Fanfare: Beethoven String Quartet No. 13 in B, Alternate Finale

November/December 2010
by Jerry Dubins

When the Cypress Quartet's first volume in the start of a new Beethoven cycle came to me for review in Fanfare 33:2, I had yet to make acquaintance with this San Francisco-based ensemble. After repeated listening to the disc. which contained the C#-Minor. op. 131. and F Major, op. 135. quartets, I reported that "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." I concluded by advising readers to buy the CD and spend time, quoting John Amis, "getting in touch with some higher state of being."

We now have on what appears to be the Cypress Quartet's proprietary label the ensemble's second installment in what I'm hoping will eventually materialize into a complete survey of Beethoven's string quartets. In No. 13 in B-Major. op. 130. heard here, Beethoven finds a novel approach to articulating sonata form, one based more on wrenching alternations of tempo and meter than on contrasting keys and themes. What sounds like a slow, harmonically unsettled introduction marked adagio ma non troppo turns out in fact to be a sequence of gestures bearing the four-note motive that permeates the entire quartet. An unprepared allegro ensues, only to be abruptly terminated by a return to Tempo I.

The challenge for the players is to project the shock effects without rupturing the tightly woven fabric of the music; for despite the seeming roughness of its surface, this is one of Beethoven's most integrated, coherent movements, much more so than one in which you have completely dissimilar themes; for here the entire movement is spun out from a single opening gesture. The Cypress players tie the threads together seamlessly and immaculately. In the development section, against an ostinato in the second violin and viola, the first violin and cello echo each other's phrases in a lender duet that tugs at the heartstrings as it moves in and out of phase harmonically with the ongoing obstinate, creating poignant passing dissonances. The matching of the violin and cello at this point is magical.

Curiously, Beethoven provided metronome markings for all of his string quartets except for the final five. So, when we come to the second movement of up. 130, we must ask. how fast is Presto, the tempo the composer indicated. A recent trend has been to play it as fast as possible, not infrequently resulting in a scramble when the spirit is willing but the fingers are less nimble. The Cypress takes the Presto marking with a grain of salt, going instead for flawless articulation and an ebb and flow in the phrasing and dynamics that can actually be heard instead of sweeping by in a breathless blur. It's not slow by any measure; it's just not frantic.

The third movement is beautifully played with sensitive attention paid to all of the little caesuras that occur at the tops of phrases and in between bars. And in the Cypress's playing of the alla dans tedesca movement, I can finally say I've heard it at the tempo I've always thought it should go, which is several metronome notches slower than most modem performances take it. The piece is a lilting dance in 3/8, not in 1, and the slower step brings out its bittersweet melancholy. By the time you get to the real crying in the Cavatina - that passage where Beethoven tries to imitate the sound of the human voice sobbing, you'll be all cried out. But even I had a tear or two left for the way the Cypress wrings the last drop of pathos from the movement. Some may feel it's a bit overwrought with a few unnecessary portamentos and an overly romanticized interpretation, but I loved it. What good is music if not for the occasional self-indulgent wallow in the pit of rue?

Beethoven sat out the first performance of his op. 130 Quartet in a nearby tavern, fearing the worst. When he was told that the audience had demanded encores of two of the movement, he shouted. "And why didn't they encore the fugue? That alone should have been repeated! Cattle! Asses!" You can't blame the 1826 audience for reacting to the enormously difficult fugal finale the way they did. Nearly a century later, American composer, historian, and critic Daniel Gregory Mason was still calling the Grosse Fuge "repellent."

Not wishing to be one of Beethoven's swine, I long ago decided to try to understand and appreciate what the piece was about; and once I heard it not just as being connected to the preceding movements on a motivic level but as the joyous, uncontainable emotional outburst and counterbalance to everything that came before it, suddenly, it all made sense. If you can imagine tearing off your clothes and running naked through the streets, you can imagine the sense of daring, abandonment, and liberation Beethoven must have felt at writing this movement. It's music in the raw. The Cypress restores the Grosse Fuge to its rightful position as the quartet's last movement, but retains a degree of reserve, smoothing over some of the rougher patches with playing that shuns the raucous and rapacious in favor of a somewhat more restrained reading, though one that is still muscular and powerful.

The alternate ending follows. Listen to it if you must, but my advice is to press the STOP button after the Grosse Fuge, for here is where op. 130 ends. This performance and recording confirm my first impressions from the Cypress's prior album. Strongly recommended.