Beethoven’s fixations

SPEAK LESS THAN YOU KNOW

Tinalley String Quartet

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday October 4

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                                                                  John Bell

For a program scheduled to last 90 minutes including interval, this recital went well over its allotted time.  Not that the experience was necessarily painful  – just long-winded, and the miscalculation made you wonder about the precision of any organizational pre-planning.

I can’t explain the program’s title, an updated version of a piece of advice offered early in the play by Lear’s Fool.   As the program moved forward, it seemed to me that this specific behavioural stricture was being ignored, both literally and metaphorically.

The night’s main intention was to interweave extracts from Beethoven’s letters with movements from his string quartets, the Tinalley ensemble providing the music and actor John Bell reading the composer’s words.   This succeeded fairly well, the quartet moving from the Op. 18 set  –  three discrete movements  –  to the Harp Op. 74, and significant segments from the Op. 131, 132 and 135 masterworks.   Bell’s selection of letters covered a considerable span – beginning with the 13-year-old’s self-introduction to the Elector of Cologne and ending in the sad codicil to his will in which  he left everything he owned (not much) to his nephew.  And, of course, the evening’s last word went to the Heiligenstadt Testament, that over-emphatic plaint addressed to the composer’s brothers but never sent.

Prefacing this Beethoven letters-and-music compendium, the Tinalleys played Mendelssohn in A minor Op. 13:  yet another product from the phenomenally gifted 18-year-old written in the year of Beethoven’s death and deeply indebted to the late works, especially the Op. 132 in A minor.   First violin Adam Chalabi impressed immediately through the disciplined moderation of his production and a deft manipulation of phrase. And the group made a sterling essay in assertive sonority across the Adagio, every line contributing to a solid bout of weltering in the fugue sections, even more gripping when the subject was inverted; the movement capped by a luminous ending and a final chord of unexpected evenly distributed weight.

In the Allegretto/Allegro alternation of the Intermezzo, the melded lines of second violin Lerida Delbridge and Chalabi served as a fine instance of emotional sympathy underpinning a firm congruence of phrase-shaping.  But all four musicians shared the responsibility for a mightily impressive evenness of output; indeed, the substantial proof of their partnership’s success is borne out even in passages like the pseudo-recitatives at the finale’s start where Mendelssohn imitates Beethoven’s Op. 132 device without disguise.   At the end, the players’ efforts were given a moderately animated reception, although probably not as warm as the performance should have received, considering the interpretation’s fluency and its success in conveying the composer’s emotional fervour and open-heartedness.

Bell’s letter-reading followed a chronological chain, the 1802 Testament finale apart.  To mirror each text with a contemporaneous quartet would have been impossible, so the deviser of this concept, Anna Melville, went for sympathetic resonances rather than direct links between words and music.   This worked quite well with certain parts of the entertainment  –  the first F Major quartet’s confident Allegro con brio (without the exposition repeat) following the brash Cologne Elector letter – if a tad forced at other points, as with the Immortal Beloved letters supported by the Adagio from the E flat Harp score.

The chosen texts fell roughly into two thematic divisions: Beethoven’s encroaching and then full-blown deafness, and a near-manic concern for his nephew Karl.  With regard to his physical disability, the composer was clearly distraught at its advance; the later letters show a determined acceptance born from suffering far too many shonky medical experiences in fruitless efforts towards a cure.   But the nephew-related communications, loaded with irrational invective about his sister-in-law, betray an off-putting real-world misogyny that not all the high-flown Wertheresque proclamations of the love letters can dispel.

Bell brought to life the over-interfering uncle effectively, as well as the early enthusiastic greetings to the composer’s friend Karl Amenda.  But the Immortal Beloved extracts read like a melodrama script – full of gesture and poetic fancy but with no convincing depth to them.   Later, while the final letter to Moscheles, written two weeks before his death, showed without affectation the composer’s stoic resignation, the Testament itself was handled briskly, making the man sound less an unhappy and noble spirit but more of a cranky whinger.

The quartet moved across the designed repertoire with security, showing a flawless synchronicity of attack during the F Major Op. 18 extract, particularly clean at the fermate  near Letter O.   Small details emerged continually to demonstrate the group’s constitutional finesse, like the opposed delicacy and mellow power brought into action after bar 115 where the violins share melodic and decorative functions in turn.   Even Justin Williams’ single note exposed F flat strokes at bars 152-3 caught the attention for their well-judged, tension-inducing delivery.

One of the happier juxtapositions occurred with a letter to publisher Moritz Schlesinger accompanying the last Op. 135 Quartet, and the Tinalleys playing that work’s Muss es sein?/Es muss sein finale.   Finally, although 23 years apart, the Testament and the Heiliger Dankgesang from the Op. 132 quartet made a solid pairing.  While these musicians’ reading offered security of delivery and a well-ordered textural complex, it missed out on full effectiveness through removal from its natural context; unfortunately, the movement had been brought to vivid life a week before in the same venue by players from the Australian Chamber Orchestra who presented the complete work.

However, the Bell/Tinalley mixture put the composer and his work into fascinating juxtaposition, the main effect being to make you wonder  –  yet again  –  how this self-regarding, temperamentally unpleasant human being could have produced such a miraculous chain of Heaven-touched marvels.

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