Yesterday afternoon’s recital by the New Esterházy Quartet (violinists Lisa Weiss and Kati Kyme, violist Anthony Martin, and cellist William Skeen) was entitled A Flight of Fugues. The primary connotation was that the program would be like a sampling of wines, enhanced by the fact that the Latin word “fuga” happens to mean “flight.” A more accurate title might have been “fuguing through the centuries,” since the earliest pieces on the program, from the seventeenth century, were not called fugues but were still representative of the stylistic approach to imitative counterpoint.
The centuries in question were the seventeenth (the earliest music dating from 1650), eighteenth, and nineteenth (the latest being from 1825). The first half of the program provided what amounted to a chronological traversal, while the second half honored the name of the performing ensemble by focusing on the Esterházy court. Taken as a whole, this was a highly engaging plan with no end of opportunities for stimulating discovery.
The most significant of those opportunities, however, came at the very end of the chronology with a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Große Fuge.” Beethoven wrote this as the final (sixth) movement of his Opus 130 quartet in B-flat major. However, his publisher, Matthias Artaria, persuaded Beethoven that the total length of the quartet would be unmanageable (meaning that it was unlikely to sell very well). Beethoven composed a shorter final movement, and the quartet was first performed in that version in 1826. Artaria then published the “Große Fuge” separately in 1827 as Opus 133.
Martin told most of this story in introducing yesterday afternoon’s performance. He then suggested that the movement originally intended to precede the fugue could be treated as a “prelude” for the fugue. So the ensemble presented that Cavatina movement from Opus 130 followed by the Opus 133 fugue.
Martin also talked about this fugue as an intricate piece of clockwork. He explained that Beethoven laid out all the individual components in his introductory section and then led the listener through the process of their assembly. That introduction was then followed by one of the clearest performances of Opus 133 that I have had the pleasure to experience.
That clarity may owe much to the ensemble’s performing on period instruments. When one reads the score, one encounters the full dynamic range from pianissimo to fortissimo, along with a generous supply of sforzando punctuations. However, those used to modern instruments tend to forget that dynamic range at the beginning of the nineteenth century was far narrower than it was at the beginning of the twentieth. Playing Beethoven’s passages at twentieth-century fortissimo creates the effect of each instrument trying to outshout the other three, thus obscuring the fact that counterpoint is about the interplay among the contributing voices, rather than the dissonances that emerge as a result of superposition.
Yesterday’s performance was as remote from a shouting match as one could hope to get. The individuality of the voices was still there, together with those dissonances of superposition. However, each voice had its own identity; and one could appreciate the intricacy of that interplay that justifies using the clockwork metaphor.
Yet within that engaging web of intricacy there was also a compelling urgency of spontaneity. One was reminded that the act of fuguing, arising from one performer imitating another, had considerable precedent before the writing of imitative counterpoint became established. Thus, while Opus 133 is, without a doubt, one of the most masterful acts of writing such counterpoint, yesterday’s performance evoked the in-the-moment intensity that comes from making the resulting products of imitation.
The Cavatina then emerged as the introduction to this fugue that Beethoven may well have imagined it to be. While the movement is basically song-like, the “accompanying” lines often interleave with the “melody,” thus preparing the mind behind the ear for the more elaborate interactions of the fugue. That interleaving also creates a somewhat unsettling rhetoric, since one is never quite sure where any phrase begins or ends. Those “clouds of uncertainty” are then blown away by the component-by-component introduction to the fugue. One could thus better appreciate the logic of the fugue without enduring the full length of all the quartet movements originally intended to precede it.
Equally interesting was how, in yesterday’s program, the “path to Beethoven” was set by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Following a performance of a fantasia by Henry Purcell for four viols, the program introduced two examples of Mozart arranging early counterpoint for string quartet, both probably for performances at matinée concerts arranged by Gottfried van Swieten, who developed an interest in “early music” while Imperial Ambassador to the Prussian Court between 1770 and 1777. The first of these was an arrangement of a keyboard fantasia on the first six steps of the major scale by Johann Jakob Froberger. This was followed by an arrangement of the more familiar C minor fugue from the second volume of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier (K. 405).
This Mozart section was then concluded by his own prelude-and-fugue exercise. In 1783 he had composed a fugue in C minor for two pianos (K. 426). In 1788 he rearranged this fugue for string quartet and added an Adagio movement as prelude (K. 546). The program thus offered an imaginative combination of Mozart acting as both arranger and composer, all in the interest of providing accounts of imitative counterpoint with consistently informative clarity.
As might be guessed, the major portion of the “Esterházy half” of the program was music by Joseph Haydn. The final work was his Hoboken III/32 string quartet in C major, the second of the “sun” quartets published as Opus 20 in 1772. Three of the quartets in this set have multiple-subject fugues as final movements. Hoboken III/32 is the most elaborate with four subjects. This quartet is also distinguished for its second movement, a Capriccio, which, had it been mistaken for nineteenth-century music, might have been credited as a transcription of a mad scene from some overblown and forgotten Italian opera. Indeed, each of the four movements of this quartet has its own distinct personality; and New Esterházy Quartet responded with some of the most diverse expressions of rhetoric encountered throughout the entire program.
This quartet was preceded by one of Haydn’s exercises in arrangement. The music arranged was the overture to an oratorio entitled The Prodigal Son, composed by Haydn’s predecessor as music director at the Esterházy court, Gregor Joseph Werner, in 1747. Haydn prepared this string quartet arrangement near the end of his life in 1804. The overture follows the past (Werner’s past) tradition of a Grave introduction followed by an Allegro fugue; and the key is again C minor. In many respects this slot of the program served up the closest approximation to a “good old-fashioned fugue;” and, while it was given a delightfully vigorous account by the performers, one wonders whether the elder Haydn had written it as an act of sentimental nostalgia.
For some of us, however, nostalgia only reared its head for the encore. This turned out to be a recent composition by Stephen Malinowski entitled “A Fugue for Friday.” Last year Malinowski had used his Music Animation Machine software to provide a real-time video representation of Beethoven’s Opus 133 when it was performed by the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra. This time he was doing his own composing, and those of us with long memories quickly recognized that his fugue was not some hymn of thanksgiving for the last day of the working week. The “Friday” turned out to be Sergeant Joe Friday, hero of the popular Fifties detective series Dragnet. For many of us, the four opening notes of that theme are even more memorable than the fanfare from Gioacchino Rossini’s overture for William Tell. Malinowski managed to turn them into a first-rate fugue subject, concluding the concert with an abundance of wit that Haydn probably would have appreciated.