CARNEGIE HALL PRESENTS

Performance Sunday, March 23, 2014 | 7:30 PM

Artemis Quartet

Zankel Hall
“The Artemis Quartet has always played with vigor, brilliance, and sensitivity. More than that, its performances have had clarity of conception and unfussy directness” (The New York Times). The peerless performers bring their exquisite playing to an exceptional program of quintessential quartets by Beethoven and Brahms, as well as a contemporary work by György Kurtág.
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The Program

JOHANNES BRAHMS
String Quartet in C Minor, Op. 51, No. 1

                   
About the Composer


In his famous article "New Paths," published in 1853, Schumann lauded the 20-year-old Brahms, whom he had just met for the first time, as a genius who had sprung forth "like Minerva fully armed from the head of Jove." As Brahms auditioned his works for the Schumanns at the piano, the older composer found himself "drawn into ever deeper circles of enchantment … There were sonatas, rather veiled symphonies-songs, whose poetry one could understand without knowing the words … single pianoforte pieces, partly demoniacal, of the most graceful form-then sonatas for violin and piano-quartets for strings-and every one so different from the rest that each seemed to flow from a separate source." We may never know anything about the string quartets that worked their spell on Schumann, for Brahms destroyed each and every one of them. In fact, by the time he began work on his C-Minor Quartet in the mid-to-late 1860s, Brahms had by his own count written and discarded no fewer than 20 quartets, none of which measured up to his exacting standards.


About the Work


As in contemplating his first symphony, Brahms was paralyzed by the thought of following in Beethoven's footsteps, especially at a time when the string quartet had fallen out of favor with his fellow "progressive" composers. Friends were continually asking when his first quartet would be ready, and Brahms persistently put them off. "It took Mozart a lot of trouble to compose six early quartets," he reminded his publisher, Fritz Simrock, in 1869, "so I will try my hardest to turn out a couple fairly well done. They should not fail you, but if I were a publisher I should not be in such a hurry." Simrock was the soul of patience; four years later, he was still waiting for Brahms to deliver when he received a letter containing further discouraging news: "I give myself the greatest trouble and keep on hoping that something really great and difficult will occur to me, and they turn out mean and paltry!" A few weeks later, Brahms finally admitted to himself that he would never be fully satisfied, and shipped the two Op. 51 quartets off to Simrock.


A Closer Listen


Whatever misgivings he may have felt about the quality of the Op. 51 quartets, ingratiating himself with the public clearly was not uppermost in Brahms's mind. The C-Minor Quartet and its companion, in A minor, are among his most severe and uncompromising pieces of chamber music. The urgently rising motif that opens the C-Minor Quartet, like a tightly coiled spring, generates a tension that doesn't unwind until a few bars before the final C-major cadence. (The same motif recurs at the beginning of the fourth movement, illustrating Brahms's growing concern with large-scale thematic integration.) The two inner movements provide an interlude of bittersweet introspection, but the dark, intense drama of the opening Allegro resurfaces in the finale, a sustained burst of energy characterized by restless cross-rhythms and intricate part writing.

—Harry Haskell

© 2014 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

GYÖRGY KURTÁG
Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánszky, Op. 28


About the Composer


Hungarian composer György Kurtág, who turned 88 in February, once described composition as a process of "continual research" aimed at achieving "a sort of unity with as little material as possible." Like his model, Anton Webern, Kurtág is essentially a miniaturist. Both his aphoristic musical language and the forces he uses to express it are radically compressed. Yet despite the abundance of "white space" in a typical Kurtág score, it would be misleading to characterize such densely packed and allusive music as "minimalist." Economical though he may be with notes, Kurtág has little in common with such composers as Philip Glass, John Adams, and Arvo Pärt.


