Live performances are not always note for note perfect, but there is often an edgy excitement gained from hearing music played in concert that far outstrips the more polished studio recordings. Listening to musicians skirt the boundaries of interpretation and rote will sometimes rejuvenate an audience's perception of old war-horses even as preconcert practice sessions often cause the finest players to reevaluate what the composers have put on the finished score.
There was a certain underlying urgency heard in Friday night's Slee Beethoven Quartet Cycle performances. The Arcata Quartet was playing not only for the audience at hand, it was playing for the future in what The Buffalo News music critic Herman Trotter has called an "audition." Along with five other ensembles, the Arcata Quartet is being considered for the quartet-in-residence slot during the University at Buffalo's 1998-99 season.
Their program on Friday night started out with Beethoven's B flat major quartet (Op. 127), the work that marked Beethoven's return to the quartet medium after twelve years of toil on the ninth symphony, the Missa Solemnis, the Diabelli Variations and other works. It is probably the most accessible of the five last quartets he wrote, but it is certainly no cakewalk to play.
The ensemble played well in general, although its initial entrance in the first movement was a little ragged and the introductory material was taken at a less-than-majestic pace. However, by the time they hit the second movement with it's long, arching theme, things changed for the better. First violinist Marjorie Bagley's playing was especially fine.
The next work was one of Beethoven's earliest quartets, Op. 18, No. 1 in F major. The second of the six quartets to be written in that opus, the composer had worked hard on this piece, shaping and reshaping it, until the influences of Haydn and Mozart, that were more evident in his earliest piano trios, had faded into the background.
The Arcata folks played this with a sense of verve, as if they were on a roll and wanted to keep it going. The second movement was especially beautiful in their hands with the perfectly delayed entrance of the first violin as the rest of the group led the way for a change.
Performance standards and expectations were raised by the time the quartet came to the final piece in their program, the third work in Beethoven's Op. 59. Written in C major, this composition fills a pivotal role within his oeuvre and life. It is the first quartet he wrote that starts out with a slow movement and, in a sketch of the piece, Beethoven finally admitted his increasing deafness even as he declared his need to continue working despite the obstacles ahead of him.
While the balance between the players was starting to gel prior to this moment, it took this piece and this performance to take the show out on a good note. The adagio and scherzo movements, with their contrasting takes on heavy-duty emotion, were especially fine, with the only caveat coming in the last movement allegro where the viola player, Brant Bayless, started playing his instrument as if he were working on a Hindemith or Bloch sonata instead of a Beethoven quartet.
Slee Beethoven Quartet Cycle
Featuring the Arcata String Quartet.
Friday in Slee Hall, University at Buffalo North Campus, Amherst.