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Calder Quartet at the New School
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Matthew Paris

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Post Fri Jan 30, 2004 8:25 pm - Calder Quartet at the New School
On November 16th I attended a matinee of the Calder Quartet playing a program of Joseph Haydn, Christopher Rouse and Ludwig van Beethoven. The still living if not overly talented Rouse was in the audience, a bearded grey haired man with a professorial air, apparently happy to hear his Second Quartet; yet he hurried away afterwards with some haste and alacrity as if he had mooned people. Perhaps he was unhappy with becoming compared with Haydn and Beethoven. I would hope so. If one writes string quartets such things happen to one. One does better writing English horn concerti or quaintest for five slightly out of tune vibraphones.
Race says in his Episcopally sober notes his quartet Ēwas dedicated to the Soviet peopleĒ, written in 1988, after the late Soviet Union had fallen. He also claimed its material was banned on DASH, letters in the name of Dmitri Shostakovitch. Notwithstanding this initial choice of material for initial inspiration, if the work was as expected properly dismal, it wasnít depressing in an intriguing way. When people sadden us we expect them to be at least a little amusing while they are running their vaporous corteges at us.
Rouseís eclectic score could not have been written without a close study of Bartokís Quartets, particular the first two; one would be at a loss to say what inspired much of the language of Bartokís work for the same forces but that is the difference between Christopher Rouse and Bartok. When we can explain everything about a composer he is probably worthless.
I felt sorry for Rouse, not merely because he was billed in this musical vaudeville between Haydn and Beethoven. He is an Academic; he apparently teaches at the Peabody Consecratory in Baltimore. In Europe they sensibly don't play much music by their didacts. One might hear an occasional requiem by Cherubini. Here we think our professors are likely to give us achievements that will be in the league with our performing artists.
Since there is no evidence for the truth of such a faith one can only shrug and call it a local religion like the worship of Scythian gods on the Asian plain of yesteryear. Professors here get lots of premieres at the colleges, an occasional playing by gourds like this Calder Quartet, a bunch of young men of twenty two from USC and apparently still impressed by big quotes about being miserable about large matters and other pretentious attempts to be august footnotes to a legitimate necropolis as part of the local pitch from minor markgrafins of the college scene. The Caldera play impeccably, seemingly make no mistakes, have perfect intonation, an elegance and ferocity that will probably at some point take them a long way from the echo chambers of Christopher Rouse.
The horrible truth is that thereís no reason besides the professorial career of the composer of such anaerobic etudes that Sanely might confide were he a good whistler to Livingston, locked into a familiar paradox of trying to be interesting on an asteroid. Itís a burden one should consign to the local barons of these sylvan spas to listen to these stillborn fuilletons.
Most of their time in their minds professors like Christopher Rouse are in Europe if their bodes are lamentably in America. We might sympathize with the sufferings of the so-called Soviet people from afar (let us remember that a Soviet is a kind of syndicalist union, hardly a description of the late Russian empire in practice); we have lots of troubles here too. Rouse might have done better writing dour music about our national dilemmas as we wrestle with suburban obesity.
Quartets and other chamber groups feel they have an obligation to present what they call modern music, usually pieces composed by the imported or local deducts on tenure. Its understandable. Their programs are otherwise not notable for featuring any work written after 1920 or so. Yet whom do they ask to write for them? Danny Elfman. Johnny Mandel, Ornette Coleman, Clint Eastwood, Randy Newman? Sting or Elvis Costello, both of whom are real musicians? No sirree. Itís some zombie from the boondocks.
If theyíre playing Haydn and Beethoven in particular, they should instead be asking composers to write music that can stand in talent and interest with the perished geniuses whom they are also playing. If they can't do it, they should stop playing modern music. They owe their audience not posture or mere competence but genius. Nothing else will do. Looking for it is the first step to finding it. After all the people in the seats are paying for their tickets, not the professors.
There is plenty of music written in the fairly dense and uncompromising manner we call high art that can stand with Haydn and Beethoven. If they had programs any of the quartets of Milton Babbitt, even a professor, nobody would say in a very different way he wasnít ready to be on the same program with Joe and Lou. Like them, Milton Babbitt is an original who redefines what music is and is always intriguing. Love him or hate him, he isnít refried beans.
Luckily the Callers, nice young men, had the sense to program Haydn and Beethoven. The Haydn G Minor Quartet, Op, 74, No. 3, really in many ways harkens back to the middies period of sturm und drang quartets of Op. 20 through Op. 45 for sheer wild sensation and odd use of jagged phrases and even weirdly placed silence.
One almost never hears it because it is too weird. Itís opening phrases as well as its eerie finale could have been written by Mahler; it slow movement has some of the quality of midnight vigil one associates with late Beethoven. Even the minuet has strange turns and ingenious directions.
