Composer Paul Pellay writes about the Kreutzer Quartet Concert at Wilton’s Music Hall 16 6 15
A few weeks ago, as I prepared to return home after one of my semi-annual trips to Memphis, I stated that I was feeling “Beethovened out” after witnessing a solid if not quite transcendent Beethoven night at Cannon with the MSO: the Triple Concerto got a very good performance, and the 9th was………well, sturdy and dependable, to be sure, but also rather glib and fussy (I was reliably informed that the performance at GPAC the following day was a substantial improvement).
After last night, I may be reconsidering this stance. I was in London at Wilton’s for one of the Kreutzer 4tet’s invariably thought-provoking programmes, which in the last year or two have revolved around Beethoven’s string quartets. This was the last of a series that focused on the Razumovskys, and last night it was the turn of the big F major 4tet, with the Grosse Fuge as a very knotty side dish indeed. And within this seriously meaty menu there was still room for more Beethoven in the shape of the slow movement of the B flat Piano Sonata op.22 in an unassumingly idiomatic arrangement by David Matthews. With all that Beethoven on the programme, you would imagine people reacting adversely to the prospect of also having to accommodate Webern’s gnomically acerbic Bagatelles op.9 and the premiere of Roger Redgate’s intransigent 4th Quartet, right? Guess what: you’d imagine dead wrong! Wilton’s was full last night, and some of the loudest plaudits were directed at the Redgate. I gather that Redgate had taken the Webern as a point of departure for his work, and one could sense the connection, but with an added layer of harmonic, rhythmic and textural complexity in its three tight, densely packed movements (I gather there are some more movements to come for this work, and the fact that we were witnessing the unveiling of a work still in progress brought an additional frisson to the proceedings, and not just to me, I’m sure). The main difference between it and the Webern, to my ears, is one of focus. The Webern has always struck me as being scarifyingly neon-lit, every detail in harsh, pitiless relief, out in the open, nowhere to hide, no margin for error. Some of those elements clearly animate the Redgate too, but the aim felt different. Within a framework hardly more expansive than the Webern, I felt there was a great deal more incidence, the eruptions coming thick and fast with no time to “properly” register it all (“properly” in inverted commas because to me, this was precisely what Redgate intended). The strongest image for me came at the very end: after another of those “what in the world was that?” bursts, a unison line on all 4 players seemed to want to materialise, but shrouded as it was in glissandi and quarter-tones, it remained tantalisingly out of focus, and just as one began to realise that, it vanished before our very ears into one of the more dumbfounded silences that I’ve experienced in a concert hall. It didn’t last long, though: the audience, which was of all ages, went bananas with cheers and whistles (I could imagine some of the more staid Memphis Symphony patrons winding up either ashen with uncomprehending shock or white with speechless fury!).
So, how does Beethoven fit into this? One would assume that after the evanescent asperities of Herr Webern and Mr. Redgate, he would come to restore sanity, right? Wrong again, Bucko! The Grosse Fuge remains the most cussedly modern music that Beethoven was ever to write, the most ferociously youthful and indomitably radical 190-year-old music in existence, and music which will fight tooth and nail any string quartet nuts enough to attempt it! And the Kreutzers were most definitely spoiling for a fight!! When talking to Peter Sheppard Skaerved afterwards, we were concluding that the instruments on which this music would sound “right” have not been invented yet. But the string quartet is what this work is stuck with, and as “wrong” as this music sounds on a string quartet, it sounds wronger still in any other guise, be that string orchestra (where the plushness of its sound is rather like trying to apply rouge and mascara to a raging tiger) or Beethoven’s own adaptation for piano duet as op.134, which once famously caused Alfred Brendel and Daniel Barenboim to get their cufflinks disastrously locked together mid-performance!
But the big surprise for me was the F major Razumovsky, and I’ll admit that this was the first time I really gave myself the chance to listen to it properly. The initial reception to this work when it was new oscillated between the feeling that Beethoven had lost his marbles or he was playing a very complicated and sadistic prank on players and listeners alike. The truth is neither (or somewhere between those two poles, which comes down to the same thing): Beethoven was cutting the rulebook into tiny squares and reassembling it together in a wholly different order, like some crazed mosaic. It would explain (NOT rationalise) the mad games he plays throughout with forms, the fact that all four instruments are all over the map (with an insanely acrobatic 1st violin part), and the sense that everyone, players and listeners alike, is walking a tightrope without a safety net. Peter put it best: it’s “barking mad” all right, but it was cooked up by a mind sane enough to know that it could get away with murder to begin with! Next to this, the Webern and Redgate were paragons of logic and rationality – but logic and rationality of a very elevated kind indeed.
And that is really why I may not be “Beethovened out” after all. I just needed to have him seize me once more by the scruff of the neck and talk some “anti-sense” to me. To be aware once more of the sheer insanity in how he changed the course of music, and how he remains vital and imperative 2 centuries on. And I have to wonder why I didn’t feel that with the Ninth back in May. Was it the performance? Maybe: but that’s just part of the story, and I wonder if it’s even the greater part. After all, the Ninth is a work I’ve known and loved since early childhood, and a great performance of it can still set my pulse racing like few works I know. However, that performance has to penetrate all the way down to the madness that made such music possible in the first place. If we approach it as just something “safe” and “traditional”, in the spirit of “giving the people [whoever the hell they are] what they want [whatever the hell that is]”, aren’t we diminishing both the music and the way we COULD respond to it? If we realised that and approached music as the eternally new territory that it truly represents for the human mind and spirit, it might stop us from viewing it as just “entertainment” and we might come closer to seeing it as the unimaginably rich, complex and necessary component of the human condition that it surely is.
There’ll be more for me to say on this at some point, I’m sure. Much more. But for the moment, I can only say: Danke Schön, Ludwig! (and thanks also to Anton Webern and Roger Redgate, while I’m at it, and to the Kreutzer 4tet for provoking this barely coherent barrage!)
Copywright: Paul Pellay 2015