CD Review: Complete String Quartets (Beethoven) – Quartetto Italiano

Well, the review is finally here. After what must be close to two and a half months of renewing this box set at North Sydney library, I’m finally finished listening to all 10 discs and and in some position to offer a review.

Some position. But not quite adequate, really. I’d never really listened to the string quartets ot Beethoven before. In fact, as part of my general “chamber music is boring compared with orchestras and operas” stance, I hadn’t really made it a habit of listening to anyone’s string quartets if I could help it.

But some things started happening that changed my mind.

1) There’s a new movie coming out at some stage called Copying Beethoven, that’s a fictional tale of a girl who helped Beethoven in the last few years of his life, as he finished his Ninth Symphony and then spent his last days after that writing string quartets. That intrigued me – why would a man who could write such spectacular orchestral music, and had such a knack for orchestration and other things, spend his time writing music for (what seemed to me) the rather boring combination of two violins, a viola and a cello? It started to dawn on me that perhaps there was more to these string quartets than I thought.

2) While in New York in November, I called upon my publisher at Amadeus Press, and he was telling me what a big thing it was to write a book about Beethoven symphonies because they were the most important works of Beethoven’s – those and his string quartets. That phrase again . . .

3) I got back from America and was watching the commentary on my new DVD of Immortal Beloved, when the director mentioned that many people consider Beethoven’s late string quartets to be avant garde.

So I got curious. I went to the library and borrowed this set, and then fished around in a box of books in my back cupboard to fish out a book that I’d bought years ago on a whim and never really looked at: Joseph de Marliave’s Beethoven’s Quartets (which I shall review in the next post). Armed with de Marliave and the box set of Quartetto Italiano (the very Mafia-looking 60s string quartet from Italy), I began to listen . . .

Unfortunately, the limitations of a library CD (especially a 10-CD set) is that you really only get a chance to listen to things once. So my thoughts on these quartets are fairly limited because I’ve only had a chance to listen to them once.

Basically, Beethoven wrote 16 and a bit quartets, and they kind of divide up into neat sections. The first six were written in the early days of his fame. Back in these days, he tended to compose in the style of Haydn and Mozart and so they sound (surprise surprise) rather like Haydn and Mozart. They’ve very pretty, but they’re not the big spectacular Beethoven that was still to come.

There was then a big break before he wrote his next five string quartets. At this stage, he was at the height of his powers, and all of his music was big, spectacular and heroic. As a result, these middle five probably contain some of the energetic and exciting of the string quartets.

And then we come to the last five. By this stage in his life, all Beethoven’s financial sponsors had either died or left town, so he was broke. He’d spent most of his money fighting a drawn-out court battle for custody of his nephew. He’d just premiered the Ninth. And his health was on a downwards spiral, which eventually would kill him a few years later.

And all of that, he poured into his last five string quartets. Compared with the middle five, these last five are not as spectacular. The heroism is gone. Instead, there’s sounds of pain, of sorrow, of gentleness, and of spirituality. There’s also a brilliance of construction.

So what do they sound like? To my ears, the sound world of the quartets will take some getting used to. I’ve mostly listened to orchestral music, and so to switch to this more intimate and precise type of music takes a listening adjustment. But bits and pieces jump out and me and make me curious to listen more, to learn to know these pieces inside and out, the same way I have done with the symphonies of Beethoven and Mahler.

The quartets, while lacking the oopmh and power of a large orchestra, make up for that in a precision of sound – a tightly constructed beauty as the four voices interact with one another. If one instrument makes a mistake or plays something badly, it is ruined for all. So all four musicians must play, and play well. And when they play well, each musician shines.

So, yeah, being the only recording of the quartets I’ve heard, I don’t really know how to rate them. I think I’d give it a 4 out of 5 on an initial listening, but this is probably the type of thing I should come back and review again at a later date.

Review: Beethoven’s Early Chamber Music: A Listening Guide

Beethoven's Early Chamber Music: A Listening Guide
Beethoven’s Early Chamber Music: A Listening Guide by Terence O’Grady
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve got to say up front that this is a book written by a musicologist, and as a layperson, I always struggle with the fact that often – not always, but often – in such books, the most exciting aspects of the music seem to be the key changes.

In some ways, this is to be expected, because – after all – most of Beethoven’s early works were written in the classical music forms of Haydn and Mozart, where transitions between keys, tonics, dominants, sonata forms, etc. were largely what the game was about. But, unless you’re listening along with the music – and even then – it can make for somewhat of a dull read.

I should say, O’Grady started to warm up towards the end when he got into the famous opus 18 string quartets, and those six were a great way to finish the book, because they’re all amazing. But on the whole, especially because I’m not that well-up on music, sevenths and dominants and grace notes all started to blur into one.

But, given that it caused me to listen to nearly all of Beethoven’s early chamber music – much of which is beautiful stuff, even if not as game-changing as his famous works – I was grateful for the tour from O’Grady. If he ever wants to do some of the later chamber music, I’ll be happy to come back and have a read.

