Chamber Music /Quartet playing

Posted on November 13th, 2019 by

A week of reflection about being a quartet player. The posts will appear in reverse order, as I will place them at the top of the page each time I write

Rehearsal wrangling, composer wrangling – 17 11 19

I have performed and studied Beethoven long enough to know that, maybe 7 times out of ten, if a passage seems interestingly intractable in rehearsal (OK, I mean difficult), the problems that we might have in rehearsal, mirror the agon that Beethoven was going through in composer, and by extension, very often, things which feel like afterthoughts, ‘easy fixes’, to structural problems, are. This is not a criticism of the composer, in fact far from it, as I believe that the more ‘integrated’ a composer’s technique is, the more clarity in their writing, the more such things are evident, whereas a bad composer’s writing is so ‘muddy’ that such ‘Band-aid’ fixes are invisible in the general opacity and muddle.

Let me give an example of the former. I am still obsessing with the ‘Allegro ma non tanto;’ second movement of the quartet – and its magnificent trio section. The heart of this section of the movement is based around an aural ‘pun’: the audience is persuaded that last beat of each bar is the first beat of the next, that what is actually the upbeat to each phrase is a down beat. Here’s part of that section, from the astonishing manuscript, which is in the ‘Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin’.

Where the viola takes the melody. Op 132 Movement 2, ‘trio’ section

If you look at this, you will see that the ‘C sharp-B Sharp-C Sharp-B natural-A natural-G sharp’ figure (second bar in, starting on the third beat – viola line {3 from the top}), sounds as if begins on the first beat, not the third.

Before I go on, it’s clear that this movement had a profound effect on many composer/performers who ‘got their hands’ on it afterwards. Everytime that I play it, I start thinking about Carl Nielsen. Nielsen, was a lifelong chamber musician and quartet player, and you can see the impact of playing Beethoven’s late quartets all across his output, from the simplest things such as the incidental music for ‘Moderen’, to the arching violin lines in the 5th symphony. Look at this:

From the Allegro piacévole of Nielsen’s Second Violin Sonata

There’s simply no way for the innocent listener to know why they feel so weightless, even seasick, when they hear this. The reason is that the downbeat is not where it should be. It’s a pun, and Nielsen learnt it from Beethoven, who may well have learn it from early baroque violin music. Here’s a corner of a 9/4 gigue written in the 1690s by Johann Paul von Westhoff.

Johann Paul von Westhoff – A minor Suite. Published 1696

At first sight (despite the wonderful 8-line stave) this looks innocuous enough: if you sing or play it you will find the game – Daa-da, Daa-da, Daa WHHHATTT! The last quarter-note of the third figure is on the first beat of the 2nd bar – the whole gesture has been shunted one note to the right.

But it’s worth remembering that in chamber music, the primary function of writing like this is to elicit a response, an effect, a reaction (WHAT THE HELL), a certain poise from the players. But mainly, it’s just good fun, like playing ‘Twister’ or ‘Simon Says’ (If you are 7).

In rehearsal, the result is that, as well as the inevitable road crashes when (sorry for the Rugby analogy) a player is ‘sold the dummy’ by the placing of the material and falls all over their fingers. Cue gales of laughter/cursing. It’s a way for Beethoven to step right into the rehearsal, and demand that we ‘pay attention’ in a certain way, and he is clearly relying on the rehearsal catastrophes to get what he wants (can’t think about him in the past tense).

But go back and look at the manuscript again. Look carefully at the viola part:

Close up of the violin part. Look at the scratchings out and the squashed in extra ‘F sharp – E Sharp’ at the end of bar 2

It’s immediately clear, that when he wrote the movement out for the first time, (even though the surrounding material, which also ‘leans’ on the third beat of each bar, is correct) Beethoven has got himself tangled up in his own cat’s cradle, and has fallen into the very same thing that happens once in a while in rehearsal. The viola part was written in initially starting on the 1st beat, not the third, and then he realised the mistake, and scratched out beats 1 on the 2nd and 3rd bars shown here, and moved the beginning of bar one beat to the left, where it should be. It was only a two bar mistake, as he clearly had rectified it before he wrote in the last beat of bar three (unless he found himself looking at a 4/4 bar, scratching his head).

