Ludwig van Beethoven / Benet Casablancas
Konservatorium, Bern, 2019-01-21
It’s been a few months since I last visited a chamber music event that the Bern Symphony Orchestra organizes in the big hall of the Bern Conservatory (“Konsi Bern” for the locals). This evening’s concert (the first one in 2019 ran under the title “4. Kammermusik Bern / Molto espressivo“. The artists were the Cuarteto Casals.
This is my second concert encounter with this ensemble, which goes back to 1997. It has its roots at the Escuela Superior de Música Reina Sofia in Madrid.
- Abel Tomàs, violin, born 1980 in Barcelona, founding member
- Vera Martínez Mehner, violin, born 1979 in Madrid, founding member
- Jonathan Brown, viola, born 1974 in Chicago. Jonathan joined the ensemble in 2002
- Arnau Tomàs, cello, brother of Abel Tomàs; born in Barcelona. He is the founder of the quartet.
For additional information see my earlier posting on their concert in Lugano, on 2017-04-22.
On the occasion of their 20th anniversary, according to the concert handout, the Cuarteto Casals tackled the project of presenting all of Ludwig van Beethoven’s string quartets in a series of six concert programs. Each of these programs is complemented by a contemporary / 20th century composition. This quartet recital featured the following program:
- Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827): String Quartet No.1 in F major, op.18/1
- Benet Casablancas (*1956): String Quartet No.4, “Widmung” (2017)
- Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827): String Quartet No.13 in B♭ major, op.130 / Great Fugue in B♭ major, op.133
The concert that I attended on 2017-04-22 in Lugano must have been part of this anniversary project already, also featuring two Beethoven quartets, plus one by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975). Back then, the two Beethoven quartets were the composer’s first work in this genre, op.18/1 (!), and the last one, the String Quartet No.16 in F major, op.135.
A Déjà vu?
So, hearing op.18/1 again with the very same artists may seem like a complete déjà vu. However, for one, there are two years between the two performances. In addition, the previous instance was in a small venue, with only around 80 people attending. Also, the distance to the ensemble in 2017 was only a few meters. This time, my wife and I booked seats in row 2 (right-hand edge) of the balcony, in a substantially bigger (and well-sold) venue. I did not expect substantial changes in the ensemble’s performance. However, this offered the chance to find out about the influence of acoustics and the physical distance on my listening experience.
Beethoven: String Quartet No.1 in F major, op.18/1
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) published his first string quartets, the series of six string quartets op.18 in 1801. The String Quartet No.1 in F major, op.18/1 is a creation from 1798 – 1800. The quartet is in four movements:
- Allegro con brio
- Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato
- Scherzo: Allegro molto — Trio
I’m not introducing this composition, as the quartet is well-known. On top of that, I have posted an extensive comparison of various recordings (from historic to recent/modern to historically informed). This comparison posting also includes a description and score samples.
Expectedly, the performance of Beethoven’s op.18/1 very much resembled the one from two years ago. That started with the configuration of the ensemble: here, Abel Tomàs played the first violin. The instruments were modern, though the artists used late classical bows, with the exception of the violist, Jonathan Brown, who played this composition with a baroque / early-classical bow. Also in this concert, he changed to a late-classical bow for the other works. He was sitting at the right-hand side edge of the group, as last time, and he was the one who seemed to focus on the sheet music the most, interacting with the others mostly through peripheral vision.
The violist and Vera Martínez Mehner were playing from sheet music, the two brothers, Abel and Arnau Tomàs, from tablet computers. The bulk of the visual interaction between the artists happened between the two violins and the cello. Already from the compositions, the lead role was shared between the two violinists—except for op.18/1, where the first violin has more of a clear lead role.
I. Allegro con brio
I (again) liked the light, fresh articulation, the transparency, the very restricted use of vibrato. The artists seemed to reserve the use of noticeable vibrato to longer, “focal” notes in solo / lead roles—naturally often the first violin. Sound esthetics was not a first priority for the ensemble: the artists did not shy away from the occasional rough times in expressive segments. Too bad the exposition was not repeated: that’s hard to understand, given that it is not even 3 minutes.
One prominent feature in the ensemble’s playing was in the lively dynamics, in pp, they sometimes took back the volume to the finest whispering. It was in the soft part where the intonation was most critical (much more than in a rough ff), primarily where there was little or no vibrato. In this movement (op.18/1 in general) I found the intonation to be excellent, especially in the soft segments. The artists were sure aware of possible intonation issues—they checked the tuning between all movements.
