a kind of “story arc” encompassing the entire work. This is the quartet whose original finale was published separately as the Grosse Fuge, and the layout of this three-CD Cedille release makes both the connection to the finished quartet and the distinction from it clear: Op. 130 is on the first disc and the Grosse Fuge starts the second. The sheer heft of the fugue is what comes clear in this performance, which has a physicality about it that coexists, sometimes uneasily, with transcendence – this is a revelatory reading of the music. The Dover Quartet takes a somewhat similar approach to the seven-movement Op. 131 as the one it uses for Op. 130, allowing each movement its own form of expression within its own context and length (the third runs less than a minute, the fourth almost 14). The performers have obviously thought long and hard about the significance of Beethoven’s tempo designations for this quartet, with the notable fifth movement marked Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile – a very, very difficult combination of characteristics that comes across just the right way here: a kind of slow walking pace permeated by great expressiveness in a singing style. This was Beethoven’s favorite of his late quartets, and the performance here certainly justifies the composer’s preference. But the Dover Quartet does not neglect the somewhat lighter and more accessible Op. 132, whose charm is pervasive but whose emotional complexity is brought forward in this reading through careful attentiveness both to the work’s jovial elements and to its sentimental and rather sweet ones. As for Op. 135, the shortest and smallest-scale of these works, the Dover Quartet refuses to minimize the work or have it sound even the slightest bit inferior to the others. The final movement bears the heading “The Difficult Decision” – just what decision that might be has never been clear – but there are comparatively few interpretative or emotive difficulties in this work, compared with what the other late quartets require. And that, in a sense, is the major difficulty of the piece: to show how well it fits with the other late quartets, and with Beethoven’s late-period thinking and experience, without making the work overblown and without trying to give it greater portentousness than it in fact possesses. The Dover Quartet manages this feat by allowing the emotional elements of the final quartet to flow naturally without ever becoming heavy, resulting in a completely convincing performance that never allows Op. 135 to come across as any sort of “comedown” from the other late quartets – as it sometimes does. The Dover Quartet’s Beethoven cycle is an altogether remarkable one, certainly not definitive – no performance is or can be – but as worthy as any version of these quartets by any group of performers: it offers highly substantive performances that are strikingly effective when first heard and only grow more impressive with repeated listening. The sheer quality of playing, combined with the tremendous insight into Beethoven from which these readings flow and which they communicate to the audience, make this a must-have cycle even for listeners who are highly familiar with the music and may already have multiple versions of it in their collections.

     Beethoven’s quartets remain transcendent, unsurpassed on so many levels, nearly 200 years after the last of them was composed. But the quartet form itself retains its fascination for composers, and has evolved over the years and centuries since Beethoven’s time. There is something about the combination of four instruments – not necessarily all string instruments – that composers continue to find highly suitable for communicating matters both emotional and intellectual, including ones that are aurally about as far from Beethoven’s sound world as it is possible to get. Three of the seven works by Turkish-born composer Eren Gümrükçüoğlu (born 1982) on a (+++) New Focus Recordings CD are written for string quartet; one of the three is for expanded quartet – the usual strings plus other instruments. None of these pieces ties directly in any way to the music of Beethoven or others who focused on string-quartet composition as Haydn perfected it – but each Gümrükçüoğlu work using a string quartet still finds something of value in the interplay of four string instruments. Bozkir sounds as if the instruments are tuning up most of the time, although there is a recognizable central pitch at one point, along with some sul ponticello playing and microtones. Xanthos makes even more of the microtones, with swooping and pizzicato passages for contrast. Both these works are played by the Mivos String Quartet. The JACK Quartet performs in Pareidolia, which also includes clarinet/tenor saxophone, percussion/drum set, and synthesizers: Gümrükçüoğlu works in both acoustic and electronic environments and frequently combines them. Pareidolia is a very extended work, nearly 24 minutes long, that runs through the usual avant-garde paces of long-sustained material, complex and quickly dissipating notes, occasional regular rhythms to contrast with the mostly irregular ones, and so on. It goes on much too long to be a satisfying listening experience for anyone not already firmly committed to music of this type, although its complexity and tonal variety make it seem to be a work that performers of this sort of material will enjoy. Quartets are absent from the rest of this CD. Gümrükçüoğlu himself performs on electronics for the first and last pieces on the disc, Pandemonium and Asansör Asȉmptotu. The first of these sounds like a collection of disparate factory sounds; the second starts with individual sounds that gradually build, transform and are distorted in a variety of ways. Also on the CD is Ordinary Things, performed by the Deviant Septet – this is a political work using excerpts of speeches by Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, with musical commentary by an ensemble including clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion, violin, and double bass. Also here is Lattice Scattering, performed by Andrea Biagini on violin, Simone Nocchi on piano, and electronics – this is a sort-of-trio in which the electronic sounds constantly overshadow the acoustic ones. None of this music has any intentionality of reaching out beyond an already-committed audience that considers electronic sounds and avant-garde compositional techniques to be the ne plus ultra of modern musical experience – the quartet involvement here is deliberately designed as part of a larger sonic experience for a highly specialized “in group.”

