Last year, New York City classical music station WQXR declared November to be “Beethoven Awareness Month.” This year’s iteration will include a live 12-hour marathon of the composer’s complete string quartets a week from today.
Here in Western New York, however, classical audiences got an early jump on the Beethoven quartet bash this weekend, with the opening concerts of the 2012-13 Slee/Beethoven String Quartet Cycle – a tradition that goes all the way back to 1955, beginning with the Budapest String Quartet.
The American String Quartet (which also will be among the performers at the WQXR event) presented the first two programs of the six-concert cycle in the University at Buffalo’s Lippes Concert Hall on Friday and Saturday.
The quartet – comprised of violinists Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney, violist Daniel Avshalomov and cellist Wolfram Koessel – is a group of supreme talent, each player possessing the intuition and sensitivity toward the others’ performances that are needed to communicate the intimacy and exuberance of Beethoven’s music.
In Saturday’s concert – despite the players’ obvious chemistry – the opening minutes of “Quartet in E-flat Major” (also known as “The Harp”) felt rigid, almost mechanical.
This lack of musical fluidity even briefly manifested itself physically. The American String Quartet quickly overcame this, however.
In the first movement, the potency of Beethoven’s music was unfurled through the subtle expansion and contraction of the sound: in one moment the phrase swelled with expression, the harmonies taking on a monumental gravity bigger than the written notes on the page.
In the ensuing moments, with the instrumentation suddenly scaled back, the emotiveness contracted, leaving the listener with the elegant simplicity of the melody.
In the third movement of “The Harp,” the explosive vigor of the ensemble was particularly noteworthy; the execution of Beethoven’s locomotive phrases was sublime. The quartet then immediately converted that focused energy into lithe and adroit finger work.
The second work of the evening, the “Quartet in G Major,” provided stately contrast and awe-inspiring, clarion tones from high on the fingerboard of Peter Winograd’s violin. Perhaps more so than in most quartets, each player’s individual energy seemed to have an infectious, even cumulative effect on the others.
In the final movement (‘Allegro molto, quasi presto’), the musicians exhibited an expert sense of pacing that felt unforced and organic, even as the passages flew by in flashes.
Comparatively speaking, “Quartet in C-sharp minor” bore a weary realism, a knowing pathos that the program’s first two compositions lacked – though the intensity from earlier in the evening was no less apparent. (At one point, Winograd left his seat to emphasize specific down-bow).
From Beethoven’s Late Period, the work boasted frequent and engaging imitative interplay between the instruments.
The musical result was spry and puckish; the American Quartet had shown to the audience the playful and witty Beethoven – a rarely observed side to the composer that is at odds with the stereotypical perception of the man.