The few, minor quibbles I had was in an occasional tendency to accelerate (slightly) around a crescendo or the peak of a phrase (that’s something I noted in several Beethoven movements). Also, occasionally, the staccato points on the quavers in the main motif / theme were rather broad, almost portato.
II. Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato
Here, the vibrato was again very selective. On long, prominent notes, the cellist often let it evolve into a broad, harmonious swaying. Apart from that, it mostly seemed limited to the first violin—and there, it occasionally seemed a bit too prominent and nervous in the overall scheme: I certainly could have imagined a performance with even less vibrating. Sure, it was used as an ornament—but a little too frequently in the top voice, perhaps, given that the playing in the middle voice used an almost “flat” tone.
It was mostly in this movement, where I had the impression that the Cuarteto Casals view Beethoven’s first string quartet as a mature composition, maybe even as a foreshadow of the late quartets, far, far away from Haydn’s quartets, let alone the Rococo style.
III. Scherzo: Allegro molto — Trio
A fast, virtuosic performance, almost ghastly running along in the pp and ppp parts, excellent in the coordination. I particularly liked the long, flat (“raw”) resting tones in the second part of the Trio.
All repeats observed in the first pass of the Scherzo and the Trio; even in the Scherzo da capo, the first part was repeated.
Very agile, fluent (certainly not exaggerating in the agogics). Often, the tone was deliberately left “raw”, unadorned. I experienced the performance, the interpretation as conclusive, closed in itself. The only reservation I have is that the fastest notes occasionally felt a tad superficial, rushed.
Overall Rating: ★★★★
Casablancas: String Quartet No.4, “Widmung” (2017)
The Spanish composer Benet Casablancas (*1956) dedicated his String Quartet No.4 from 2017 to the Cuarteto Casals. The title of the work is in German: “Widmung” (dedication). According to the handout, it refers both to the dedicatees, as well as to the fact that the work also makes reference to Beethoven’s op.130, the last work in this concert program.
In an introductory announcement, we were told that the original plan called for Beethoven’s String Quartet in C minor, op.18/4 to be played after op.18/1, and “Widmung” to precede op.130 after the intermission. Given the links between the two works, this would definitely have made sense. However, it apparently turned out that Casablancas’ quartet was longer than anticipated. So, the artists dropped Beethoven’s op.18/2 and performed “Widmung” prior to the intermission.
Relations to Beethoven’s op.130?
The separation of “Widmung” from op.130 was unfortunate. For one, the audience still had op.18/1 in mind. Also, one cannot assume that listeners “know” the movements of op.130 well enough to recognize allusions in Casablancas’ single movement. Without these cross-links, the audience lacked the connection to Beethoven. This would have been an essential ingredient for a listener to understand or having some (even just superficial) insights into “Widmung“.
I think it would have been instrumental, even necessary to perform “Widmung” after Beethoven’s op.130—or, alternatively, to make a short introduction with explanations and sound samples / excerpts from both works. I think that I know op.130 reasonably well—however, while listening to “Widmung“, I had no spontaneous recollection of themes or motifs from op.130—none at all.
Of course, Casablancas is far from using Beethoven’s tonal language. To the contrary, his quartet is consequently atonal, and full of dissonances. On top of that, he uses alienating effects, such as sul ponticello, as well as sul tasto articulation, often combined with tremolo, shivering tones. Finest ppp alternates almost violent ff segments, combined with extremes in pitch. Highly dramatic moments alternate with holding / waiting periods. I had the impression of an intense, lively discourse, whereby the instruments formed alternating alliances. Discussions sometimes also alternated with recitative-like moments. Canon-like polyphony alternated with (dissonant) homophonic sequences, violent expression with playful interaction.
At least in this first encounter, a listener could hardly recognize any overall structure, thematic, rhythmic or dynamic. The composition works with short motifs rather than longer cantilenas. In the absence of catchy themes, rhythms or melodies, it seemed hard, if not impossible to keep an overview over the movement. What remained was the impression of a kaleidoscope of scenes and temperaments. There were atmospheric moments which reminded me of a gentle breeze in summer, but also maybe moments depicting the paralyzing heat of Summer in Spain. The multitude of moods and expressions also led the impression of occasional shortness of breath.
For all I can say, the performance & the interpretation by the Cuarteto Casals were masterful, devoid of technical issues, coherent. All four musicians performed with focus and concentration, controlled. I seemed that Benet Casablancas composed “into the hands, the minds, the instruments” of the ensemble. And the dedicatees certainly made every humanly possible effort to fulfill the composer’s expectations. If only the listener was given more of a chance to gain additional insights into the work!
Overall Rating: ★★★
Towards the end of his life, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) returned to the genre of string quartets again, creating a series of monumental works, all of which are central to the string quartet repertoire. In its original form, the String Quartet No.13 in B♭ major, op.130 premiered in March 1826, featuring the following movements:
- Adagio, ma non troppo – Allegro
- Andante con moto, ma non troppo. Poco scherzoso
- Alla danza tedesca. Allegro assai
- Cavatina. Adagio molto espressivo
- Große Fuge: Overtura, Allegro – Meno mosso e moderato – Allegretto – Fuga, Allegro – Meno mosso e moderato – Allegro molto e con brio – Allegro
The reaction on the last movement was mixed: publisher and friends suggested a simpler final movement. Beethoven complied and agreed to publishing the work with a new final movement (Allegro). Beethoven never witnessed a performance of the work with the new finale. The original, final movement later appeared separately, as Große Fuge (Great Fugue) in B♭ major, op.133. In this concert, the Cuarteto Casals performed the original version of the composition, as outlined above.
Again, I have written extensive comparisons covering a number of recordings, in separated postings: one for String Quartet No.13 in B♭ major, op.130 (with the new finale), and a separate one for the Great Fugue in B♭ major, op.133, so I save the space for the description.
As in Casablancas’ “Widmung”, Vera Martínez Mehner was now performing at the first desk, the two brothers, Abel and Arnau Tomàs united in the rear positions.
I. Adagio, ma non troppo – Allegro
Already in the Adagio, ma non troppo introduction, I was disappointed to realize that here, the ensemble used vibrato almost uniformly / everywhere. The vibrating usually wasn’t excessively strong, certainly not to the point where it seriously affected the intonation. However, the performance in op.18/1 raised expectations that were no longer fulfilled here. That’s unfortunate, as the artists previously proved that they don’t need “vibrato sauce” almost everywhere.
In the Allegro parts, I again noted a tendency to accelerate in crescendo—not as ensemble, but in individual voices. And again, the repeat signs around the exposition were ignored. Finally, some of the semiquaver passages in the coda seemed a tad rushed.
Virtuosic, concise, fast, with excellent coordination. In the second segment, Beethoven explicitly specifies L’istesso tempo. The artists omitted the repetition and switched to slight, but permanent and noticeable acceleration, up to the ritardando on the half notes. And for the first time, the intonation occasionally seemed inaccurate, careless.
III. Andante con moto, ma non troppo. Poco scherzoso
Here now, the vibrato was anything but discreet, at least initially. Later in the movement, the artists seemed to alternate between often nervous vibrato and senza vibrato playing. To me, the performance overall wasn’t convincing, lacked coherence: I occasionally got the impression of four individuals performing, rather than an ensemble performing out of a single mind / spirit. I could not point to obvious discrepancies—this was merely my overall impression. Maybe I just didn’t understand the ensemble’s concept? To me, the overall flow was not compelling. As an example, I don’t understand why the pace slowed down in the pp at the beginning of the coda.
IV. Alla danza tedesca. Allegro assai
The artists were very explicit in the crescendo / decrescendo forks. Everything in the score seemed to be there—with the exception of the dance character. It seemed somewhat “made up”, rather than natural, somewhat playful dance swaying. And I didn’t see the reason for the slightly faster tempo after the first to (repeated) ritornello segments.
V. Cavatina. Adagio molto espressivo
In fast movements, vibrato typically hurts less. All the more, it was very conspicuous here—and not helpful: a feature, rather than a means to highlight the climax of a phrase, special notes, etc.
There were also some tempo alterations that I failed to understand, an occasional lack of calm, of patience in this infinitely beautiful (and infinitely sad) movement. On the bright side, I found the hesitant, anxious recitative of the first violin (above the triplets in the other instruments) to be a nice highlight in this performance: the movement seemed to gain coherence towards the end.
VI. Große Fuge / Great Fugue in B♭ major, op.133
Also this part remained below my expectations in these artists. The fugue seemed deliberately raw, sometimes crude, unruly—and often also inaccurate, if not occasionally careless in the intonation. Signs of exhaustion? Maybe these inaccuracies were distracting—I failed to see a convincing overall, structural concept. The few highlights in this movement were in the subtle pp and ppp segments: these were atmospheric, also had little vibrato.
A concert with mixed outcome, unfortunately, somewhat disappointing in the second half. One could see this from the limited enthusiasm in the applause. Did the artists have a bad day? I don’t think that this is an explanation, as the outcome somehow was consistent with the one from two years ago. In the end, the ensemble seemed to lack the motivation to give an encore: it would have been nice to hear Beethoven’s substitute final movement to op.130 at least as encore—only too often, that movement seems to get overrun!