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Late Beethoven Done His Way by the Cypress String Quartet

There’s a school of thought that considers the string quartet repertoire to be the world’s most exciting music – an opinion advanced mostly by people who play those works. The Cypress String Quartet’s new triple-disc set of late Beethoven string quartets (Op. 127, 130,131, 132, 133 and 135) is an album for people who share that point of view. It’s less radical an interpretation than it might seem: in fact, it’s about as retro as possible, simply a dedication to following Beethoven’s dynamics to the letter. It may be the most Beethovenesque of all the recordings out there: the old grump, if he could have heard this, no doubt would have approved. Partial, and very noteworthy, credit goes to the Quartet’s Cecily Ward, who produced the album: all the close-miking and attention to minute detail pays off with a brightly bristling, intense intimacy enhanced even further via headphones. While you will find yourself having to adjust the volume periodically, that’s the way Beethoven undoubtedly would have intended it. But ultimately it’s the playing even more than the production here that steals the show, a powerful, dynamically charged performance that refuses to back away from storminess while also embracing the quietest passages with a gentle rapturousness that adds just as much power and insight. You could spend the better part of a week downloading every recording of these works available on the web, but ultimately this collection might be the more cost-effective choice.

Suffice it to say that Beethoven’s late quartets are arguably the high point of a career spent pushing the envelope, a feat even more noteworthy considering that he was in ill health and could increasingly hear only less and less of what he was writing. Violinists Ward and Tom Stone, violist Ethan Filner and cellist Jennifer Kloetzel celebrate the unexpected throughout these works: the attention to detail is astounding. Unexpected passages leap out at you and are every bit as interesting as the main themes, sometimes more so. For example, in Op. 127, the second movement becomes much more of a nocturne than a courtly waltz; and then the ensemble gives it a suspenseful bounce. Suspense is the key to so much here: the sudden swells and pervasive unease in the following movement; the briskly wintry foreshadowing of the first movement of Op. 132; the emphatic oomph that springs out of its waltzing third movement; Kloetzel’s cello as omnipresent reality check beneath the hypnotic dreaminess of the fourth movement of Op. 131; the spacious pacing of brooding swells within the comfortable crepulscule atmospherics of Op. 135’s second movement; and the absolutely macabre, insistent tritones of that work’s final movement, the Quartet allowing the frantic horror to linger even as the passage recedes into Haydnesque pleasantry. It would take a small book to list all the highlights. For a more in-depth look at disc two, here’s a review of that one (with Op. 130 and both its “final” ending and the famous Grosse Fugue that Stravinsky reputedly picked as his alltime favorite composition), previously issued as a stand-alone disc toward the end of 2010.

Conceivably, at low volume, this might make suitable background music, although at too low a volume, considering the dynamics, the music fades in and out. But this wasn’t created as background music: this recording is for anyone who would prefer to revel in the power and vast emotional scope of these immortal works. The Cypress String Quartet have a couple of New York shows this month celebrating the release of this album: Wednesday the 25th they’re playing a free show at 7 PM in the auditorium of the computer store at 1981 Broadway on the upper west, with a benefit concert at PS321 at 100 Attorney St. on the Lower East Side at 7 PM on the 26th.

April 24, 2012 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dancing Late with the Cypress String Quartet’s Elena Ruehr Album

In the spirit of spreading the word about releases that slipped under our radar when they initially appeared, here’s one from last year. The Cypress String Quartet discovered composer Elena Ruehr’s work by listening to an unlabeled recording. Eight years later, they finally consummated their affinity for her compositions, and have captured that passion in an album. The Quartet’s next-to-most-recent cd How She Danced: String Quartets of Elena Ruehr could not be more aptly titled. Throughout her First, Third and Fourth String Quartets, rhythm is everywhere: sometimes jaunty, often incredibly tricky, occasionally outright aggressive. The three quartets here, (Nos. 1, 3 and 4), performed in reverse chronological order here, are extraordinarily melodic, with tinges of Afrobeat, and Irish dances alternating with modernist astringencies and enticing consonance.

