Chamber music program reveals Beethoven at his most revolutionary

Mon Jun 07, 2010 at 9:20 pm

By Dennis Polkow

Jonathan Biss

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven Festival is in the process of traversing all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies under its departing principal conductor Bernard Haitink, yet there has been no equivalent attempt to present a comprehensive view of any other genre of the composer’s oeuvre.

Thus, it fell to a single concert to be representative of Beethoven’s entire chamber music output, not counting live performances embedded within pre-concert lectures and two day-long Beethoven symposia.

That’s a tall order, and curiously, pianist Jonathan Biss and the Brentano Quartet were brought in to tackle it rather than employing soloists or chamber groups that are actually part of the CSO.

It has been a pleasure to watch Chicago native Biss grow up at Ravinia and move from promising prodigy to internationally known young pianist. He is a product of Ravinia’s Steans Institute in more ways than one, in that his mother is violinist and longtime Institute head Miriam Fried.

Beethoven has long been a Biss specialty. His performance of the Piano Trio, Op. 1, No. 2 in G Major with Brentano first violinist Mark Steinberg and cellist Nina Lee not only made it clear that he was paying close attention to all of those Steans master classes with Menahem Pressler, but that he has much to say in this music on his own.

Biss not only blended exquisitely with Steinberg and Lee but kept his touch light and his approach crisp and lively in a work that gave Beethoven his first public success in Vienna—despite the piece having been thought too radical by Haydn, Beethoven’s teacher for a brief time.

If you were going to pick Beethoven piano sonatas most representative of his major periods of musical development, the contenders are obvious. But if you had to pick a single sonata most representative of Beethoven at the crossroads, the Piano Sonata No. 27 in E minor, Op. 90, would be tough to beat, straddling stylistically as it does his middle into late periods.

The two-movement work is in a different sound world from the gloried and expansive Classicism of Op. 1 and Biss made that abundantly clear with the nuanced freedom and fluidity he displayed. This was a sensitive account with immense depth, more seasoned and musically mature than Biss’ mere 29 years would suggest might be possible.

To enter into the world of the late string quartets of Beethoven is to experience Beethoven at his most introspective and personal. This is music that is literally of another realm as his now total deafness, declining health and complete social alienation motivated him to retreat to his last refuge: the now undistracted musical world of his inner ear.

Brentano String Quartet

The String Quartet No. 12 in E-flat Major, Op. 127 is, much like the Op. 90 sonata, a transitional work that is often viewed as a prelude to Beethoven’s last quartets. The Brentano Quartet obviously sees the work in that light as it choose to emphasize its reflective rather than its playful qualities.

That piece was part of a last commission, already late, while the String Quartet No. 14 in c-sharp minor, Op. 131, is a work that Beethoven set out to write on his own despite the fact that it was beyond the capabilities of specific performers. It was published two days before his death and not premiered until eight years after.

With its uninterrupted massive seven-movement grand canvas, the work would go on to become to the string quartet genre what the Ninth would become to the symphonic genre: an iconic revolutionary mold breaker.

The Brentano Quartet performed Op. 131 with immense reverence in a careful and deliberate manner that was at times so respectful as to become almost sterile. The blend was superb, but dynamics restrained and tempos sometimes slow enough to verge on stodgy, with little sense of adventure or fire. This is among Beethoven’s most radical music but you would have never guessed that based on how little of the immense contrast within was revealed.

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