Saturday, February 20, 2010

Beethoven Beatitude

Last night the Pacifica Quartet performed the fourth concert of a cycle of six Beethoven String Quartets being presented at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall from February 5 to February 23. Now the Quartet in residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (used to be the Guarneri, so this is a big deal), the Pacifica was in fine form, especially playing Beethoven's God-like Op. 132.

The third movement of Beethoven's Op. 132 string quartet is an unusually slow and meditative adagio and is, without question, the heart of the entire quartet. Much of it seems to be designed to provide the build up for the two times that the instruments surge to a breathtaking height of immense emotional release. If I were a musician, I could tell you about it in musical terms. If I were a better writer, I might be able to describe what the instruments are doing during those two great surges of emotion. Beethoven meant the whole movement to be a hymn of thanks for continued life, and it does leave one exhilarated and drained. These brief surges of stringed glory are truly monumental moments in the long history of classical music.

What makes those two brief sequences especially dramatic is that the instruments are very quiet for a long period before suddenly bursting into a crescendo of sound that turns quickly into a kind of echoing fugue of joy and appreciation. It is so beautiful and such a striking contrast with what has come before, it often induces tears in me even though I know exactly when it's coming.

Finally, this movement of something like 17 minutes ends in a very long repetition of a simple but beautiful prayer-like melody. Playing it over and over again with different emphases and highly creative use of dynamics, the quartet plays this song plaintively but also with deep appreciation. The song, taken to extremes of pitch and sound by all the instruments, brings this part of the quartet to a mournful but awe-filled conclusion.

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