Two nights of high musical adventure at the start of the month were reason enough
for gratitude: to the dauntless, imaginative programming and performance skills
of the Penderecki String Quartet, and to the leadership of the County Museum,
which has brought the group here repeatedly for some of the best chamber-music
events I have encountered anywhere in the world in recent years. The Penderecki
— Toronto-based despite its name – has sailed into challenging new music with
ardor and creative impulse worthy of its namesake in his own early, astonishing
years (and therefore, alas, far beyond the damping of those flames in his recent
years). On this visit, the ensemble also took on similar challenges in music from
earlier times: extraordinary works by Haydn and Beethoven in which the urge to
move beyond familiar boundaries throbbed no less powerfully. Aside from one trashy
bit easily forgotten, in fact, both programs were strictly edge-of-seat stuff.
“Surely the saddest thing ever said in notes,” wrote Richard Wagner of the opening music of Beethoven’s C-sharp minor Quartet (Opus 131), thus setting aside his own third-act Prelude to Tristan und Isolde. Here is Beethoven a year from death, illness-racked in a world swept by his music’s growing fame . . . “tapped and drained and physicked and hayseed-bathed and narcotized,” writes Joseph Kerman, “[ordering] in the string quartet what he was so pitifully unable to order in any other aspect of his existence.” The exercise of compositional power in this stupendous work grabs you in the dismal emptiness of that opening fugue with its dying falls into bleak dissonances. It releases you, also somewhat tapped and narcotized, 40 minutes later.
The dedicated performances, of which the Penderecki Quartet’s was one, jar you mightily with every one of the music changes, because those changes are like nothing that has ever happened in music before that time. C sharp to D, the squeeze over just a half-step; D grinding back to C sharp: These shifts, for 1826, represent music’s ultimate bad manners. Beethoven delivers these blows not spread throughout a classical format with four movements neatly spaced, but in a nonstop 40-minute expanse with no moment to breathe and every change delivered as a rude jolt. As well as I think I know the sequence of astonishing events in this one-of-a-kind work, I was delightedly swept away by the Penderecki performance, the explosive power of its transitions, the sublime if brief relaxations in the slow variations, the bone-crushing exuberance of its final measures.
Exactly a century separates Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite of 1926 from the tortures that produced Beethoven’s Opus 131. Recent researches in the form of newly discovered letters, fragments and manuscripts reveal that this work, too, is a document of torture, a fabric of interwoven references and messages relating to Berg’s secret affair(s), with the person or persons in question subtly identified by initials, which then become embedded in the musical themes. The score thus becomes a complicated web of clues leading toward the elaborate plotting of a love affair that, in all probability, was never fulfilled and was never even meant to be. (The final, climactic quotation from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, that epic of coitus interruptus, all but screams this out loud.)
What should be a lot more important is the beauty of the music; this, again, was
the element made most luminous by the Penderecki, intense and stirring. I know
of two ways to approach this work. One takes most seriously Berg’s capitulation,
for the first time in a large score, to the 12-tone principles of his teacher
Schoenberg, and delivers the work as proud if somewhat uptight product of Vienna
II. The other reacts more seriously to the music’s many built-in rubrics (amoroso,
estatico, giovale) and respects the urging of the title itself. I found
this a deeply moving performance, possibly the most so of my experience. It seemed
in a strange way to bridge the century between these two troubled masterworks:
the glistening, insinuating, delirious scherzi of both; the lyric urgency of their
slow movements, which takes on an almost human throb.
Witold Lutoslawski’s one String Quartet began the first program; one of Joseph Haydn’s 83 works in that medium – the C-major, Opus 54 No. 2 – began the second: works 177 years apart, once again original unto themselves. The Haydn, in fact, is quite an amazing work. Its departures from the hypothetical Rule Book of Classical Practice begin in the slow movement, wherein the first violin soars high above the quiet melodic line in a rhapsodic, Gypsy-like improvisation. They continue with the crushing dissonances in the Trio of the Minuet, not at all your basic 18th-century dancerie. They conclude when the finale, not the usual jovial sendoff, turns into a quiet, slow benediction. Expect the unexpected, Haydn tells us, and in no uncertain terms.
Lutoslawski, a frequent visitor here until his death in 1994, fashioned his String Quartet, as many of his works, on a flexible blending of chance principles and strict usage: elements not necessarily audible from out front but clear enough to musicians brave enough to work through his ideas onstage. What comes over from, say, the combination of players working simultaneously in different rhythmic variants and with changing textures, is a music of terrific emotional impact, often shading with brutal suddenness toward huge climaxes, then back to a shattering, sudden silence. It is also, as these words may suggest, not the world’s easiest music to describe. Its power, however, is beyond argument, as is its ability to bring out the best in brave performance ensembles.
Oh yes, I mentioned “trash” back there, didn’t I? That was supplied by Omar Daniel’s
Annunciation, wherein the 45-year-old Canadian composer seeks to distill,
via string quartet, color slides and some vague electronic grumbling, the moment
of the Angel Gabriel breaking the news to Mary as captured by seven Renaissance
masters. Since that particular biblical moment has inspired some of the world’s
most sublime art, as the slide show all too clearly proved, you’d think that perhaps
an upstart composer like Mr. Daniel might want to earn his spurs with a musical
setting of perhaps an R. Crumb cartoon or a Carnation Baby calendar. You’d be