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Philharmonia Quartett Berlin

Saturday, November 17, 2007, at 7:30 PM

By Harry Haskell

The Concert
At a Glance

In a sense, the two halves of tonight’s program are mirror images of each other. Mendelssohn and Schumann, close friends and near contemporaries, brought a fresh sensibility to bear on the chamber music idiom they had inherited from Beethoven. Sandwiched between their exuberantly Romantic string quartets, and based on radically different aesthetic principles, are two remarkable sets of 20th-century miniatures by Austrian composer Anton Webern and his Hungarian admirer György Kurtág.

Notes on the Program

FELIX MENDELSSOHN String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 13, “Ist es wahr?”

Born February 3, 1809, in Hamburg; died November 4, 1847, in Germany.

Composed between July and October of 1827, Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2 received its Carnegie Hall premiere on November 21, 1982, in Carnegie Recital Hall (now Weill Recital Hall) with the Cézanne Quartet: David Salness and Celine Leathead, violins; Edward P. Gazouleas, viola; and Michael Kannen, cello.

No work better illustrates Mendelssohn’s prodigious precocity than the A Minor String Quartet. Both its technical assurance and its depth of feeling belie the fact that its composer was an 18-year-old student at the University of Berlin. To be sure, by late 1827 Mendelssohn already had an impressive clutch of masterpieces to his credit, including the first version of the great String Octet and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Yet none of his previous works quite prepares one for the boldly iconoclastic language of his second quartet. It was at once a tribute to his artistic progenitors and a declaration of independence.

The quartet opens with a luminous, triple-time melody in A major borrowed from a love song that Mendelssohn had composed several months earlier. A three-note motif, first falling, then rising, soon emerges as one of the work’s germinal ideas. (It originally accompanied the words “Ist es wahr?”—“Is it true,” the lover asks, “that you are always waiting for me in the arbored walk?”) Mendelssohn’s adulation of Bach—weeks after finishing the quartet, he would begin rehearsals for his epoch-making revival of the St. Matthew Passion—here bore fruit in a profusion of counterpoint. Henry Chorley, the famously crotchety British critic, complained that the young composer was “parading his science, his knowledge of the ancients, his mastery over all the learning of his Art” in an effort to “prove himself a man among the double refined intelligences of those by whom he was surrounded.”

The somber fugue that constitutes the midsection of the quartet’s slow second movement does indeed recall the Bach of the Musical Offering and the Beethoven of the late string quartets. (Mendelssohn was nonplussed when a guest at a Parisian salon praised the A-Minor Quartet to his face, mistakenly attributing it to Beethoven. “This was bittersweet,” he sighed.) Yet there is no mistaking Mendelssohn’s touch in the third movement, with its trademark gossamer scherzo. Nor is there anything remotely derivative in the masterly way the finale recapitulates and elaborates on the themes of the preceding movements. A spacious coda, in radiant A major, harks back to the question posed at the beginning of the quartet, wordlessly affirming the poet’s devotion to the beloved woman “who feels with me and stays ever true to me.”

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ANTON WEBERN Five Pieces, Op. 5

Born December 3, 1883, in Vienna; died September 15, 1945, in Mittersill.

Composed in the spring of 1909, the Five Pieces were first performed February 8 of the following year in Vienna. It received its Carnegie Hall premiere on January 19, 1940, in Carnegie Chamber Music Hall (now Weill Recital Hall) with the Galimir String Quartet: Felix Galimir and Emil Kornsand, violins; Lotte Hammerschlag, viola; and Fritz Magg, cello.

Webern’s Five Pieces for String Quartet (he later transcribed them for full string orchestra) date from 1909, when the 26-year-old composer was just beginning to make a name for himself. Webern’s laconic description of the work in a letter to his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, offered no hint of its radically unconventional nature. “I have already written an entire string quartet,” he proudly reported. “It has five movements: the first fast, the second very slow, the third very fast, the fourth slower, the fifth a slow 6/8 meter. The movements are all short.” Webern could be as sparing with words as he was with notes.

Yet perhaps this is all that needs to be said—all that can usefully be said without resort to analytical jargon—about this hauntingly ethereal set of miniatures. Op. 5 was a milestone on Webern’s egress from the cul de sac (as he saw it) of late-Romantic long-windedness and extravagance. The Five Pieces are radical not only in their extreme brevity—together, they last barely as long as a single movement of a standard quartet—but also in their implicit rejection of the laws that had governed Western art music for centuries. For by 1909, both Webern and Schoenberg had cast adrift from traditional tonal harmony and plunged into the murky waters of atonality.

To characterize the Five Pieces as a revolutionary manifesto, however, risks obscuring their high value as art. As busy as the score looks on the printed page, this is music of transcendent quietude; one of Webern’s dynamic markings reads “scarcely audible.” The panoply of special tonal effects creates a restless kaleidoscope of colors and shapes, as silky filaments of sound dissolve into spiky outbursts. The Five Pieces sparked a famous riot when they were performed at a contemporary music festival in Salzburg in 1922. Are audiences today less easily shocked? Listen closely and decide for yourself.

