"I can't imagine anyone hearing all of the 16 Beethoven string quartets and not coming out a different person on the other end," says David Finckel, co-artistic director of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. "The music is so powerful, and reaches such depths of intellect and soul, one would have to be made of stone not to be affected by it."
Finckel aims to impact Lincoln Center audiences with the Chamber Music Society's 2010 Winter Festival: Beethoven Cycles, January 31 through February 23, 2010. "Cycle" here means every Beethoven work in the particular genre: All of Beethoven's quartets, violin sonatas and cello sonatas will be performed by CMS artists as part of the Winter Festival, which also salutes Lincoln Center's 50th Anniversary year.
Why Beethoven? Finckel is not shy about using superlatives. "The Beethoven quartet cycle is the greatest cycle in chamber music. It's the most comprehensive, in terms of stylistic range, from his earliest works to his transcendental late compositions."
Ludwig van Beethoven is often regarded as one of the most towering figures in classical music. Born in Bonn, Germany in 1770, his compositional career straddles the Classical and Romantic eras. He is well-loved by musicians and aficionados for his nine symphonies, five piano concertos, overtures, piano sonatas and many other works, and his chamber music holds a special place in many hearts.
The 16 string quartets will be presented over six concerts, each featuring a different ensemble. Five of these groups have been part of CMS Two, a three-year residency program for outstanding performers who are in the early stages of their career. The Brentano Quartet was the inaugural member of CMS Two in 1995 _1997 (its Winter Festival performance is on February 5); the Borromeo String Quartet in 2000 _2002 (performing February 9), the Mir‹ Quartet followed in 2001 _2003 (performing February 23), the Pacifica Quartet in 2002 _2004 (performing February 19) and the Daedalus Quartet was appointed from 2004 _2006 (performing February 7). Finckel considers the St. Lawrence Quartet, which performs on February 21, to be an honorary participant in CMS Two; the quartet has enjoyed a long-lived relationship with CMS that pre-dates the young artist program.
David Shifrin, then the artistic director of the Chamber Music Society, began CMS Two in 1994. He noticed the enthusiasm and vitality of the young artists on stage and decided to recognize it in a formal way. "It was a brilliant idea," says Finckel. "It is a huge asset to the artistic family. The track record of quartet selection has been absolutely stellar."
As a cycle, the Beethoven string quartets have been performed in all different orders and configurations, but this season they will be played in what is called the Slee order. Frederick Slee (1870 _1954) was a successful attorney and accomplished amateur composer and violinist who was especially passionate about chamber music. After his death in 1954, his wife set up a bequest at the University of Buffalo to fund an annual cycle of performances of all the Beethoven string quartets. The large bequest, the equivalent of almost six million dollars today, also stipulated the order in which the quartets are to be performed.
"Imagine being able to insure that your town can hear all the Beethoven quartets every single year." says Finckel. "The Slees are part of an army of soldiers for chamber music in this country. By bringing their concept to New York City, we're not only sharing in the excitement that has been part of Buffalo for over 50 years, we're also connecting to another community."
Though they are proscribed to always be performed in the same order, the Slee Beethoven cycle can be done in any number of ways: with one ensemble playing a marathon of concerts; two groups alternating performances, or several ensembles showcasing their talents over the course of six concerts. CMS has chosen the latter, and the same ensembles who are appearing at Alice Tully Hall will perform the works at Slee Hall in Buffalo this season as well.
"Part of the interest in this particular order is that, because the quartets have not been juxtaposed in this way, every one of these concerts is, in essence, a new production," explains Finckel. "It will be fascinating to hear one after another in this order." Finckel declares that this will be the first time the Slee order has been performed outside of Buffalo. "And, what a thrill to think it's the first Beethoven quartet cycle in the new Alice Tully Hall," says Finckel, referring to the Hall's 2009 renovation. "Nobody will have ever heard them sound like this; it will be an historic experience."
Two other Beethoven cycles complete the CMS 2010 Winter Festival: the sonatas for cello and the sonatas for violin.
Finckel maintains that the five cello sonatas make up the shortest comprehensive Beethoven cycle that one can perform, covering Beethoven's career from his early period to his compositions late in life. The first two sonatas represent two sides of his early style, one light, and the other, dark and stormy. "There is incredible innovation in these scores," says Finckel. "He wrote the Sonata No. 3 in 1808, and it has much the same spirit and heroic sound as his Piano Concerto No. 5, "The Emperor." And the two late sonatas are very experimental in form and timbre. In two and a half hours you can travel the same journey as with the 16 quartets." Cellist Finckel along with CMS co-artistic director and pianist Wu Han perform all of them in a single concert on January 31 at the beginning of the 2010 Winter Festival.
Beethoven's violin sonatas round out this monument of cycles from CMS this season. Spread over three concerts, Finckel felt that this music, filled with chamber-style intimacy, would best be served in the Rose Studio. It's an ideal space to hear these works, and, according to Finckel, "seats only around one hundred lucky listeners." The violin sonata cycle began earlier this season with a sold-out performance by violinist Joseph Silverstein and pianist Andr_-Michel Schub. Violinist Ani Kavafian and pianist Gilbert Kalish perform February 11, and violinist Ida Kavafian and pianist Gilles Vonsattel will complete the cycle on May 13.
Beethoven, since the time he was alive, remains essential in classical music. "There is something inherent in his compositions that speaks to his struggle with life itself," says Finckel, "I think that's why his music is universal in the sense that it's not about Beethoven or about you or me, but about existence itself. That's why his music hits so deep to home, emotionally, as really no other music does."