     A (+++) Métier CD of music by Edward Cowie (born 1943) takes quartet thinking in a different direction. The one quartet piece here, Kandinsky, is for four guitars rather than the usual string complement, and is performed by the Spectrum Guitar Quartet. This is a three-movement work intended to reflect and pay tribute to artist Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). The three movements’ titles neatly encapsulate three elements of Kandinsky’s art – “Points,” “Lines,” and “Planes” – but the music does not seem particularly reflective of the titular material. A second Kandinsky-focused piece, Kandinsky’s Oboe, is for oboe solo (Christopher Redgate) and bears the same three movement titles. It actually seems more representative of what the movement titles identify as elements of Kandinsky’s productions: “Points” is staccato, “Lines” legato, and “Planes” scattered and athematic. The other works on this disc are supposed to reflect elements of physics by relating to subatomic particles. Particle Partita, for two violins (Peter Sheppard Skærved and Mihailo Trandafilovski) is an eight-movement piece that starts with “The Democritus Question,” ends with “Higgs Boson and beyond,” and in the middle deals with “Bequerel’s Radioactivity,” “Positron to Lepton,” and so forth. This is all highly esoteric and not reflected in any meaningful way in the music that Cowie writes for the violin duo – this is one of those pieces that listeners must study and understand before hearing it, so they will know what it is about and will be able to attempt to find ways in which the notes reflect the topics. The music does not really repay the level of intellectual exploration needed to discover its foundational thinking. The eight Basho Meditations for solo guitar (Saki Kato) are of more interest and in general are mercifully short (most run around one minute). The guitar writing here is well-crafted and idiomatic, and the sound gently engaging: there may be no specificity to each of the pieces, but none is really needed, the overall impression of meditative calm (with occasional interruptions) coming through clearly throughout, and the differences among the movements providing a series of pleasant aural contrasts as well as a chance to hear some fine guitar playing. At 10-and-a-half minutes, Basho Meditations is the shortest piece on the CD, less than half the length of Particle Partita or another multi-movement suite, Stream and Variations for two guitars (Kato and Hugh Millington). The two-guitar work includes a theme and eight variations. The theme is not especially notable, and the variations seem generally more concerned with pushing the guitars’ sound beyond the norm for the instruments – although occasional forays into more-traditional guitar writing, as in Variation 2, are effective. The longer pieces on this CD are rather diffuse and unfocused; only Basho Meditations effectively communicates a series of related moods that collectively amount to more than the sum of the individual movements. The quartet use here is largely incidental: Cowie’s interest in the grouping of four guitars simply reflects his general concern, in most of these pieces, for finding ways to use the guitar to express a variety of not-always-coherent themes and concepts.

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