This is exactly what happens in rehearsal. It’s not only reassuring, but also draws the thread tighter between composition and performance. What we are able to see, in astonishing mments like this, is the composer out on the high wire, composing in front of us, and the places where he wobbles, is where we wobble. It is the music.

Rare use of a baroque technique – 16 11 19

Sorry, I seem to have become totally fixated on technical issues at this end of the week. Yesterday, I was writing about the links between Beethoven and contemporaneous virtuosos in the Austro Hungarian Empire and the Italian republics. I feel sure that I will be returning to that passage to talk about Bartok’s 3rd Quartet. But today, I would like to look back.

The final few bars of the first movement of Op 132 (Vln 1)

Here’s the end of the first movement. It’s worth noting, before I talk a little about this, Beethoven, who was as much of a showman as anything, liked to reserve moments of 1st violin display for the codas of large scale movements – throwing a virtuosic Catherine Wheel violin tantrum, he knew, goes down well. Perhaps the most profoundly beautiful of these, is the astonishing arpeggiated passage which finishes the first movement of the Op 74 Quartet sometimes called ‘The Harp’ (although curiously the French moniker is plural). The few bars I have included here are the end of a ten-bar coda; a march in Vln2, Va, and Vc, but in the first violin part, taking the form of a miniaturised capriccio/cadenza built from semitones, diminished and augmented intervals. Bars 262-264 are harmonically as simple as can be I -V-I-V-I. But the gambit that Beethoven has used, to force the violin’s dominant ‘E’ through the technique is as old as virtuoso violin playing – a ‘bariolage unison’.

Bariolage passage from Johannes Walther’s ‘Hortulus Chelicus’ 1688

‘Bariolage’ basically means an oscillation between fingered notes on one string and an ‘open’ string. It is one of the most commonly found techniques in late 17th century music, where it is most often used as a colour/sound effect, most particularly by composers such as Walther (see above), whose 1688 Hortulus Chelicus is one of the greatest large cycles for violin – a summa, if you like of the violin in the 17th Century. The most well-known instance in the commonly played canon of violin music (most violinists are extraordinarily ignorant about 17th century works) is, of course, found in the last of Bach’s E major Partita -like Walther and Beethoven, this against the open E string (which on gut or wire offers the most brilliant result)..

Bariolage from the E Major Partita (Bach)

Even by the time that Bach wrote this (1720), this technique was beginning to be, if not an anachronism, a throw back to the previous century’s approach to the violin. Whilst Beethoven grew up playing the ’48’, knowledge of Bach’s string writing would be zero until the late 1820s, and the revival spearheaded by the young Felix Mendelssohn.

So it’s fascinating to see Beethoven not only using, but notating bariolage (which can be seen being used in less dramatic manner in the Op 61 Concerto), in the baroque manner, with a sound which Bach and Walther would recognise, at this moment in one of the late quartets.

More violin-centred musings – 15 11 19

I know that it must seem a little ‘off’, writing about chamber music, to be diverted in to matters violin. But yesterday’s little exploration of Beethoven’s intensely practical, informed, approach to virtuosity leads naturally to his awareness, incorporation of the newest technical innovation. The late quartets are, especially the ‘true’ late quartets (Opii 130, 131, 132, 133, 135) are full of violinistic devices which can be seen as manifestations of his awareness of what virtuosi were innovating.

Here’s a hair-raising corner from the finale of Op 132.

Look at bars 136-144

… unless of course, one has spent time with the second of Paganini’s 24 Capricci . Hang on ( I can hear the cry from here)! Paganini did not arrive in Vienna ( to Schubert’s great excitement) until 1828, the year after Beethoven died.

Of course, you are right, but in many ways, by the time the great Genoan arrived North of the Alps (Vienna 1829, Warsaw 1829, Paris 1830, London 1831) he had, to all intents and purposes already arrived. Today virtuosi become known before arrival through the Internet, YouTube etc. 20 years ago it was CDs. 40 Years ago TV, and for most of the 20th century records. In the 19th century, it was engraving. The most important part of this was portraits – every travelling artists, from Rossini to H C Andersen, kept a close watch on the availability of portrait engravings in the cities the visited or were about to visit. But more important for musicians was publication of their music.

