Thursday, December 01, 2005

Heavy Listening: The Late Beethoven String Quartets

The Emerson String Quartet

I go through stages in my listening, and I purposefully avoid listening to some of my favorite music - sometimes for years on end - to be able to return to it with fresh and more mature ears. Such is the case with the late Beethoven string quartets: With the exception of a couple of listens to Op. 131 in the string choir version conducted by Leonard Bernstein, I have not listened to these works since the late 1980's! Why? Because I was positively addicted to them, and I lived on a steady diet of nothing else for almost a year in 1987 (This is after Berklee and before I returned to school for my master's degree): Enough is enough, as they say. I went through similar stages with the Ninth (Which is one of the reasons I have not been able to finish my analysis of it: Just not "ready" for it again yet) back in 1983 when I was touring Europe.

Major aside: When I visited the Eiffel Tower in 1983 I was listening to the Ninth on my Sony Pro Walkman (Very high-tech for that time), and the elevators were out of service. You should have heard the old tourists bitching and griping. It was sadly hilarious. Since I had run in the Boston Marathon just a few weeks previously, I simply climbed the stairs to the top level... while listening to the symphony. Various 180 degree panorammas of Paris will forever be recollected whenever I listen to the Ninth now. Needless to say, there were very few people in the tower that day, and they were all young (As I was back then - sigh), and we sat around smoking hash in handrolled cigarettes and generally enjoying each other's company. It was a magical day. One of the most magical days of my life, in fact. It's a great memory to have associated with my favorite of all symphonies.


When I'm in a phase of writing, I also purposefully listen to nothing other than popular music and jazz. The most recent writing flourish for the most part behind me, I decided it was time to return to these old favorites (iTunes is playing them again in the background as I write).

It was important to me to aquire new versions as well: Versions I had not heard before. My choice - after a bit of research - were the versions recorded by the Emerson String Quartet as a part of their cycle of the complete string quartets of Beethoven from 1997. This epic and ambitious recording is a seven disk set, and won the Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance that year (Or in 1998).

The Emerson Quartet is, quite simply, one of the best chamber music groups of all time. Having played together for over a quarter of a century now, their musicianship, musical communication, and conveyance of musical idea are autumnal and deeply mature. Unsurpassibly sublime, even.

These recordings are stunning, and I can't, at the moment, fathom how they could be any better. In the very best of musical interpretations, I am fond of saying, "It's as if the composer himself is playing his own works", and these recordings certainly deserve that accolade. In spades. Not only that, but the space they were recorded in is suitibly live, but not overly so: There is just enough natural reverberation to create a broad stereo field without interfering with the intelligibility of the individual lines, which is especially crucial for this music.

Beethoven's music spans such a wide swath of emotion that it seems to encompass the whole of the human experience. This is especially true with these late quartets, as they represent not only the most mature and musically adventurous Beethoven, but they in fact include the very last composition he ever completed. I had forgotten just how capricious the humor of Beethoven was as exhibited in these quartets, and how suddenly he could juxtapose that humor with the deepest expressions of pathos: The humor part of the equation is especially poignant when you stop to consider the abject nature of Beethoven's life those last few years; Deaf, isolated, in a precarious financial situation, and contending with ridiculous life-issues such as those created especially for his distraction by his worthless nephew Karl (What a complete dumbass that jerkoff was. And I'm restraining myself from employing what I consider to be much more apropos expletives).

The pathos is, obviously, easy to understand given those circumstances, but the sheer unplumbable depth of it has never ever again been approached by any other composer, in my opinion. Through it all though, there is an amazing sense of hope that permiates everything. It conveys to me that Beethoven is saying, as he did in the Finale of the Ninth (But far less effectively through the medium of the vioce combined with Schiller's poetry of questionable worth), that "Yes, life has it's ups and downs, and some of the downs are deeply painful, but it is the humor, beauty and love you remember best in the end": No other music conveys the life experience as profoundly to me as does Beethoven's. Bach isn't even close. Nevermind not being in the same ballpark, Bach isn't even in the same universe as Beethoven in this regard.

It's like meeting an old friend again: A friend that you know so well that you just comfortably and naturally "take up where you left off" with despite the passage of time, but on a new and deeper level. I love Beethoven. I absolutely, positively love the dude.

Who knew?


Blogger solitudex said...

Oh my goodness!! Listening to Beethovan's late string quartets is a totally spiritual experience! I love them so much, and they leave me emotionally and musically exhausted after listening most of time. I only have the recording by the Vermeer Quartet.
Maybe I should scout for your recommendation. =)

9:17 AM  

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