About the Work


The Officium breve is a good example of the musical procedures that Kurtág has employed in the course of his long career to create a richly evocative, delicately tinted, and highly personalized sound world. The work consists of 15 short movements. Three are based on material borrowed from the Serenade for string orchestra by Kurtág's compatriot Endre Szervánszky, while other movements pay tribute to four more friends and colleagues. But the musical and emotional centerpiece of the Officium breve is an arrangement of the four-part canon from Webern's Cantata No. 2, Op. 31. Kurtág notes that Szervánszky (who died in 1977) was also decisively influenced by Webern, which "explains why an homage to Webern had to be included in a work composed in memoriam Szervánszky as well."


A Closer Listen


Music so concentratedly referential in nature invites (and rewards) equally concentrated listening, though it must be said that the embedded references to preexisting music are not essential to the listener's enjoyment. For the most part, the Officium breve is extremely quiet-one of  Kurtág's dynamic markings reads "barely heard." Every so often, however, the contemplative mood is shattered by violent eruptions. The next-to-last movement (somewhat cryptically marked "desperate, lively") is a buzzing thicket of sound, as menacing as a hornet's nest on a placid summer afternoon. The ensuing "interrupted arioso" from Szervánszky's Serenade clears the air, bringing the piece to a tenderly tonal and hauntingly inconclusive end.

—Harry Haskell

© 2014 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131


About the Composer


Beethoven's 16 string quartets constitute a towering achievement that has inspired and intimidated composers. Compared to Haydn's 68 quartets and Mozart's 27, Beethoven's output was modest. Moreover, his production of quartets was sporadic, usually having been prompted by commissions from aristocratic friends. Regardless of who was paying the piper, he showed little inclination to let either his benefactors or the Viennese public call the tune. One contemporary described the six Op. 18 quartets as "very difficult to perform and not at all popular." The increasingly contrapuntal style of Beethoven's middle-period quartets elicited similarly ambivalent reactions. Most challenging of all were the five late quartets (opuses 127, 130, 131, 132, and 135) to which Beethoven devoted himself almost exclusively between the summer of 1824 and the autumn of 1826. These knotty, inward-looking masterpieces stretch the formal and expressive language of the Classical string quartet almost to the breaking point.


About the Work


Beethoven composed his C-sharp-Minor Quartet in the first six months of 1826. It followed close on the heels of the Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130, whose weighty finale the composer later split off and published separately as the Grosse Fuge, or Great Fugue. In a sense, Op. 131, with its majestic fugal introduction, begins where its predecessor left off. Beethoven is said to have regarded it as the greatest of all his quartets, yet in delivering the manuscript to his publisher, he deprecated the work as having been cobbled together "from pilferings from one thing and another." The score is dedicated to Baron Joseph von Stutterheim, the commander of the military regiment in which Beethoven's suicidal nephew Karl had recently found refuge.


A Closer Listen


The four-note motto that is heard at the beginning, migrating downward from one voice to another, bears a distinct family resemblance to the subject of the Grosse Fuge (a sequence of half-steps separated by wide leaps). This long-breathed fugue unfolds in one extended paragraph, its aching intensity accentuated by the unusual choice of key. (Beethoven had used C-sharp minor only once before, in the "Moonlight" Sonata.) After briefly coming to rest on a unison tonic, the players shift up a half-step, to D major, for the perky Allegro molto vivace  in 6/8 time. Two emphatic chords herald the next section, which turns out to be little more than a prelude to the quartet's centerpiece, marked Andante ma non troppo e molto cantabile.

Beethoven puts his genial A-major tune, with its characteristic off-beat pulse, through a series of dazzlingly ingenious variations. At times, indeed, the musical argument is so tightly packed that the theme disappears altogether, only to resurface at the end in the inner voices, beneath the first violin's dancing trills. After a quiet cadence-the only full stop in the entire quartet-the music races off in a skittering Presto, brimful of humor and surprises. Another short bridge, this time a languorous Adagio in G-sharp minor, brings us back to the home key. A terse, slashing up-and-down motif sets the pace for the concluding Allegro, which is characterized by sharp contrasts of mood and tonal register.


—Harry Haskell

© 2014 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

This performance is part of Chamber Sessions III.

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