Paganini jealously prevent publication of most of his virtuoso music during his lifetime. However, he allowed one masterpiece to be published, by the house of Ricordi, in 1820 – the Caprices. Anything which this house published was immediately rushed north, and vice-versa, as can be seen from Paganini’s enthusiastic orders for Beethoven’s quartets as they appeared, during Beethoven’s lifetime, before he had left Italy.

Coming to Vienna, Paganini was coming to a city of violin virtuosi, dominated by two men – Franz Clement and Josef Mayseder. Clement, of course, had premiered Beethoven’s concerto and assisted with the rewriting of Fidelio. Mayseder was described by Beehove as ‘genius boy’, and played n one of the later incarnations of the Schuppanzigh quartet. Both wrote and published books of virtuoso etudes. Both were intensely competitive. And none of their work included the ‘paganini-esque’ type of position work that can be seen in this passage from Op 132.

So, here’s my thought for the morning. Beethoven saw or owned a copy of the Capricci, or one of the virtuosi with whom he worked (not Schuppanzigh, of course), showed him some of the techniques outlined in the collection. And it found its way into the writing, in complex ways, and the simple, almost prosaic example I offer this morning.

This topic will , I am afraid, run and run.

Writing through the instrument – 14 11 19

When I was a student, it was common to talk about Beethoven writing ‘against the violin’, as if somehow, the challenge of his music, technically meant that we feeble fiddlers could moan about him. The ‘what care I for your damn fiddle when the spirit moves me’ remark to Schuppanzigh is over-quoted, as if he did not understand, or care about the complexity of writing for a string instrument (rather ignoring that he began his life as a professional violist in the Bonn Kapell and took lessons from Schuppanzigh for the first few years of his time in Vienna) LINK for more on Beethoven and the violin

First violin parts from the trio sections of scherzo movements from the Op 135 Quartet – above – look from where the pencil is pointed- and 132 below

It strikes me that one way of illustrating Beethoven’s peerless command of writing for the violin, is to show how practical he was. The mark of the great composer, for me, as a player, is that they write, they imagine, through the media, the instruments, that they use. Not every composer could, like Hindemith or Jacob Collier, play every instrument that was handed to them. Some like Berlioz or Henze, could, in point of fact, play none at all to any standard. But the art is found in how they discovered the most profound expression in the instruments, the hands of the players for whom they wrote, at full stretch. Beethoven shared this extraordinary gift most obviously with Bach and Bartok. And like Bach and Bartok, he understood that the instrument at full stretch needed to be using, speaking, if you like, in a technical vernacular. In Bartok, this can be observed most spectacularly in the finale of his 3rd Quartet, where, when it is learnt, a competent violinist can dream their way around the cascades of scales -and the extraordinary music of ultimate fugal diminution pours from the hands just, well, doing their thing.

So look at the two passages above, from the scherzo movements of the Op 132 and Op 135 quartets. I don’t want to talk about musical issues, but just a simple technical one. The two passages could not be more different in terms of mood and/or right hand approach. The Op 132 is the the musette of angels, the Op 135 the wild rumpus of peasants, demons, maybe even Sendak’s ‘Wild Things’. But look at the setting and pacing of the left hand. It is exactly, and I mean, exactly the same. At some point, Beethoven, mayben in his youth studying the violin, with Franz Ries the elder, discoverer that, if he anchored the first finger on C sharp on the E String, he could reach up to top A and play dramatic chordal figurations against the adjacent open A string. That’s what is being used here. You will notice that in both cases I have marked for the 1st finger to be locked, and the top A is reached from the easy extension from 3rd-4th fingers E”’ to A”’. That’s it. He had that trick up his sleeve, and uses it in two such different ways that I hadn’t noticed it (to my shame) till this week.

Writing ‘against the violin’. What rot.

Where do I sit – 14 11 19

I arrived at yesterday’s rehearsal to find animated conversation in full swing. This is no in itself worthy of note. Neil, Clifton and Mihailo in a room are never likely to be silent. To my relief, the room didn’t fall quiet as I appeared, which would have been a bad sign, I think. But it was the topic of conversation which struck me. They were talking about the feeling of sitting in different places within the quartet – whilst, graciously, I noted, not talking about the fact that this was not an issue which I face that often. Let me explain.