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Returning Tomorrow

Hi all,

I’m very sorry about all of this . . . a combination of an absolutely astonishing chamber music festival, which had me run off my feet from 9.00 till 10.30 (if not later) for five days and my computer monitor at home which blew up have kept me from blogging about War and Peace.  Actually, have kept me from reading it for that matter.

Anyway, I’m working on fixing that, so starting tomorrow, I’ll be back.  It may take me a week or two to catch up – so forgive the lag.  But there’s no more music festivals in my life between now and June 30 next year, so we should all be good.

While I’m on the Festival, can I just do a brief rave?  Sitting through five days of chamber music is an ordeal.  There were some parts in the middle where I had to really work hard.

But, ultimately, it was an exhilarating experience.   I won’t go on and on about it, but I’ll just say that the Jerusalem Quartet have got to be one of the world’s greatest string quartets – they’re going to be in Melbourne tomorrow night, Ian, by the way.

But the true rock stars of the chamber music world, with an astonishing ability to delight all ages, is the one and only Eggner Trio of Austria.  They were out here for five weeks – but they could move here and we’d all love it . . . can’t wait till they come back.

Okay, back with Tolstoy tomorrow.

Film Review: Copying Beethoven

I must confess that when I first found the trailer for this film online a few months ago (which was the first I heard about it), I shuddered. First of all, Ed Harris playing Beethoven seemed to be a crazy miscasting. Second, the film was a fictional tale about a young woman who becomes Beethoven’s copyist in the last years of his life when he was working on his Ninth Symphony.

But, nonetheless, a film about Beethoven is a film about Beethoven, so I kind of knew I would probably see it. Also, having just recently discovered Beethoven’s string quartets, I was curious to see how they would be portrayed in the film.

As a bit of background, in the last decade or so of Beethoven’s life, he hadn’t been doing much composing. After the triumph of his 7th and 8th Symphonies, he got involved in a huge court battle with his hated sister-in-law over custody of his young nephew, Carl. This not only cleaned him out of money, it also took him away from the music. On top of that, of the three wealthy patrons who kept him in money to write music, two of them died, and the other one moved away. So he was quite on the poverty edge.

But then, in his last three years of life (which is the time period this film covers), he started composing again. He composed his Ninth Symphony, and then, in his final years, five more string quartets – widely regarded, to this day, as the greatest string quartets (and in some people’s view, the greatest pieces of music) ever written.

Anyway, it is here with Beethoven composing his Ninth Symphony that this movie begins. Beethoven’s publisher, Schlemmer, is coming down with cancer, and is unable to work fast enough on copying Beethoven’s manuscript of the Ninth Symphony. (For the uninitiated, copying means taking the composer’s scribbled version of music and writing it out neatly – and also separate versions for each instrument in the orchestra). So he sends off to a conservatorium (forgive me, I missed this detail of which one) to ask for their best composition student – and young Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger) shows up.She goes on to become Beethoven’s copyist and works closely with the maestro to help him get the Ninth Symphony ready for performance. Beethoven being Beethoven, there are bound to be problems. If you’ve read any biographies about Beethoven, you’ll know that the man was quite difficult to live with. He ranged from being ultra-clingy and friendly, to abusively bad-tempered and obnoxious, to vulgar with a raucous sense of humour. And, despite my misgivings, I have to take my hat off to Ed Harris. He captured it all. Despite the fictional story, this was Beethoven exactly as I’d been readng about him. I could easily believe that this was what the man was like.

The main shortcoming with the film is that I found it ended about half an hour before I expected it to (which I suppose is a lot better than ending half an hour after you want it to). Some films feel like a novel, others feel like a short story. This was one that felt like a short story. So, I think, at first, I left with a slightly disappointed “is that all?” feeling. However, for the rest of the day, the film kept floating around in my head (I saw it yesterday, by the way), and so I’m now in more of a position to give it a proper review.

The film is about a number of things, but there are three main ones that you will notice.

1) The relationship between Beethoven and Anna. This is obviously what most people are coming to see the film for, and is probably the least successful element of the film. It’s not an uninteresting part of the film, and Diane Kruger, who has only played a token beautiful woman in the films I’ve seen her in so far (Troy and National Treasure) actually does a really nice, understated role as Anna. However, it’s clearly obvious that she is fictional and Beethoven is not, because there are so many more layers to Ed Harris’ performance, purely because he’s got more to work with. The story about Anna really represents a number of little messages – first of all, that women can do things as well as men. Secondly, that the arts is not useless (we get this message via the even more underdeveloped character of Anna’s boyfriend, who holds the rather modern position that technology and progress are the way of the future rather than boring old Beethoven music). Thirdly, of course, is the help she gives to Beethoven who was increasingly become isolated from the world on all fronts. This is the story we expect, and it’s pulled off well, but it’s nothing outstanding.

