Avalon Quartet’s Beethoven cycle spotlights revolutions in sight and sound

Tue Oct 25, 2011 at 8:32 am

By Dennis Polkow

More often than not, programs that ambitiously attempt to demonstrate parallel developments across multiple art forms tend to end up giving short shrift to one element or more, if not all of them.

Not so at Sunday afternoon’s debut of a Beethoven quartet cycle by the Avalon Quartet at the Art Institute’s Fullerton Hall that brilliantly managed to tie together revolutions in music, painting and sculpture.

Yes, there were the obligatory slides and lecture remarks to open the proceedings, but just enough to tantalize at the revelation of what was to follow. Early and late paintings of Claude Monet and early and late sculptures of Constantin Brâncusi were compared and contrasted side by side, followed by performances of the earliest and final string quartets of Beethoven.

Beethoven came relatively late to the string quartet form, preferring genres early on that would not invite such obvious comparisons to Haydn and Mozart. Thus “early” Beethoven in this case is actually middle Beethoven, but nonetheless, the development from the first through the final entry of his sixteen quartets is a jarring one.

The Avalon Quartet performed Quartet No. 3 in D Major, Op. 18 in a lighter and more transparent manner than is usually the case, a refreshing take. Tempos were elastic yet organic, flowing freely out of the music and buildups and tensions superbly timed. The quartet’s vibrato was deftly calibrated, and excitement built via timbral contrast. The Presto final movement was brisk and playful, almost Mendelssohnian in approach, the modulating three-note theme whimsically foreshadowing the Fifth Symphony.

The Ninth Symphony is recalled in Beethoven’s Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Op. 135 with its use of unison as a sonic narrator, as it were, of seemingly unrelated musical episodes. The expansive classicism of Op. 18 is by Op. 135 — some 27 years later — virtually morphed beyond recognition.

There are other quartets that have achieved more beautiful tone for this final quartet, but few that can traverse such a cornucopia of musical ideas so fully realized as a unit. The Avalon received an instantaneous and well-deserved standing ovation from an attentive capacity crowd.

Ordinarily three quartets would be presented during a complete cycle concert, but here, the juxtaposition of the earliest and latest Beethoven quartets made for a compelling contrast that might have been blunted by a third quartet being performed.

It also afforded participants a chance to visit galleries within the museum and see a visual revolution no less radical by looking at some early and late examples of Monet paintings that showed him moving from representational 19th century proto-Impressionism to the early 20th-century abstract water lilies and bridges that laid the foundation for Modernism.

Likewise, attendees also saw a similar revolution in the sculptures of Brâncusi and his move from realism to abstraction, all with insightful commentary from performance programs associate Kathleen Burnett.

The Avalon Quartet’s Beethoven cycle will continue at 2 p.m. Nov. 13 with “Night and Day,” which will juxtapose Op. 95 and Op. 18, No. 1 with paintings by Gerhard Richter. Admission to the concert is free with museum admission; artinstituteofchicago.org; 312-443-3600.

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