Peter Stenshoel's album of the week: Beethoven: The Middle Quartets by The Budapest String Quartet

Beethoven: the middle quartet

Kevin Ferguson

Given my wide-ranging musical tastes, perhaps it's odd that I first found Beethoven impossible to enjoy. My parents had a box set with all his symphonies, and in trying to like them, I was stymied. I had no place to put the effects of Beethoven's clever mind: those sudden stops, those changes in volume. Themes can turn on a dime, thunderous violence can interrupt peace and peace can break out when least expected. This kind of thing shocked audiences in Beethoven's time, and I had no idea what to do with it.
 
I had pretty much written off Ludwig van Beethoven, but some fortuitous interventions caused me to reconsider my truculence. Good old Uncle Jens gave me Quartetto Italiano's album of String Quartet Number 14. Jens knew I was not a fan of the man, so he provided an explanatory note of what to listen for; in particular, passages that resembled 20th Century music. (The Late Quartets are considered ahead of their time.) Hearing Beethoven in the guise of two violins, viola, and cello helped me get past the fear factor of surprise sonic attack found in the symphonies. Or at least, the attack sounded warmer and more intimate, which is, after all, the intended nature of chamber music.
 
Next, a friend with tastes as eclectic as mine, Cliff Sloane, after suffering through my ignorance regarding Beethoven's genius, took it upon himself to educate me about the Middle Quartets (numbers 7 through 11). He rented me his box set of Budapest String Quartet's recordings, and I instantly fell in love with the lot. (If you listen to the deft interplay between the musicians, it sounds almost cozy. I was astounded to learn that for any given three hour recording session, two of those hours are fierce arguments between the members about the composer's intentions.)

Finally, in upstate New York I was working a gig at the Rushmore Festival, and the lecturer-in-residence was none other than pianist/composer and Beethoven expert, Lukas Foss, who succeeded Arnold Schoenberg as head of composition at UCLA, and who was famous for saying, "I conduct because I love to make love to the past." Foss, working with live musicians, demonstrated how Beethoven would state a theme, then later in the piece radically transform the same theme, inverting, sub-dividing it, or changing it from major to minor scale. In this way, the composer could derive endless material from a simple melody. Foss made the brilliance of Beethoven come alive for me and I emerged a changed man. 

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