Ann Arbor Weather:
Saturday July 20, 2019
Follow us: facebook twitter RSS feed
The Alban Berg Quartet

The Alban Berg Quartet

Wrestling with eternity

by James Leonard

From the March, 2003 issue

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?     (end of article)

[Originally published in March, 2003.]

 



 
Bookmark and Share
Print Comment E-mail

You might also like:

Music: Pop, Rock, Jazz, Blues, & Traditional
Photo: Indigo Blue Bunting Says Hello in Style
Deaths in the Crosswalks
Despite a decade of efforts, the number of pedestrians injured and killed locally is climbing.
James Leonard
Goodbye to Launch Board Shop, Great Lakes Cycling
Marketplace Closings: May 2019
Sabine Bickford
Better Billboards
"You'll get 18,000 emails today but only drive by so many billboards," says Ernie Perich
Jeff Mortimer
Restaurants with Wi-Fi
A clickable zoomable map
The Many Lives of Burns Park
Olivia Hall's savvy land swap created a park, a school, and a neighborhood.
Grace Shackman
Subscribe to the Ann Arbor Observer
The Yams Arrive
They're opening a bakery at Packard and Platt.
Sabine Bickford
Welcome To The Ann Arbor Skatepark, by David Swain
One of the finest university art museums in the country, UMMA holds collections representing 150 yea
A visitor's guide to Ann Arbor