Lafayette String Quartet tackles Beethoven with finesse
A MusicFest presentation. At Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, August 7
The Lafayette String Quartet is the world’s only quartet to retain its original membership after 25 years, 20 of them as the University of Victoria’s artists in residence.
Add to that the fact these four women take on some pretty tough material, such as Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, Op. 130, which they played as part of MusicFest Vancouver.
Violinists Ann Elliott Goldschmid and Sharon Stanis, violist Joanna Hood, and cellist Pamela Highbaugh Aloni are beautifully matched in temperament, tonal agreement, and the usual things that define a good quartet, as they proved in a challenging program.
The Opus 130 is a late quartet, while the other Beethoven the ensemble played, the Op. 18, No. 3, is an early one—his first, in fact. Heretical though it may be to say so, I prefer it to the late one. It deals in charm, concision and grace, which the late one is too big for. It got a lovely, fresh performance.
Opinion is divided on the murderous Grosse Fugue, which was originally written to end Op. 130, a work that is not only taxing but already long. Surprisingly, Beethoven caved in to objections that it was too hard to play and sanctioned its excision—and even more surprisingly, the Lafayette decided to include it.
Whether to play it or not as part of the quartet continues to be debated by string groups, some feeling that it doesn’t sound right hearing the almost inevitable sour octaves and recommending that string orchestras take it on as a separate piece (known as Op. 133); the argument is that the more players, the less noticeable the problems.
But the problems of making it “sound” are part and parcel of the work’s appeal. Hearing a certain roughness brings a philosophical dimension to its Affekt that has everything to do with Beethoven, and assigning it to a larger group seems a cop-out. Beethoven shouldn’t sound easy; he knew what he was doing in transcending the medium’s capabilities. As he once said to the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, who complained about technical difficulties, “Do you think I worry about your lousy fiddle when the spirit speaks to me?”
The musicians did a creditable job on the quartet but I think it was a mistake to include the 15-minute fugue. It just left you limp. And it wasn’t the only section with problems: the second movement’s presto wasn’t too clean either.
Cool relief came by way of Franz Joseph Haydn and his “Rider” Quartet in G Minor, Op. 74, No. 3. It was like sherbet on a hot day.