From my place, late Beethoven fashion, but in rehearsal format-in concert the audience is effectively between me and Mihailo (V2) forcing an opening to my immediate right.

Growing up in the UK, playing quartets (after a fashion) from an early age, I never thought twice about the configuration of a quartet, which was always (in my experience) V1, V2, Va, Vc. Gradually, it dawned on me that I was seeing other ensembles, from ‘abroad’ playing in different layouts (V1.V2, Vc, Va), but to be honest this simply struck me as ‘foreign’, like the exoticism of an unfamiliar typeface (I am talking about my 12-year old prejudices here).

Curiously, this did not come into the questions around the early formation of the Kreutzer Quartet, as it was initially founded to be a shared-leadership quartet, something which we were vigorously advised against by everyone. As there was always a question about ‘who leads what?’, the discussion of, ‘where do we all sit?’ was tabled, ignored. And of course, 85 percent of reviews and comments were on the positive or negative effect of each violinist leading.

Fast forward to now. The way that we work now, is to look at each piece that we are going to play, and ask a series of questions. What was the expected layout in the time/place of writing? What did the composer expect? What did(does) the composer want (sometimes not the same as the former)? What layout will suit/clarify the music best?

Every living composer will (whether they realise or not) have a slightly different understanding or wish, of how the quartet should be laid out. Michael Finnissy always wishes this to be part of the discussion about what the piece is. Sometimes he gives instructions to sit at a distance from each other, and in one case, isolates the leader at the back of the concert hall. These sound like extreme examples, but understanding the effect that this has, is vital to understanding the various ‘conventional’ configurations. It’s very clear, playing the three Brahms quartets, that he demanded the layount V1, Vc, Va, V2.

Look at photos of the Amadeus quartet – although they never changed then V1,V2,Va,VC layout, they did, consciously or not, play with whether they used an open arc of players, or sat very close. As an 8 year old, watching them play Schubert in a big hall, I was struck by how open they sat, embracing the hall, whereas, an archival film of them playing Bartok 4 shows them very close together, with very low stands. It is worth saying, and this is relevant, that there was an element of comfort here. Bartok was not in their ‘safety zone (they found it very difficult)’ so it’s natural that they would sit close together.

I won’t this morning go into the configurations we use. Suffice to say that for late Beethoven, we play V1. Vc, Va, V2. (sounds like a failing English Football team configuration). All of the Beethoven quartets play with the (sometimes violent) confrontation of two violins, who need to be face to face. I confess that for the Grosse Fuge, I prefer to have the positions of Viola and Cello reversed (because of the intimate relationship of viola and violin 1 in the slow sections).

But what fascinated me was that the conversation my friends were having (before I arrived) was about the disturbances, even traumas, of moving around, trying to re-evaluate the internal relationships that sitting in a different corner entail. For a moment, I was relieved. After all, I thought, smugly, I am always in the same place. Over here, ‘Ich stehe [sitze] hier’, I thought, with a knowing wink at Martin Luther (not in the room). But then I realised, that I am never sitting in the same place – not only is everyone moving around, but the change in configuration affects me just as much, except that (with a few exceptions), my seat remains the same

Now I have started to think about that, and realise that I have no reason to be complacent. It is disturbing – and in Monday’s rehearsal, with Neil sitting to my left, my instrument kept getting in the way of his right hand (I did not notice), constricting his playing. How we sit changes how we play, how we relate to each other, the piece, the relationship to the audience, who we are.

More on this to follow.

After a rehearsal – 13 11 19

Clifton Harrison & Mihailo Trandafilovski discussing the recitativo which separates the fourth and fifth movements of Op 132. 13 11 19

So today was the second of two days focusing on two late quartets. Haydn’s last, unfinished quartet, and Beethoven’s A minor Op 132, which he worked on in 1825. Here a couple of observations from rehearsal, after which Mihailo and I wandered to the station drawing comparisons between Beethoven and Shakespeare; that this is music which cannot been understood, appreciated fully, or even partially without taking time to listen and study. It is amazing to observe the differences, practically, and dare I say, philosophically between our understanding, reading, of this astonishing score between two rehearsals, a day apart. I will pick some of these questions apart over the next two days. Before I do this, I think that it’s worth noting, that at no point in rehearsals of such works, are decisions made predicated on the notion that these are late works.

