The noted Beethoven pianist Artur Schnabel was famously interested only in music that he felt was “better than it can be performed”. This idea of works which transcend any individual performance seems particularly true when it comes to Beethoven’s late string quartets, enigmatic masterpieces which continue to pose challenges to interpreters nearly two centuries after they were written. But what makes the String Quartet in B flat Op. 130 so great? It certainly seems easier to assent to the work’s greatness than to define just what gives it this quality. The eminent musicologist Joseph Kerman called it “the most problematic of Beethoven’s great compositions”. In part, this is due to its huge internal diversity, where (to quote Kerman again) “force jostles with whimsy, prayer with effrontery, dangerous innocence with an even more dangerous sophistication”. The challenges in taking on such a work were considerably increased by the Goldner String Quartet’s decision to use the original finale, the so-called “Great Fugue” (“Grosse Fuge”), possibly the most difficult piece Beethoven ever wrote, both musically and technically.

Goldner String Quartet © Keith Saunders
Goldner String Quartet
© Keith Saunders

The Goldner Quartet has extensive experience with this repertoire, having made an award-winning live recording the complete Beethoven quartet cycle some years back. In this committed rendition, the lighter movements were excellent – the third movement had charm, the fourth movement was easy and relaxed – while the “swoony” Cavatina (fifth movement), as a friend described it, was perfectly paced (the Takács Quartet, whose recording I heard recently, dared to take it even more slowly, an amazing feat of brinkmanship where things were constantly on the verge of stalling, but never quite losing momentum). There were a few less convincing moments: occasionally in the first movement I felt things became a touch routine, probably because the players were pacing themselves. Moreover, there were times when some of the demanding figuration in the second and sixth movements wasn’t as clean as it ideally should have been. But these minor imperfections were outweighed by imaginative touches, such as the when the first violinist, Dene Olding, bowed near the fingerboard before the outbreak of the first fugue in the finale, giving this introductory passage an appropriately ghostly feel. This monstrous finale was taxing both on the players and audience, leaving this listener in a state of exhausted catharsis.

Nothing could come after the Beethoven, and in fact, this was the final item in a cleverly constructed program which followed a clear emotional arc. The sense of end-weightedness in the quartet was mirrored in the concert as a whole, with the first half given over to comparatively lighter fare. It began with Mozart’s two-movement Flute Quartet in C, which showcased three members of the Pacifica Quartet alongside Sharon Bezaly. The flute clearly substituted for what would have been the first violin in a string quartet, and the three string instruments excelled in their largely accompanimental roles. Bezaly’s tone was warm and round (playing a 24-carat gold flute probably helps), and the ensemble’s articulation was stylistically appropriate and nicely varied. The Adagio variation in the second movement was particularly magical.

The stepping stone between the poised classicism of Mozart and Beethoven’s titanic transcendence was Mendelssohn’s Piano trio in D minor, an ardently romantic work. If one were to judge by the audience reaction, this was the most popular item in the concert. The vastly experienced pianist Lambert Orkis (best known, perhaps, as Anne-Sophie Mutter’s playing partner) was sensitive and discreet, maybe excessively so: the constant semiquaver figuration that is such a hallmark of Mendelssohn’s writing for the piano could have done with being a bit more prominent. The young American violinist Benjamin Beilman had an attractive warm soloist’s tone and the ability to blend well, as well as the musical intelligence to decide when each of these was appropriate. My only problems when it came to the balance in the ensemble were with the cellist (Pieter Wispelwey), whose lower and middle registers tended to become inaudible when all the players were playing loudly. The highlights for me were the gloriously lyrical second movement, which was full of lovely nuances of phrasing, and the scherzo (third movement), where the fairy-like textures were simply thrilling. Given the justified celebrity of Orkis and Wispelwey, and the outstanding talent that Beilman showed, it is no wonder that this performance was greeted by a standing ovation from the majority in the Verbrugghen Hall.

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