The interesting parts of the story are the other two strands:

2) The music of Beethoven. The great thing about any film about classical composers is that the soundtrack is going to be great, regardless of the rest of the film. Certainly, this film didn’t really let me down. However, it chose to focus mainly on two pieces, with a third thrown in at the end. The first piece is, of course, the Ninth, which dominates the first half of the film. As we see it being prepared and rehearsed, we start to realise how audacious it was. And then, for the scene of the performance, which has been widely publicised as going for 10 minutes (which it does), it was awesome to hear the music loud. So often we hear classical music at a soft volume on the radio or CD, without realising that it was meant to be heard loudly and clearly. It’s magic, it really is. I’m not sure if I’m a fan of the camerawork for this scene which, in keeping with the look of the whole film, consists of ultra-closeups and bringing blurry objects in and out of focus, but the music more tha makes up for it.

The second piece, by contrast, is a much more unlikeable piece (that usually doesn’t make its way onto any Best of Beethoven CDs), and this is the Grosse Fugue for string quartet. Beethoven originally wrote this as the last movement of one of his last string quartets, but it was too long, and people hated it, so he wrote a shorter more pleasant ending for the string quartet (this short ending was incidentally the last thing he wrote before he died) and the Fugue became a stand-alone 15-minute piece that is now one of the most difficult pieces for a string quartet to play. The reason this piece has been so disliked is because of its harshness. With a wild galloping tone, and angular melodies, it’s not a pleasant musical experience. But (and this is the point), it wasn’t meant to be. Life is not all pleasantness. Life is not all triumph. Life can often be harsh and brutal. And that’s the point about this music (which opened the door for the next generation of musicians to realise that harsh could be in the musical vocabulary). The film very cleverly makes this point by playing the Grosse Fugue over the opening credits as we see shot after shot of the poor and destitute of 19th-century Austria.

The third piece which got more than a brief mention is probably bettered talked about under the third subject of the film:

3) Beethoven and God. From everything we know about Beethoven, he was a man who believed in a God – some higher power up there that looked after him and made the creation that he loved. This film takes that a step further, and pits Beethoven in an ever-present struggle with God. It took me a while to notice, but throughout the whole film, Beethoven is constantly mentioning God.

Sometimes he seems to look on God as a bit of an excuse for the way he is. “Do you think I’m horrible? Well, God made me that way.” Other times, he gets rather arrogant about God. “God and I are like two bears in the one cage – snarling at each other.” But it’s not until just before the performance of the Ninth, when he realises that he is too deaf to conduct the orchestra properly, that we realise his true feelings – he is angry with God. Why did God let him go deaf? If God is like a Father, why should he trust him, considering that Beethoven’s own father was a bully and a drunkard?

Despite this, Anna helps him conduct the Ninth. The irony of this (which is probably lost on people not familiar with the music) is that the choir at the end, as well as singing a humanistic hymn that all men will join and become brothers, are also singing the praises of a loving Father in the heavens who watches all men. But does Beethoven believe that?

And, so after that, when he throws himself into the Grosse Fugue, it seems that this enables him to deal with the idea that the world is not perfect. It’s like he gets it out of his system.

And that’s when my favourite moment of the film occurs. Beethoven comes down sick (apologies if this is a spoiler) and as he is recovering, he asks Anna to start writing down a piece of music. I wasn’t sure if this was going to be in the film, because it is sadly missing from the listing on the Copying Beethoven soundtrack album, but as she writes down the music, we hear the slow movement from the Opus 132 string quartet. This piece is known as the “hymn of thanksgiving to the Godhead for recovery from an illness”.

As the string quartet plays a very simple, but very deep and profound hymn tune, Beethoven talks about how he is grateful to God for making him well again, and how he knows now that God is looking after him. As the music soars (and it really is one of the most transcendent pieces of music that Beethoven ever wrote), Beethoven describes how we are taken up to heaven, and hands reach down and hold us, and we know that we are safe.

This piece of music (which I had only recently discovered a few months ago), combined with that description, utterly moved me to tears, for a number of reasons which I find hard to describe. I suppose, one, is just the beauty of music (which is a completely subjective thing, and for that reason, not easy to describe why it moves me so much). Second, is just the beauty of Beethoven coming to peace with God. But, the third one, which is more troubling, is that I’m not sure which God Beethoven made his peace with. There is no indication that Beethoven was interested in following Jesus as Lord of his life. In fact, there’s every indication, that he was most interested in doing his own thing in life.

And so, despite the depth of his spirituality (and really, apart from people like Bach and Mendelssohn, most Christian composers rarely reach this level of beauty when contemplating God), ultimately, itmay not have saved him. And that I find truly haunting.

Anyway, I apologise if this film is more a review of my own thought processes rather than the film, but it’s fascinating to get a glimpse into the spiritual life of a great composer, and it’s a credit to director Agnieszka Holland that she included that element of Beethoven that was so important to him in his music.

4 out of 5.