Quartet No. 4 is Ruehr’s response to the Cypress Quartet’s request for her to compare Beethoven’s Ninth Quartet with Mozart’s “Dissonance” String Quartet (which isn’t all that dissonant – that one has a longish intro that takes longer than usual until the anticipated call-and-response kicks in). But it sounds nothing like either. It’s essentially variations on a circular, West African-flavored theme, beginning terse and pizzicato and ending with a flurry of stormclouds. In the meantime, there’s an absolutely riveting, pensive interlude featuring a long, windswept cello solo and alternating variations on the initial theme and its shadow. The same process repeats in Quartet No. 3: the two back-to-back make a marvelous suite. More rhythmically-oriented and somewhat more lighthearted – although not completely – it closely resembles some of maverick violist Ljova Zhurbin’s more playful work. Beginnings and endings are more aggressive here; the album title, based on a broken triad that first appears in what’s basically a minuet in disguise, derives from a Celtic-tinged theme. Its two themes intertwine and become friends on the way out.

Quartet #1, from 1991, won the ASCAP award that year. It’s the most cinematic of the three, introducing the African rhythms as shifting segments rather than a full-on drumbeat with pizzicato or staccato bowing. When it’s not establishing a dreamy, cantabile mood, there’s a hypnotic, tricky rondo anchored by the cello and hints of a levantine dance introducing the unexpectedly tense, unresolved finale. Spirited performances by violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violist Ethan Filner and cellist Jennifer Kloetzel shine throughout the album. The Cypress String Quartet’s next New York appearance is on April 28 at 8 PM, playing works by Benjamin Lees at Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, 120 W. 69th St.

January 21, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Some Inspired Beethoven Quartets for the Holidays

It’s been said that every home should have at least a few recordings of the Beethoven late string quartets. For those who didn’t have the good fortune to grow up with this stuff, it spans the range of human emotions: joy, affection, contentment with a job well done but also apprehension, anger and outright anguish, weighted toward the latter. It would be overly reductionistic to explain away these works as a great composer’s rage against the dying of the light (or in Beethoven’s case, the sound), but that’s certainly present. Because these works eventually insinuated themselves into the standard repertoire, the internet is crawling with recordings of them. Pretty much anyone who has the chops to play these all the way through, with at least some sensitivity, does at least an adequate job: the music pretty much speaks for itself. Then there are the legendary recordings that come with bragging rights. The one that pops up in discussion most frequently is by the Budapest String Quartet: however, there are actually two of these. Supposedly the 1952 mono version surpasses them all. However, the ensemble recorded these again in the 60s, in stereo, and while it’s genuinely beautiful, there’s nothing that immediately jumps out and signals “home run,” at least as far as the available mp3s are concerned. And for all their good intentions, pretty much everyone who took the time to digitize their vinyl and throw it up on rapidshare neglected to mention – probably because they were unaware of the two versions – which one theirs might be.

Which leads to the elephant in the room: to what degree can an overcompressed mp3 off the internet really reveal the subtleties and intensities of any piece of music? Good luck finding a vinyl copy of the original Budapest Quartet box. Scores of other groups – the Takacs String Quartet, Guarneri String Quartet and others – have made well-liked recordings worth keeping an eye out for. Fortunately, there are two new recordings out this fall, each of them special for considerably different reasons. The first is the complete late quartets played by the Tokyo String Quartet which is just out on Harmonia Mundi, silken yet spirited, rich with dynamics that powerfully enhance the more dramatic passages. It’s the concluding act in their survey of the complete Beethoven string quartets, beginning with the old world charm of the twelfth, highlighted by the vivid contrast between the plaintiveness of the adagio with the bracing, bold strokes of the third movement.

The thirteenth (actually the last, chronologically) is, predictably, the centerpiece here – when the time comes, the quartet take the word “presto” very seriously, give the andante a saturnine swing and downplay the wistfulness of the allegro assai: it’s less a waltz than an overture. The famous, sad cavatina is rich with longing without getting bogged down in it, wrenching rather than weepy. And they conclude it with Beethoven’s first choice of final movements, the knotty “grosse fugue,” accentuating the biting acerbities that cut through the contrapuntal maze, adding the later, final movement as the equivalent of a brisk, Vivaldiesque coda. Likewise, the fourteenth works both ends of the spectrum intensely, from the austere longing of the opening adagio to the evocative triumph of the andante. The fifteenth shares the pain and apprehension of the thirteenth: the wintry waltz of the appasionato allegro is literally chilling, especially in the wake of the warmly nocturnal feel that precedes it. And the sixteenth is all foreshadowing: you can see what’s coming a mile away, and it’s not good, but there’s no stopping it. Martin Beaver and Kikuei Ikeda on violins, Kazuhide Isomura on viola and Clive Greensmith on cello join forces as a well-oiled machine in high gear.

