Kammermusiksaal Hermann J. Abs
String Trio no.3 in D major, op.9 no.2
String Quartet no.6 in B-flat major, op.18 no.6
String Quartet no.8 in E minor, op.59 no.2
Antti Tikkanen, Mina Pensola (violins)
Atte Kilpeläinen (viola)
Tomas Djupsjöbacka (cello)
Bonn’s annual Beethoven-Haus festival – BTHVN, as the composer occasionally signed himself – offers what may be a unique and certainly a rare opportunity: to hear Beethoven’s entire chamber music. Alas, I shall not be able to do that, but in hearing the last of four weekends, and thus the climax of Tabea Zimmermann’s musical direction, I shall nevertheless manage to hear old favourites in new surroundings and also, I hope, make some new favourites too. In other words, the slogan of the broader BTHVN2020 festivities, ‘Beethoven NEU entdecken’, may well be fulfilled: Beethoven newly discovered. As Malte Boecker, Director of the Beethoven-Haus, reminded me when we met to discuss the year's events, for all that we hear of Beethoven's ubiquity, it is often more a matter of 'the same 25 works' being performed again and again. This selection of three works for strings from the Finnish ensemble, Meta4, offered some familiar music and some considerably less so.
First up: the second of the op.9 string trios, Beethoven’s third work for string trio forces. (One may or may not account the Serenade, op.8, ‘a’ string trio, but it is certainly for violin, viola, and cello.) This, I imagine, would have been unfamiliar music to much of the audience; it is hardly the Beethoven I know best. The players (Mina Pensola, Atte Kilpeläinen, and Tomas Djupsjöbacka) imbued their performance with a true sense of, yes, discovery, from the brief yet expectant first-movement introduction to a highly dramatic, even at times quasi-improvisatory account of the finale. These were performances of intense physicality, notes veritably flying off page and bows. Not that that precluded attention to detail, but that detail was often presented in highly rhetorical fashion: the first movement development section, for instance, which seemed as engaged in development of rhetoric as in that of the material ‘itself’. The Andante quasi allegretto spoke of invention in sadness and sadness in invention, yet also of consolation, navigating an often difficult path between the two. Indeed, that Beethovenian refusal to take the easy path characterised much of what we heard. If intonation were not always perfect, should Beethoven be perfect? Should he even be polished? Mysteries were not resolved; nor, perhaps, should they ever be. A Menuetto finely poised between eighteenth-century roots also offered dynamic propulsion, not only or even principally a matter of tempo, that undeniably looked forward to the Beethoven to come. Its trio, likewise the finale, toyed with expectations, on occasion even defying them.
If the following account of the op.18 no.6 Quartet sounded more Classical, then that is surely a matter of genre, of stronger affinity with the tradition of Mozart and Haydn. (Mozart, of course, wrote a towering masterpiece of a String Trio, but it has little obvious in common with Beethoven’s essays in the genre.) The freshness of Beethoven’s contribution shone through nonetheless, once more with a quasi-improvisatory approach to some of Beethoven’s writing – the first-movement development, for instance – that will not have been to all tastes, but certainly had one listen. Opposites were starkly portrayed in the slow movement, underlined by yet certainly not confined to withdrawal and application of vibrato and shortness (or otherwise) of bowing. How to reconcile, so that a sense of the whole was conveyed too? Again, the path taken was far from easy, far from conventional. However, so long as one truly listened, it was there. The scherzo offered a whirlwind of dance, even – especially? – through metrical dislocation. Beethoven’s finale traversal of ‘La Malincolia’ opened expansively, full of tension and contrast as in the slow movement. Too much? Perhaps. There was, however, a genuine fascination to this performance that could not be shaken. Relative lightness of relief and a later surge of dramatic vigour offered further turns of the temperamental screw.
The second half was devoted to the second of the three Razumovsky Quartets. Writing was tighter here, of course, every note being made to count in every direction; performances matched that ambition and achievement. The players’ attention to rhetoric again marked this out as an unusual yet rewarding performance. There was no question of the first movement ceasing to develop once the formal development section was over; such, after all, is the essence of middle-period (and much other) Beethoven. Nothing was taken for granted in the slow movement either. Imbued with a strong sense of ‘lateness’, without sounding unduly rarefied, there was a rawness of passion here only matched by the music’s – and the performance’s – ultimate inscrutability. The extension of already powerful radicalism we heard in the scherzo, its trio writing still more so, offered ‘new discoveries’ aplenty. Familiarity can have us lose sight of what difficult music this is. Not here, however, nor in a finale that underlined both Beethoven’s status as Haydn’s pupil and how far he, how far music, had travelled in the meantime.