First of all, I need to reiterate, that of course, what we are not doing is learning the piece. I know that this seems strange, but it is worth saying, as the repertoire that audiences hear is, whether they realise it or not, divided up between pieces which ensembles have learnt for a specific performance, and performances which can be seen as waystations, if you like on musicians’ lifelong journeys with certain pieces of music. It is with the latter group of pieces, that we notice fascinating developments, metamorphoses, from rehearsal to rehearsal. So here’s a little example.

The Op 132 quartet is a big piece, with different technical and aesthetic challenges in each movement. The first question for any rehearsal is whether or not the rehearsal will include the central slow movement, the Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der Lydischen Tonart. There’s a simple reason for this question, this enormous slow movement, in 5 sections, is so physically (and emotionally) demanding, that any movement which is rehearsed after it will get short shrift, as players will be holding their arms, going ‘ow’. So we decided last night, to rehearse the outer movements, to leave the slow movement till today. So today’s rehearsal was dominated by in-depth rehearsal of the Heiliger Dankgesang,

It’s worth saying that this work was dominated by questions of proportion-firstly the relationships between the Adagio (1,3,5) and Andante (2,4) sections. Then there were discussions, which we might also see as proportional, within each section, about the balance, the dialogues between disparate materials, such as the chorale material and what I will call decorative (yes I know that it is much more than that) materials in the slow section, and in the Andante sections, the question of proportion, the weighting of specific beats within bars. There’s a lot more to it than that, but that could be seen as a rough reading of one thread of the rehearsal.

Following this detailed work (and after a rehearsal of the Haydn quartet), we returned to the whole structure, to rehearse, in broad strokes, the whole piece in one gulp. The knowledge, understanding, offered from the work on the slow movement, profoundly affected our readings of the remaining movements. Of course, this should be self-evident, and you would expect us to not be surprised, but, there’s no question that the movements that we rehearsed yesterday are markedly different following today’s work on the central slow movement. This, at the very least, is a proof of the depth of Beethovens’ writing. Every note is rooted in every other note, nothing happens without a foundation in everything else that has happened or will happen the work. This can be, at the very least, characterised as a mark of quality to which I can ascribe the name, Shakespearean. More tomorrow.

First thoughts – 13 11 19

I am in the middle of days rehearsing with the Kreutzer Quartet. On the stand – Beethoven’s astonishing A minor Quartet Op 132, and it reminds me that I am very lucky to spend my life playing quartets. Like many players, my real musical work began, very young, playing chamber music. This ranged from study, being coached, early professional concerts, and overnight chamber music readings. There were (and I suspect) plenty of teenagers who loved this. I remember one which began with the Schubert Quintet and ended with the whole, I am mean the whole, Bach ‘Art of Fugue’, finishing around 5 am. By my early twenties, I truly fell in love with the violin at its most exacting and ambitious, which is alone, and in chamber music, and particularly playing quartets, with the Kreutzers.

Photo: Claire Borley

It’s worth saying, right now, that I am not one of those who wants to say that quartet-playing and quartets enjoy some sort of superiority, over all other sorts of repertoire. If you asked me, now, to list (just in my mind, 10 great chamber works) the result will not necessarily include quartets. Let’s try it, unprepared:

Nielsen – Wind Quintet/Beethoven-C Minor String Trio Op 9 No 3/George Crumb-Eleven Echoes of Autumn/Handel-G minor Trio Sonata/ Clara Schumann-3 Romances for Violin and Piano/Tippett-4th Sting Quartet/Brahms-G Major Sextet Op 36/Giacinto Scelso-Arc en Ciel for two violins/Webern-Three Pieces for Cello and Piano/Shostakovich-Piano Quintet

Just this morning’s list, but as you will see, I am as likely to include wind chamber works, mixed works, violin and piano (it will be different tomorrow-we will try it again). All of these are part of the great wheel of stories that is the chamber music canon (by which I mean everything available to play and listen to. Past, present. future). So many times, rehearsing one genre of chamber music, we find ourselves referencing another, or the possibilities of another instrument, that it is simply impossible to hold up the quartet as the ne plus ultra, particularly when for a number of composers (Mozart, Schoenberg come to mind), their most profound utterances are to be found elsewhere – Quintets and String Trios.