There is a kind of imploded quality in this phase of Haydnís musical language that isnít easy for us, used to move expansive and leisurely executions, to take in easily. Like the C Minor Sonata and about ten of the middle period symphonies it works as much by what it doesnít say but implies as what it states directly.
The sense of the tragic in this and other Haydn works comes from a broken vocal utterance with some model of ambience if not rhetoric in KPE Bachís keyboard works that moves in an overlay with the very Euclidian character of musical extension that Haydn seems to have invented if everyone else after him from Beethoven through Chausson, Dvorak and Bartok imitated to forge their own manner of logic. It might even be said that Schoenbergís twelve tone system is a kind of severe version of Haydnís talent for making infinite amounts of extended music out of a short initial idea.
In this quartet the supposedly contrasting materials often have a structural basis in the initial phrases that Beethoven picked up on. Haydn like Mozart never seems to have written even in passing anything but brilliant music; there is seemingly no bad Haydn extant. This quartet even for him is pretty startling. It may remind one in its use of asymmetrical silence in is language of a kind of pithy emotional fatigue of the G Minor Symphony, Haydnís 39th. Yet this measured and mature man is polite. With Haydn one always feels at the end that one hasnít heard enough.
Beethovení C Major Rasmofsky Carotid both looks forward and back in its construction. Beethoven is sometimes masterful in doing this witty look both ways; most of us are lucky if we can focus one way and be amusing. The introduction without a tonal base may remind one of Mozartís Dissonant Quartet in the same key. The way Beethoven plays with a tritone, then a chromatic move a half step upward in the subsequent allegro vivace clearly in C Major is more harmonic fun that probably is another gloss on Mozartís Quartets dedicated to Haydn. Perhaps these two men discussed these quartets together as an apogee of the craft.
The weird and ghostly second movement with its eerie pizzicatti in the cello may remend as well one of similar ghostly effects in a D minor set of versions in a Mozart Divertimento but with Beethoven these references arenít eclectic; they are points of intrepid departure. The C Major fugal finale probably takes a passing nod at a similar last movement in Haydnís C Major Quartet in the Op. 20 series but Haydn is elegant and witty in his propulsive manner.
Beethoven is no less suave and entertaining but the drive of his music is more obviously primal, almost a antral force like a powerful torrent of mountain water. In fact the layout of that Harden C Major Quartet generally might have served Beethoven as one of his initial ideas as well as Martís work in the same key form which Beethoven produced this very original work.
Beyond that one can't help thinking that in the emotional character of the last three movements Beethovenís quartet isnít totally dissimilar to the Eroica Symphony, written around the same time.
This being said, there is still nothing like this quartet. Beethoven had a particular affinity for the cello; itís too bad he didnít write more for it. This quartet like many other of his has a very independent cello part that frees that instrument often from merely adding a bottom to its vertical harmony; in Beethovenís quartets the cello becomes not merely an equal instrument with the others but a central champion of polyphonic thinking in the quartet as four very different equal instruments speak to each other sort of the way Elliot Carter writes in a different idiom for strings.
Considering that as an instrumentalist Beethoven was mostly a pianist, though he did play the violin and viola, that felicity in string writing he has is quite a stretch. Of course by his 30s Beethoven was writing work in all forms of a much more expansive length than anybody had before him; l this Quartet is probably twice as long as Haydnís. It isnít formally any less strictly rigorous in structure.
The aim in this C Major Quartet from first to last is balance. The atonal introduction without a tonal base floating in the ether like the opening of Haydnís Creation or that Mozart C Major Quartet is resolved by the solid C Major statement of the following answering allegro vivace; the bizarre and frightening character of the slow movement is answered by the very sedate minuet, itself cloven by a very brilliant nervous trio. The minuet itself is a prelude to the very rigorous finale taken attaca. Itís as if this quartet is preaching a contrapuntal diversity in nature that gracefully juggles all seeming polarities.
Like Haydn Beethoven plays with familiarity, using it as a presumptive set of expositions that set up his many surprises. Familiarity for both men is a kind of illusion offered and then withdrawn. It is an appearance of hard edged substance that when turning vaporous shows a more complex reality. This quartet, the last of the Rasomofsky series, is witty and amusing in a way the other two more sober quartets arenít. Itís final fugue might have been in the back of Verdiís mind when he wrote his own witty ďtutti il mondoĒ concluding fugue in Falstaff.
As Falstaff says, quoted by Boito and Verdi setting off that final fugue, he is both a wit and a source of wit. It is this kind of metaphysical paradox that animates this Beethoven quartet from first to last. Like many of Beethovenís works, it is the development of a celestial sermon as much as it is music.
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