To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the opening of Benaroya Hall this season, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra came up with all sorts of ideas. One of the best, which did not involve the orchestra itself, was the presentation of a cycle of the complete Beethoven string quartets.
The some 16 quartets would not be played by a single ensemble but by six: Half (Pacifica, Ying and American) would be from the United States, and the rest from Canada (Borealis), the Czech Republic (Talich) and France (Ebene). The first concert was in October and the last Wednesday night. This sort of international festival of superb quartets would not have been possible in another day. There are now so many in North America and Europe we must be in some sort of golden age.
Nordstrom Recital Hall — the smaller of two halls in the Benaroya complex — was the venue. Although there have been all sorts of concerts by chamber music groups and chamber orchestras in the hall, the string quartet has not been particularly well-represented, in part perhaps because it has such a long history at Meany Hall on the University of Washington campus. This series proved decisively how well Nordstrom does acoustically. Certainly it is an unforgiving hall, but when musicians appreciate its acoustical properties –as some have not in the past — the results are remarkable.
A case in point was the American String Quartet. Who could not admire its cool tonal beauty as well as its passionate embrace of the music at hand — early, middle and late Beethoven? Nothing was strident or overweening, even in the most fortissimo and emphatic passages. Instead there was lucidity, transparency, balance. One heard everything.
The quartet was founded in 1974 when its original members were students at the Juilliard School in New York. That long breath of experience informs every aspect of the American’s conception and execution. This is maturity at its best: when carefully considered and thought-out but still fresh. From the opening passages of the Op. 18, No. 5, it was easy to discern those attributes. Nothing is too small to be discussed, resolved and put into action. This attention to detail has not led to staleness and lack of spontaneity but a curious kind of freedom.
The Opus 18, No. 5, for instance, seemed to be particularly free from the opening Allegro to closing Allegro. These fast movements had spirit and energy and focus, although none more than the Opus 59, No 2. Although the three quartets of the Opus 59 follow the six of the Opus 18 by only a few years, they push all sorts of boundaries., so much so audiences and musicians at the time resisted them. The American gave full life to these new impulses of Beethoven — their boldness, their daring and sheer scale.
Written in 1826, the Opus 131 comes near the end of Beethoven’s life. The 32 piano sonatas, indeed, all of music for the piano, including the concertos and chamber music. as well as symphonic music were at an end, but he carried on with string quartets. The Opus 131, about 40 minutes length, is played without a pause. The American kept its concentration, as well as sustained the immense variety and often dramatic temperament in the work. Everything — the small, telling phrases, the great paragraphs — were strikingly coherent.
These concerts have been well-attended, but this house was sold-out for the American, with added seats put on the stage.