8 January 2020, Bachtrack
Beethoven 250: Krzysztof Chorzelski on scaling the Himalayan heights of the string quartets
By Krzysztof Chorzelski
The long-awaited year has arrived. It is 2020 and we, the Belcea Quartet, are devoting it exclusively to the man whose music moves, challenges, provokes and inspires us more than anyone else’s. For us Beethoven is an all-consuming passion. He is the prime reason why we are a string quartet.
For each one of us, hearing a Beethoven quartet for the first time was a turning point. Nowadays, many years later, we exchange strikingly similar stories about how we sleepwalked through our teenage lives bingeing on Beethoven in our headphones (we are, after all, the “Walkman” generation).
I remember discovering Op. 131 for the first time in the Alban Berg Quartet’s EMI recording. To me, it felt so human, so sorrowful, bizarre, tender and heroic, that listening to it became the most powerful contemplation of human life. Many years later I discovered from Antoine, our cellist, that hearing this very same piece is what gave him the imperative to one day become a string quartet player.
The first time we performed and recorded Beethoven’s complete string quartet cycle was eight years ago, and I remember the sort of dizziness we felt when that season was drawing to a close. I don’t know if there is any actual parallel but it seems to me, from what I have read, that a similar feeling accompanies mountaineers scaling the Himalayan heights: a sense of profound self-discovery arising from overcoming a titanic challenge that combines with the breathtaking scenery and the rarefied air into a sort of ecstasy.
It is no wonder that since then we couldn’t wait to repeat this experience. Eight years ago we were intoxicated by Beethoven’s emotional charge. We relished the challenge of reading these scores in a way that would best express all those extreme emotions. We loved the cortège of bizarre characters leaping from the quartets’ pages: the humorous, the terrifying, the mysterious, the surreal. We spent hours discussing them and trying out different ways of capturing them. Already in the early Op. 18 quartets (the Adagio affetuoso ed appassionato from Op. 18/1 and La Malinconia from the Op. 18/6), through to the earthquake of the opening of Op. 95, Beethoven ventures into uncharted territory: emotional states so intensely personal and disturbing that only an equally personal response seemed appropriate to us.
There were times when, after many different attempts, we would come to the conclusion that our understanding of the notation was simply too literal to do justice to the content, and that reading Beethoven’s score must go beyond “the dots on the page”. One notable example was the closing gesture of the Große Fuge – the monumental voyage from the brink of chaos and violence to the final triumph of the greatest of human spirits. A mere crotchet chord at the end of it felt weak and “unworthy” on the first edit of our recording. After many further discussions and trials we decided to return just to that final gesture on our next visit to the studio (dedicated to a different part of the cycle), and to give it more space and breadth than before. It felt like a good solution at the time. How will it feel when we revisit the work this time around? We are about to find out…
Op. 130 (when crowned with the original final movement Große Fuge) is a particularly striking example of Beethoven’s determination to break all boundaries in search of his innermost truth. It seems to be a deliberate exercise in disunity, each successive movement lying more and more uncomfortably next to its neighbours, forming a sort of “unruly suite”. But none of these awkwardnesses prepare us for what is to come after the sublime Cavatina exhales its final breath: the nuclear explosion of the Große Fuge. A few years ago we decided to come up with our own response to this, perhaps the wildest of all of Beethoven’s provocations, by creating a programme entitled “Beethoven in mysterious company”. We interspersed in it all the movements of Op. 130 with music by other composers, somehow seen by us as relevant. Our audiences were not given the details of these additional pieces until after the full performance (lasting about an hour and a half) was finished. The music added by us to Beethoven’s quartet was written long after his time, some of it very recently. Both musical trails were meant to serve as mirrors reflecting each other. And yet I strongly believe that each time the Große Fuge arrived at the end of the concert it resonated as the most avant-garde statement of the whole evening.
As a side note I might add that during my adolescence I seem to have more or less missed out on the teenage rebellion phase. This deficit was well and truly taken care of each time we sat down to perform the Große Fuge!
Now, as we are well into the process of bringing these works back to our lives, I ask myself how our vision of them is changing with time. Broadly speaking, I have a feeling that we are becoming more aware of the architecture containing all the emotions that we love so much in these pieces.
A good example of this new direction is the Heiliger Dankgesang from Op. 132 – Beethoven’s contemplation of the Divine. An aspect of it that reveals itself to us this time more than ever before is the transfiguration of the thanksgiving chorale throughout its two consequent reincarnations. In the first one, the cantus firmus floats away into the stratosphere while the other voices whisper to each other in quiet awe. In its final appearance it is joined by them in a counterpoint of otherworldly serenity. Becoming aware of this transformation brings us closer to this piece and its sublime depiction of the relationship between man and the Divine.
Another example of a shift in our approach is the Scherzo movement of Op. 135. Marked Vivace by Beethoven, it always excited us with all its oddities: the constantly returning and totally out-of-place unison E flat (the quartet’s “other” Es muß sein), the sudden modulations revving up the manic gear leading to the wild leaps in the first violin against the mechanical repetition of a short five-note motif in the lower strings, the hilarious descent – a “sharp-by-sharp” deconstruction and the unison G sliding effortlessly into the recapitulation. It felt so exhilarating to charge through this surreal landscape without ever catching a breath. On our recent return to it we found the metronome marking which Beethoven dictated to Karl Holz, his close friend and the second violinist of the Schuppanzigh Quartet. It’s unbelievably slow! While following it to the letter seems unimaginable to us, it does cast a different light on the piece. Vivace, after all, is a description of spirit rather than speed. Since then our vision of this movement has shifted towards a scene that is considerably more grounded and rustic in character… and closer perhaps to the quartet’s enigmatic finale.
Our four lifetimes are not enough to probe the depths of these sixteen musical wonders. No other composer takes possession of us to such an extent. Beethoven is rude and impudent, and he continues to reveal breathtaking new horizons before us. He put everything he inherited in question in order to discover a new freedom of expression, removed from all dogmas, taking nothing for granted. His language, while rooted deeply in the traditions of the past, is a beacon of modernity – the new age in which man is alone.
The question we are facing is, therefore, not so much whether Beethoven remains relevant to us, but whether we are keeping up with him.