Last night the Telegraph Quartet of violinists Eric Chin and Joseph Maile, violist Pei-Ling Lin, and cellist Jeremiah Shaw returned to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) to give another recital in the Chamber Music Masters series. Their program took one of the signature compositions of the Second Viennese School, Anton Webern’s Opus 5, a set of five short movements for string quartet, and sandwiched it between two major works from the First Viennese School, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 614 quintet in E-flat major and the second of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 59 quartets, composed in the key of E minor. Ian Swensen joined the group for the Mozart, exchanging his violin for a viola.
The overall organization also paralleled the program they had prepared for the Old First Concerts recital they gave at the end of last week at Old First Church. This involved the idea of presenting early, middle, and late compositions, each associated with a different composer. In fact, the Beethoven quartet was the same “middle” composition they had performed at Old First. Also, the “early” composition was again from the most recent composer, Webern this time instead of Benjamin Britten. The major difference last night, however, was that the “late” composition was, chronologically, the earliest piece on the program, composed in 1791, the year of Mozart’s death.
Much is made of the tragic circumstances of Mozart’s final year, a tale that is almost always colored in the tones of his K. 626 setting of the Requiem text, which he died before completing. This overlooks just how cheerful many of the 1791 compositions are, since they include the K. 620 opera The Magic Flute, the K. 595 piano concerto in B-flat major, and the K. 622 clarinet concerto in A major. K. 614 shares that same sunny disposition, and its opening Allegro di molto is positively frolicsome. The exchanges between the pair of violins and the pair of violas, the duo rhetoric within each of these couples, and the stalwart support of the cello are all enlivened with a sense of banter. Mozart’s chamber music is frequently (if not always) conversational; but this music emerges as a gathering of old friends at a pub where libation counts for as much as conversation.
All this was given an engagingly delightful account last night. Swensen had no trouble fitting into the “social mix” defined by Mozart’s music. Indeed, he was as lively as I have ever seen him in any of his violin performances, if not considerably more so, as if the viola were providing him with opportunities to try out new tricks. “Late” Mozart may not have the struggling adventurism of late Beethoven or the nostalgic retrospection of the late works of Antonín Dvořák (one of which was performed last week at Old First); but it abounds with a sense of satisfied accomplishment. It requires nothing more than a engaging account of that sense, which is precisely what last night’s performance delivered.
Following Mozart with Webern made for a rather radical shift, but it also affirmed that the Second Viennese School has earned as significant a place in repertoire as its predecessor. Webern did not start publishing his music until the completion of his studies with Arnold Schoenberg in 1908. (His Opus 1 passacaglia for orchestra was his graduation piece.) This was also the time when he befriended Schoenberg’s other major pupil, Alban Berg. Like Schoenberg, Webern was interested in the problem of composing music that lacked a tonal center. He developed an interest in intervallic relations within small cells of pitch classes as an alternative basis for orientation; and, during the middle of the twentieth century, Allen Forte developed an analytical technique for describing the logical and grammatical aspects of such cells.
However complex may be the logic and grammar of Webern’s music, its real impact resides in its rhetoric. This involves microscopic attention to dynamics, frequently involving wide shifts from one note to the next, and a bevy of unorthodox performance techniques. Where strings are concerned, these latter lead to radical shifts in the frequency spectra that define the sonorities, sometimes leading the listener to wonder just what kinds of instruments are being played. Those shifts in sonority often take place on that same microscopic level as the shifts in dynamics, meaning that the score pages themselves are packed with abundant detail, as can be seen in the excerpt reproduced above.
It is therefore particularly important to note that last night’s performance of Webern’s Opus 5 was played from memory. Other ensembles have presented music like this with each performer playing from the full score, thus insuring that everyone always knows what everyone else is doing. (In Webern’s case this was how he wished the music to be published.) Telegraph, on the other hand, approached this complexity the same way that George Balanchine used to prepare the members of the New York City Ballet. Everyone learns what everyone else is doing simply through execution. Each dancer acquires knowledge of “the whole machine” and the part (s)he plays in making that machine run. When the curtain goes up on the stage, the machine does its work; but, at the same time, the dancers are now prepared to bring the necessary dancing to the performance.
Similarly, each member of Telegraph came to last night’s performance of Webern with a secure and confident internalization of that “whole machine.” From the vantage point of those individual internalizations, the music could emerge as “conversational” as the Mozart quintet had been. The “tone” of the conversation was radically different, as were the personalities engaged in the conversation. However, through the heightened awareness established by putting away the marks on paper, Telegraph made a solid case that, for all of those major shifts in logic and grammar, the spirit of the string quartet was just as fresh and alive as it had been in the hands of the First Viennese School composers.
Indeed, the extent to which Telegraph established Webern’s Opus 5 in their comfort zone reinforced their approach to Beethoven’s Opus 59. On the one hand there was a solid foundation of familiarity and the extent to which that familiarity enhanced the conversational rhetoric. At the same time, however, this was minor-key music, with connotations that could be just as adventurous (and sometimes a bit disturbing) as could be encountered in Webern’s atonal ambiguities. Last week those connotations revealed themselves through an intense urgency in execution. Last night the tempi were not quite as breakneck, but that sense of urgency still dominated the execution; and, as a result of easing the tension in the outer movements, the Molto adagio movement was better served as one of the early examples of that gift for making time stand still that Beethoven would cultivate for the rest of his life.