But none of this detracts from the fact that found, have found, and will continue to find quartet playing absolutely fascinating and absorbing. Yesterday, sitting down and working on Beethoven’s amazing Op 132 (A minor), I was powerfully struck, that, despite the fact that this piece has been in my hands and ears for over 25 years, I still find it astonishing, challenging, terrifying, entrancing and wonderful, and can’t wait to get back to it later today. I am not entirely sure why that is, but maybe, over the next few days, can offer some ideas. First, two violinists.

One of my teachers was the Armenian violinist Manoug Parikian. I went to him after the death of Ralph Holmes. I would not say that we had an entirely successful teacher-pupil relationship, and that was mostly my fault. Manoug was a violinist of enormous refinement and charisma. However, he confined to me that, when he found out that I was a quartet player, that the greatest regret that he had was that he had never had a quartet himself. For a moment, when he told me, this took me aback. Here was someone who had been appointed leader of the Philharmonia Orchestra at a ridiculously young age, and had a most elevated view of what the violin could and should do (he had, some years earlier, given a series of concerts at the Wigmore Hall ’12 Masterpieces’ which laid out, if you like, an aesthetic ‘gold standard’ for the instrument). In addition he was acclaimed as a piano trio artist. I began to protest his regret, and he shut me down. ‘No’, he said,’ a serious violinist, is a quartet leader, and I never was. I should have been, but there just never seemed time.’ As it turned out, the best communication that I ever enjoyed with Manoug, was playing chamber music. I treasure the memory of one evening playing Brahms Sextets at the Windsor Festival, with him and a group of my equally chamber-music-mad friends (we were all in our teens), including violist James Boyd, who I would say, is probably the world expert on playing Haydn quartets (Hats off!). Playing second violin to Manoug in Brahms, Schubert etc. , was a lifetime of learning in itself. But his party trick, after a shot of Grappa, was to play the first line of every Beethoven quartet in Opus number order – and then backwards. But it was a party trick with an element of regret. He was right, he would have been one of the great leaders, but got sidetracked, by orchestras, and by life.

Writing this, I remember a conversation over lunch with the late Peter Cropper (leader of the Lindsay Quartet) , after a performance which my quartet (in an earlier manifestation) had given in Sheffield. I think we had just player Sibelius and Bartok, but I can’t be sure. Now Peter and I did not see eye to eye about quartet playing, and had many good-natured disputes about what we were aiming for, but there was an irrepressible joy about his music making. After a concert where the Lindsays played the Elgar ‘Introduction and Allegro’ with my Parnassus Ensemble, he turned to the audience and shouted, ‘Lets do it again! Shall we?!’ And we did. But at that lunch, he decided to give the quartet a warning. I am not sure where it came from, but it was timely, and, as it turned out, divisive. ‘You can’t be a quartet player, if you are playing in an orchestra.’ I nodded vigorously, and then noticed that my colleagues were looking at their shoes. I went into a ill -advised rant as to how I agreed … this was without doubt the beginning of the road towards one of the changes of personnel which nearly every chamber group goes through . Peter had hit a nerve (I am pretty sure that he meant to). What he wanted to say was that quartet playing is serious business, but it could not compete financially with a regular position in an orchestra, and the reward is a simple one. Being in a quartet. End of story. Of course, the situation has changed in the intervening two decades. Orchestras do not offer security, or that much money, and now there’s a whole new world of musicians with (sorry to use the word) ‘portfolio’ careers, which actually reflects a new seriousness and creativity across the music profession, and expectation that no one gets to sit on their hands anymore.

But the seriousness which I think that I am talking about is do with what chamber music demands of us as musicians. Tomorrow, a little more about that: but now, I have a rehearsal to get to.