BEETHOVEN String Quartets: No. 14 in c♯; No. 16 in F

November 2009

BEETHOVEN String Quartets: No. 14 in c♯; No. 16 in F • Cypress String Quartet • (60:21)

I rather pride myself on keeping abreast of string quartet ensembles, so it was with some consternation that I found myself unfamiliar with the Cypress String Quartet, which has been around since 1996, only to discover that three of their CDs have been previously reviewed in these pages. To make matters worse, I learned that the CSQ is a San Francisco based group that was formed while I was still living there. Prior albums have appeared on commercial, if not exactly mainstream labels except for a release on Naxos of works by American composer Jennifer Higdon. This latest release is an enterprise underwritten by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, an organization that sponsors and promotes educational, cultural, and public broadcasting institutions. The CD bears no catalog number, but it is designated as Volume 1, suggesting the inauguration of a new Beethoven quartet cycle by the CSQ. If so, it seems a rather odd place to start, with two of the composer's last works, but no matter. It's not where one starts, but where one ends up that counts. The members of the ensemble—Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violins; Ethan Filner, viola; and Jennifer Kloetzel, cello—have at their disposal a collection of exceptional instruments: violins by Stradivari (1681) and Carlo Bergonzi (1733), a viola by Vittorio Bellarosa, (1947) and a cello by Hieronymus Amati II (1701). The Strad, Bergonzi, and Amati have been brought up to modern standards, of course, as these are not period-instrument performances.

Reviews of Beethoven's string quartets have appeared in these pages in great numbers, and often in lengthy and lavish detail. It is therefore not necessary to restate any but the most basic facts. Prince Nicholas Galitzin and Beethoven reached an agreement in writing in 1822 whereby the composer would produce three quartets for 50 ducats apiece, a considerable sum at the time. He set to work, and by 1825, the three quartets Galitzin had commissioned were completed. But the numbers by which we know them today are 12, (E♭ Major, op. 127); 15, (A Minor, op. 132); and 13 (B♭ Major, op. 130). This was the order in which they were composed.

This is where things get a bit complicated; for while in the thick of fulfilling his obligation to Galitzin, Beethoven began work on two more quartets that, to the best of our knowledge, no one had requested. Apparently, his head was so full of ideas that they needed to find additional outlets for their expression, and since he was already writing quartets anyway, it must have made sense to him to pursue the path he was already on. Those two "unplanned pregnancies," if you will, became Nos. 14 (C♯ Minor, op. 131) and 16 (F Major, op. 135), completed in 1826.

This is the mise en scène into which the Cypress String Quartet now makes its entrance with the two non-Galitzin quartets, opp. 131 and 135. No two quartets of the five are more different. The C♯-Minor Quartet, one of the composer's most remarkable works, unfolds in seven interconnected movements that, when seen as an architectural unit, form an arch based on reciprocating or mirroring ascending and descending keys. The centerpiece or keystone is the fourth movement, an extended theme and variations punctuated by eccentric trills and pizzicato. The opening movement, a fugue, is cold and remote, a vision of Creation in its inexorable unfolding, unmindful of human existence. The closing movement, also icy and indifferent, reveals the end of the unfolding, a death march to oblivion. In between come a short, hesitant Allegro that tries half-heartedly to inject a note of merry-making, a disturbing Scherzo that leads to the desiccated sound of bows playing sul ponticello (atop the bridge), and a couple of brief interludes that are more connective tissue than they are movements.

The F-Major Quartet, for the most part, is Beethoven in a relaxed, even silly mood. The first movement is a nonstop comedy of errors that always puts me in mind of four washerwomen squabbling over which gets more of the clothesline. Sudden interruptions and wrenching key changes are like hurled insults as they push each other out of the way and eventually come to blows. The Scherzo movement that follows is enigmatic. Is the sudden undermining of the key meant to be funny, or is it the darkening shadow of a specter that passes in the night? The Lento assai, relatively short as Beethoven's slow movements go, is of an indescribably transcendent beauty. Its repeated, rocking suspensions that refuse to resolve set the stage for a final cadence more sublime than possibly any other in all of music. The last movement, with its famous "Muss es sein? Es muss sein" head motif, is now widely recognized to be not some deep philosophical reflection by Beethoven on his own mortality, but as a private joke about an unpaid bill or his housekeeper's over-starching his shirts. The piece ends with neither a bang nor a whimper, but with the tip of a hat and a "Ta ta."

These performances by the Cypress String Quartet are quite exceptional. Tempos strike me as being a hair's breadth on the fast side—I would prefer a bit more drawing out of the C♯-Minor's opening fugue, for example—but the technical resources of this ensemble are awesome, and the communicative expressiveness the players achieve, individually and collectively, through articulation of dynamics and modulation of vibrato and bow pressure are breathtaking. This being a stand-alone entry, I won't compare it to the many complete cycles available. That will come later, assuming the CSQ eventually gives us an integral set. But of recent single entries I've heard from the Artemis, Henschel, Leipzig, and Tokyo Quartets, I would happily pick the Cypress as my current favorite. The recording, which came to me as a prerelease at the beginning of July, is scheduled for general release on August 25. So, as of this writing in early July, the CD is not yet listed. Given that it's on a foundation-funded label, whether it will be available at, other Web sites, or only as a direct purchase, I don't know. But wherever you find it, be sure to buy it and spend some time, in the words of John Amis, "getting in touch with some higher state of being." -Jerry Dubins