The Alban Berg Quartet
Wrestling with eternity
by James Leonard
A real string quartet performance isn't pretty. A real string quartet performance isn't four players off in a corner at a wedding reception, gracelessly scraping away at the Pachelbel Canon. A real string quartet performance is four players wrestling with the immensities of intractable music. Like Jacob wrestling with his angel, the players throw themselves at the work with reckless intensity and unyielding abandon. And every once in a while their effort will be rewarded with a vision of Jacob's ladder.
If there's a chance that Ann Arbor audiences will glimpse heaven this season, that glimpse will occur during the Alban Berg Quartet's performance in Rackham Auditorium on Monday, March 3. It'll probably come during the second half.
The Alban Berg Quartet is the best Central European quartet performing today. Eschewing flash and gimmicks, these musicians uphold the Central European tradition of quartet playing, a tradition that stresses intonation, technique, and ensemble along with lucidity, severity, and, above all, profundity. At Rackham, the Berg will be playing Alfred Schnittke's String Quartet no. 4 the bleakest and most vehemently expressive quartet written since the death of Shostakovich and Beethoven's numinous C-sharp Minor, op. 131.
Composed for, dedicated to, and premiered by the Alban Berg Quartet, Schnittke's Fourth Quartet is in five harsh and harrowing movements, three monumental Lentos interspersed with a burly Allegro and an angular Vivace. The Fourth's themes are gnarly and its developments gnomic; its language is atonal and its form evasive. But all this is beside the point. Above everything else, the Fourth is one long, lyrical prayer, full of suffering, bone-aching pain, and an unassuageable yearning for eternity.
Whether or not Schnittke's Fourth ever finds eternity, Beethoven's C-sharp Minor is now, as it ever has been and ever shall be, the greatest, the most sublime, the most transcendent string quartet ever composed. Beethoven's quartet starts with a slow fugue on an unutterably molto espressivo theme and moves through a gracefully rocking Allegro, an insouciant little Allegro Moderato, and a serenely sky-spanning set of molto cantabile variations to a vertiginously virtuosic Presto, pausing for a prayerful Adagio before the final Allegro's relentless ride to the abyss that ends in a series of C-sharp major chords that refuse the consolations of either pity or despair.
Like Schnittke's Fourth, like any real classical quartet, Beethoven's C-sharp minor isn't pretty. How could it be?
[Originally published in March, 2003.]