“Literary Notes IV” was the fifth and last of the Carmel Quartet’s 2015-2016 commentated concert series “Strings and More”. This writer attended the English language concert/lecture on June 15th at the Jerusalem Music Centre, Mishkenot Sha’ananim. Founded in 1999, members of the quartet are Rachel Ringelstein (1st violin), Yonah Zur (2nd violin), Yoel Greenberg (viola) and Tami Waterman (‘cello). The quartet performs internationally and has been the recipient of prizes and awards. Its debut CD, including quartets and quintets of Paul Ben-Haim, was issued by Toccata Classics (2014).
This event focused on Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp major opus 131. Written 1825-1826, (its sketches occupying three times as many pages as the finished work itself) the C-sharp minor quartet was the composer’s last large-scale composition and considered by Beethoven as his greatest. Not heard in public till 1835 (Beethoven died in 1827) some private performances took place prior to the premiere, including one for Schubert on his deathbed. Dr. Yoel Greenberg, a faculty member of Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Music, spoke about Beethoven, the work and its influence on other musicians and art forms, namely cinema; he also shared his own thoughts on the work. Greenberg opened with discussion of the work’s eccentric aspects, as were typical of Beethoven’s later writing, such as the expressive but not especially comfortable key of C-sharp minor for string players and the work’s unconventional proportions – seven movements of various lengths and played with no breaks between them. Here, Beethoven, summarizing his experiments directs the flow towards the end of the piece, taking diversity, forming a coherent unity from it, and, with motivic links, has the final section alluding to the work’s opening fugue. We were reminded of what British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) had said about outstanding people – that they should behave in eccentric ways. To illustrate this idea, we then saw a few moments of “Back to the Future” III.
Following the intermission, the Carmel Quartet gave a richly detailed and articulate performance of the work, their contemplative playing of the opening Adagio (referred to by Wagner as “surely the saddest thing ever said in notes”) imbued with the colours of shifting chromaticism and contrapuntal intensity. Following the sunny, somewhat quizzical-sounding Allegro second section, the third section – here one moment, gone the next – issues in the Theme and Variations, set in the key of A-major, its simple melody referred to by Wagner as the “incarnation of innocence”. The artists dispelled any hint of simplistic scoring as they presented the rich variety of the 4th movement (theme and variations) - its hocket (the melody divided between the violins), a march, its “lullaby” section, its majestic waltz, its bizarre moments and its sublimity, with the variations becoming progressively more complex. Strangely issued in by the ‘cello, the Presto movement is a hell-for-leather journey, its trio less frenetic, the coda less than conventional in its otherworldly sul ponticello sounds. The sixth section was intensely poignant (Greenberg spoke of its melody as having a “Jewish” theme, evocative of the “Kol Nidre” melody, claiming, however, that Beethoven would probably not have been familiar with Jewish music) leading into the last section, a scene of musical utterance that is wild, confrontational but also noble. Of the final section Wagner wrote: “This is the fury of the world’s dance – fierce pleasure, agony, ecstasy of love, joy anger, passion and suffering…”
There are few string quartets more complex or enigmatic than Beethoven’s opus 131. A challenging work for players and listeners alike, Yoel Greenberg took the bull by its horns and threw light on the many elements and interest making up the work…no mean feat, and the audience was with him all the way. And yet the music itself remains baffling, defying words. It takes an ensemble of the calibre of the Carmel Quartet to finish off the lecture with Beethoven’s own personal explanation – the sounds themselves. It was an enriching, thought-provoking musical event to wind up the season.