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GYÖRGY KURTÁG Hommage à Mihály András: 12 Microludes for String Quartet, Op. 13

Born February 19, 1926, in Lugoj, Romania.

Composed in the winter of 1977–78, the Microludes were first performed on April 21, 1978, at Witten, Germany, by the Eder Quartet. It received its Carnegie Hall premiere on February 8, 2001, with the Emerson String Quartet: Philip Setzer and Eugene Drucker, violins; Lawrence Dutton, viola; and David Finckel, cello.

Despite its titular bow to Kurtág’s compatriot András Mihály, the 12 Microludes for String Quartet are most clearly indebted to Webern—specifically, the Five Pieces, Op. 5, heard on the first half of tonight’s program. As a student in Paris in the late 1950s, Kurtág became so fascinated by the Austrian composer (whose works were unavailable in Communist Hungary) that he went to the library and copied out virtually Webern’s entire oeuvre by hand. Kurtág once described composition as a process of “continual research” aimed at achieving “a sort of unity with as little material as possible.”

Kurtág’s “research” is far from an academic exercise, however. Like Webern, he is just as concerned with the way his music sounds as with how it’s put together. Certainly, the sonorous surface of the 12 Microludes is rich and beguiling enough to repay repeated listening. On first encounter, one is apt to be struck by the qualities it shares with Webern’s Op. 5: a carefully calibrated blend of euphony and dissonance, a delicacy of timbre and texture that brings the music to the very threshold of silence, and a phantasmagorical sound world that ranges from wispy glass-harmonica effects to the glacial stasis of soft, sustained chords.

Kurtág has never, to my knowledge, elucidated the significance of the term microlude, which appears to be his own invention. Op. 13 is obviously “micro” in scale: clocking in at roughly 9.5 minutes, Kurtág’s dozen pieces take only slightly longer to play than Webern’s five. But what about the other element of the compound? Ludus is Latin for “game.” Does Kurtág mean his music to sound literally playful? Or is the word to be understood by analogy with Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis as a learned exercise in compositional technique? Either way, the 12 Microludes are a feast for the mind as well as the ear.

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ROBERT SCHUMANN String Quartet in A Major, Op. 41, No. 3

Born June 8, 1810, in Zwickau, Saxony; died July 29, 1856, in Endenich, near Bonn.

Composed in the summer of 1842, Schumann’s A Major Quartet was first performed on September 13th of that year in a private concert at Leipzig.

Clara Schumann’s heart sank when her husband announced, in mid-1842, that he was working on a set of three string quartets. The quartet genre had never appealed to her, nor were such esoteric works likely to enhance her beloved Robert’s stature in the eyes of the world. Nonetheless, she put on a brave face when he presented her with the scores as an anniversary present (along with a “sneak preview” performance) that September. “I cannot say anything about the quartets except that they delight me in even the finest detail,” Clara wrote in her diary. “Everything there is new, along with being clear, well worked out, and always appropriate for a quartet, but what is my judgment worth?”

Less-measured praise was shortly forthcoming from a fellow composer who attended a second private performance of the Op. 41 set, by the celebrated Ferdinand David Quartet, at the end of September. Mendelssohn, to whom the three quartets are dedicated, remarked to Schumann afterwards that he could not “really explain to me how much he likes my music.” Whether Mendelssohn was genuinely at a loss for words or was simply being tactfully evasive, there is no question that he regarded his contemporary as a kindred spirit. Schumann reciprocated his esteem, professing himself “very happy” to win kudos from Mendelssohn, whom he considered “the best critic; of all living musicians he has the clearest vision.”

In preparation for resuming the chamber music project he had set aside several years earlier, Schumann had steeped himself in the robust Classicism of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Like them, he found the discipline of writing for string quartet both challenging and liberating. In Op. 41 and its sequels, the Op. 44 Piano Quintet and the Op. 47 Piano Quartet, he distanced himself from the literary models that had inspired much of his earlier work, concentrating instead on structural clarity and the craft of composition. The result, in the A-major Quartet, is a high-spirited work that balances Classical restraint with the impetuous lyricism that came naturally to Schumann.

Each of the four movements (fast, faster, slow, fastest) has a distinctive character. The first, built around the “sighing” motif of a falling fifth, is transparent in texture, by turns relaxed and driven, the thematic material tossed playfully from one instrument to another. In the second movement, the mood abruptly turns agitated. Breathless triplets give way to a brisk fugue in 2/4 meter and finally to a jaunty dance marked by wide leaps and snappy syncopations. Rich, searching harmonies and gently pulsing rhythms impart an extra measure of depth and warmth to the D-major Adagio. A zesty rondo, with its recurrent dotted-note melody, brings the work to a rollicking conclusion.

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Copyright © 2007 by The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Harry Haskell is the editor of The Attentive Listener: Three Centuries of Music Criticism (Princeton University Press) and the author of The Early Music Revival: A History (Dover).

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Saturday, November 17, 2007, at 7:30 PM

Weill Recital Hall

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