One of the hallmarks of Beethoven is that he created no one great masterpiece. His compositional career is littered with masterpieces.
Among his many truly outstanding compositions stands the String Quartet No. 14. It has been claimed that it was the composer’s favorite quartet and even Richard Wagner wrote about it with almost delirious praise. It was completed in 1826, and has seven movements which are to be played without pause, creating a single coherent work of various moods and full of fascinating musical ideas.
This great Beethoven work was the single piece on the program when the Avalon String Quartet (violinists Blaise Magnière and Marie Wang, violist Anthony Devroye, and cellist Cheng Hou-Lee) gave the last concert of 2020 in the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert Series. It took place in Preston Bradley Hall last month, hosted by the International Music Foundation and streamed live by the IMF as well as WFMT.com.
In the opening, there was plaintive sound from the first violin, as the work begins with what Wagner called “the saddest thing ever said in notes.” The Avalon Quartet played introspectively, and the slow pace had a palpable and steady pulse. Their execution of the high dissonances was very effective.
The Allegro molto vivace had a light touch without sacrificing substance. The following Allegro moderato (less than a minute in playing time) had the requisite recitative quality and led beautifully into the Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile, the longest of the seven movements. There was singing tone from all the players and the seven variations that make up this section were each given their own shape and definition.
The Presto was played at a good galloping pace. Playing on the bridge of their instruments, the quartet showed able technique playing. They were effective with the starts and stops in the music as well as the playful passing of phrases from instrument to instrument.
The following Adagio, serving as an introduction to the final movement, was slow and somber and led naturally to the Allegro, where the quartet elucidated both the light and the dark elements. They went from shy to sly and had bold brassiness about them at the end.
A week earlier, violinist Joshua Brown and pianist Milana Pavchinskaya gave the penultimate concert of the year for the Dame Myra Hess series. They opened with a luminescent performance of Claude Debussy’s Violin Sonata in G minor. This was the composer’s last piece, written a year before his death. While short, it contains much color and atmosphere, as well as the “tumultuous joy” that the composer intended.
Brown was both delicate and deliberate in the opening movement and Pavchinskaya’s piano had a lovely liquid quality. The duo gave the music the sense of something remembered, at times shimmering, as if with an undefined source of light. It ended with a brief, dazzling run by Brown. The middle movement, while at times almost jazzy, showed off Brown’s technical brilliance and his soft passages were perfectly executed. The concluding section had intensity and drama, holding your attention until the final notes died away.
They followed with the Three Romances by Clara Schumann, written in 1853. Throughout, they rendered these charming, beautiful melodies with flair. The first Romance featured tender sound from the violin, with the piano adding texture and just a bit of heft. In the second Romance, the quiet ending had you leaning forward to hear every sound, particularly the punctuating pizzicato from the violin. The third Romance had nicely rocking piano and lyrical sound from the violin. At one point, Schumann seemed to place us in a mid-19th-century living room in front of a warm, satisfying fire. Brown and Pavchinskaya made it cozy as well as pretty.
The last work on their program was the Faust Fantasy by Henri Wieniawski, based on Gounod’s opera “Faust”. Wieniawski created a beautiful set of vignettes, full of operatic grandeur yet instrumentally scaled down to draw out the personal emotion and individual suffering.
The work opens with ominous music from the piano, setting the stage for tragedy. The violin enters on a high soft note and plays an intriguing little melody that ends even higher and softer, drawing us into Faust’s world. Brown and Pavchinskaya drew out the yearning of an old man grasping for one last chance at the carefree joy of youth and the hope of young love. The duo imbued the work with both love and rage and gave a convincing portrayal of desire as well as the impending downfall of Faust. Brown was grippingly virtuosic without the distracting physical manifestations used by many performers these days. His skill was evident without staginess, and his musicality was glorious. It was a wonderful way to end an engaging concert.
The Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts continue to be streamed live, for free, every Wednesday at 12:15 p.m. via the International Music Foundation website. For more information, or to view past streams, visit imfchicago.org.