It's considered by many to be The Ring of chamber music. It's a feat most string quartets feel is the highest pinnacle of performance. And this month, the Takács Quartet brings it to Alice Tully Hall as one of the highlights of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center's 2004-2005 season.
The Beethoven string quartet cycle, comprising 16 quartets and the Op. 133 Grosse Fuge, are not only considered to be some of the composer's most important works, but some of classical music's finest repertoire. The internationally celebrated Takács, which last graced the Chamber Music Society (CMS) stage playing the Bartók cycle, will bring its renowned performance of the Beethoven to New York City for the first time in a series of six concerts this month. The ensemble also marks the completion of its Decca recordings of the works, as the final disc of the series has recently hit stores.
"Beethoven's quartets encompass his whole creative life, more or less," says Takács violist Roger Tapping. "Putting this whole cycle together is like a journey toward those unbelievable masterpieces. I think you can compare them to Tolstoy or Rembrandt in terms of the individual expression in them, coupled with a fantastic free and yet ordered sense of form."
By presenting the complete Beethoven in six concerts, CMS reaffirms its view of chamber music as balanced, diverse repertoire. Known for its eclectic presentations, from the classics to new works, it has in recent years dedicated January to projects that have been designed especially for the organization. But by focusing on this classic repertoire in particular, it reminds us that what is now regarded as the standard was often groundbreaking when it was written.
"It has been said that the Beethoven Quartets are to chamber music what Shakespeare is to drama," say CMSLC's new Artistic Directors, cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han, in a joint statement. "CMS is committed to presenting the genre in the multitude of wonderful and creative ways that the literature offers. The great composers found such a richness of possibility in it that, frequently, they could not exhaust their ideas in a single work. As a result, we have the great cycles: the six Bartók Quartets, the Mozart Quartets dedicated to Haydn, the Beethoven cello and violin sonatas, the 15 Shostakovich Quartets, and of course, perhaps the greatest chamber music cycle in existence, the Beethoven Quartets."
Historically, the quartets are grouped into three sets: the early, middle, and late. Instead of approaching the works chronologically, the Takács series mixes them up, presenting three at a time in a manner that is more educational and audience-friendly. By selecting particular works for each program, the group builds aural bridges from work to work so that the listener hears Beethoven's evolution and can see the role each quartet played in his development as both composer and human being.
"We feel that each program is in itself something of an emotional journey," says Tapping. "We learn more about Beethoven the more we play him and the more we read about him. Amazingly, what each concert has, apart from the gritty tension and excitement, is a great meditative slow movement such as you hardly ever find elsewhere. Each one of these would have made his reputation in the whole of musical history as one of the great composers."
The Takács notes that for the length and difficulty of the cycle there's still a high demand for the series by a very dedicated audience. Those who stick it out for all six concerts share an experience that is thrilling for both player and listener.
"There is this extra sense of intensity," says Tapping. "That amount of concentration on one person‹you think a lot about the person, especially with Beethoven. And there is tremendous variety; there are very few composers whose pieces are different enough from each other and his moods vary so much. We always find that a whole Beethoven concert is more tiring than any of the other programs we do, just because there's very little that is merely decorative in them. You're always searching, and they're very hard to play."
This month's exploration of Beethoven's quartets also features a series of lectures, a wine tasting, and a master class with the up-and-coming Daedalus Quartet‹a session to which the Takács is looking forward.
"We love teaching chamber music," says Tapping. "We learn a lot from it because however much experience you've got, you always hear different things when you're just outside. It's like a painter standing back from the easel‹you see things that you didn't quite see when you were actually in the middle of it. If you're dealing with a good group, which the Daedalus certainly is, you'll actually hear some new ideas. There's something purely creative about listening to another group, not having to worry about getting the notes out of the instrument yourself. It frees you to think."
If one looks at how much this cycle is performed, and how much each work is still enjoyed, it's easy to see why there is a great desire to continue to share these with both ensembles and audiences.
"We believe," say Finckel and Han, "that if chamber music fans want to maintain real listening skills (resulting of course in deeper enjoyment of the art), they should hear the Beethoven quartet cycle at least twice a decade. We'll aim to provide that opportunity to our Chamber Music Society audiences, and are proud to have the marvelous Takács Quartet be the first under our leadership to keep the tradition alive."
And what makes the cycle so special to the Takács?
"I think that here is a man who has expressed some emotions," says Tapping. "They get straight through to you and transcend the couple of hundred years since they were written. So in that sense they're very relevant, in that it's a human being talking to other human beings about things that everybody feels."
Karissa Krenz is a freelance arts and entertainment writer.