Last night at the Kanbar Performing Arts Center, the Cypress String Quartet (CSQ) gave the final San Francisco performance in their 2014–15 Salon Series of concerts. Each of the three programs in this series coupled one of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 18 quartets with one from his “middle” period. The third selection on each program offered a much more recent composition, through which one could reflect on what Beethoven had achieved and how the practice of making music had progressed.
This year Beethoven also figured into the CSQ Call & Response program, under which a composer is commissioned to write a “response” to the “call” of one or more earlier works. This season the “responder” was, for the second time, the French composer Philippe Hersant. In 2012 he had composed his third string quartet as a “response” to Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken III/31 and Beethoven’s Opus 127. This year the “call” again came from Beethoven, the second of the three Opus 59 “Razumovsky” quartets (in E minor). However, there was also a prevailing “nocturnal” theme that focused on the second (Molto adagio) movement of this quartet; and Béla Bartók was added to the mix with the middle movement of his fourth quartet. The “response” was Heresant’s own fourth quartet.
CSQ was so pleased with the result that they decided to revisit it for their final Salon Series concerts. Hersant chose to focus on the Beethoven side of the “call,” adding references to the “Russian” theme in the trio of the third (Allegretto) movement of that same quartet. The result, however, was one that reflected the thematic content of the “call,” rather than just the spirit behind the music. While Hersant drew upon a generous number of Beethoven appropriations, the most prevailing of these was the distinctive dotted rhythm pattern that makes this quartet movement so distinctive.
Hersant also acknowledged the nocturnal theme by assigning a subtitle to the quartet, “Der gestirnte Himmel” (the starry heaven). This refers to a quotation from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason that showed up (slightly distorted) in one of Beethoven’s Conversation Books: “The moral law in us and the starry heavens above us. Kant!!!” If we follow the chronology of Alexander Wheelock Thayer, this entry postdates the Opus 59 quartets by several years; so its connection to the “call” is a bit tenuous. For that matter, the “nocturnal” connotations of that Molto adagio movement may be equally tenuous, owing more to suggestions by some enterprising publisher than to Beethoven himself. However, none of this detracts from the musical impact of Hersant’s new quartet; and attentive listeners in San Francisco have all benefitted from CSQ’s interest in this composer’s music.
In the remainder of the program, the middle period was represented by the third (C major) of the Opus 59 quartets. This is particularly fascinating for its Janus-faced qualities. The opening movement tends to honor the structural conventions of sonata form; but the following movement (Andante con moto quasi allegretto) takes the listener into a new domain of both structure and the rhetorical interplay of the four players. However, in the third movement the quartet looks back to the traditional Menuetto; and it is followed by the even older tradition of fugue in the final movement. Nevertheless, the Allegro molto tempo plays out the fugue structure at a madcap pace, a whirlwind of imitative reflections that never pauses to catch its breath and barely allows the listener the opportunity to distinguish subject from countersubject.
By contrast the opening “early” selection, the sixth (B-flat major) of the Opus 18 quartets, is very much forward-looking from beginning to end. However, it also abounds with that capacity for wit that so distinguished Joseph Haydn’s quartet writing, making this a splendid example of Beethoven striving to take the achievements of his past master to a higher level. The reference to melancholia in the title of the last movement refers only to its brief Adagio introduction, a moment of introspection before the Allegretto quasi Allegro returns to the prankish qualities of the preceding movements.
As usual CSQ was in peak form in their execution of both Beethoven and Hersant’s reflections on Beethoven. One of the assets of the “salon” setting is that one can not only listen but also observe the interplay of the voices. Body language plays as much a role in communicating the significance of this music as does every technically well-turned phrase. Through this visual dimension, one can easily appreciate that these string quartets are anything but abstract music. Each of last night’s selections throbbed with its own characteristic organic qualities; and CSQ knew exactly how to convey that élan vital (Henri Bergson’s concept of an underlying life-force) throughout the entirety of their performance.