The word that first jumps to mind to describe the Cypress String Quartet’s new recording of the thirteenth is vibrant. Yet it’s a lot darker than the Tokyo String Quartet’s version, or for that matter the other well-known versions. Like their Tokyo compatriots, this ensemble works the dynamic range for all it’s worth. But on the presto, they hold back and accentuate its foreshadowing, as they do on the sad German dance that follows it and then an absolutely funereal take of the cavatina: it’s a stunner, at least to the extent that sad music can stun. This group also has an obvious affinity for the “grosse fugue.” Theirs isn’t quite fortissimo, but it’s intense and they dig in, conspiratorially and somewhat desperately. It’s not difficult picturing Beethoven alone at the bar the night of its premiere, drunk and dreading the reaction of the audience and the critics: “Will they like it?” By contrast, the crisp “official” final movement, written afterward at the suggestion of Beethoven’s publisher, is a letdown: a tribute both to the composer’s first choice and the performers’ connection with it, Cecily Ward and Tom Stone on violins, Ethan Filner on viola and Jennifer Kloetzel on cello. Also worth a mention is the recording quality: Ward’s production imbues this with a front-row intimacy that rivals any other digital production out there.

December 4, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Cypress String Quartet Play Debussy, Higdon and Schulhoff with Soul and Sensitivity

Thursday night at the New School’s Tenri Institute, Cypress String Quartet violinist Cecily Ward explained that the Debussy String Quartet was the first piece the ensemble had played together. That was 1996. Fourteen years later, the group still finds bliss in it. Ward played from memory, mostly with her eyes closed. It’s about the joy of discovery: Debussy famously wrote it after seeing a Javanese gamelan for the first time at the Paris Exposition of 1889. The Cypress’ version was all about the joy of rediscovery, of finding yet new levels of nuance in an old favorite. Underneath the expertly interwoven Balinese-inspired tonalities is just a hint of a Gallic barroom dance, which they seized with fluidity and grace, both as cellist Jennifer Kloetzel propelled them with alternately hushed and dramatic dynamics as the first movement wound up, and when it came to the rounds of pizzicato in the second movement. Brooklyn Rider played a stunningly edgy version of this piece earlier this year at the Orensanz Center that brought to mind how Debussy must have felt in the hours after writing it; this performance, with its soul and depth, put it in context, a period piece that also happened to shift the stage for practically everything that followed.

The earlier part of the program was just as revelatory. Erwin Schulhoff’s 1923 suite Five Pieces for String Quartet first saw a revival right around the time this group was getting together. Other ensembles play up the occasional Roaring 20s archaisms that occur throughout its five dances, but this crew played it as satire with a deliciously snarky bite, from the faux waltz of the opening movement (it’s in straight-up 4/4 time), to the somewhat sinister boudoir theme of the second, which they gave a bolero-like sway. On the third, Kloetzel’s terse pedal point led to an angry fugue highlighted by the deadpan acerbity of violinist Tom Stone and violist Ethan Filner, whose deft camaraderie would carry the following tango movement as well. They gave the final segment – a Flight of the Bumblebee parody of sorts – an eerie tinge that bordered on the macabre: this was a swarm of killer bees headed straight for the border.

Yet the piece that resonated the most with the audience was Jennifer Higdon’s Impressions, from 2003. The composer, who was in attendance, offered beforehand how she’d drawn on Impressionist art for inspiration. She explained her fondness for its lack of rough edges, which allows for a considerably broader scope of expression than more figurative styles. The intrigue (and advantage) of pointillism, as she put it, is that “You can’t tell what it is up close.” The first movement, a colorful dance, had the characteristically meticulous, diversely evocative architecture that defines her work, and was delivered with the same bustling joy as the Debussy. The following movement, titled Quiet Art, built from the pensive and sometimes apprehensive ambience of an artist struggling to find a path to expression and wound up with gusto, a dream fulfilled and a job well done. The third movement, a homage to Debussy, expertly wove individual lead lines from each instrument. The suite ended with an absolutely riveting chase scene, resolution and then unresolution, warmly sostenuto passages contrasting with a bracing percussive attack: if this was painting, it was a cross between Pollock and Escher. The crowd demanded an encore and were treated to a tantalizingly allusive version of the Orientale from Glazunov’s Fifth String Quartet, the Fertile Crescent through a glass, darkly. The Cypress String Quartet’s second volume in their conquest of the Beethoven late quartets is just out; watch this space.

November 16, 2010 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment