Brentano Quartet & Yekwon Sunwoo

By Scott MacClelland

GOOGLE YOUTUBE for Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Op. 132, and you’ll have your pick of performances that run from 36 to 55 minutes. Beethoven’s music certainly allows for interpretive latitude, but how do you explain such a wild discrepancy of performance time? To lay the groundwork, there is no way to omit anything from the definitive critical edition—unless I suppose some quartet of players that decides to drop an entire movement. Nicht möglich.

The Brentano Quartet came in at 43 minutes in their reading of the work at Sunset Center on a chilly Sunday afternoon after the morning’s rain squalls had finally subsided. The most elastic of the four movements is the third, the “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart: Molto adagio–Neue Kraft fühlend: andante”—Holy song of thanks of a convalescent to the deity, in the Lydian mode: molto adagio; feeling new strength: andante. (The Lydian mode, with its fourth tone raised a half step, was historically associated with healing.) The work presents two ideas, a slow hymn at the start with a ‘new strength’ dance, as if Beethoven was emerging from illness in starts and fits. These ideas alternate, the original hymn growing subtly more complex while retaining its original character.

This deeply expressive movement alone, in this case 17 minutes, confounds the imagination when considering that the composer was stone deaf. That Beethoven could in social isolation communicate his own emotional depths with such unequivocal clarity boggles the mind. And to look deeper into the formal processes (as the linked demonstration below does*) is to further boggle an already boggled mind. This new standard of musical communication cannot be ignored or denied; music, poetry, emotion and formal architecture come together here as they are rarely found anywhere else in human imagination.

The surrounding three movements (four if you count as separate the short march that strides directly into the final rondo), each of which establishes its own character and originality, provide essential balance around the slow movement. Yet the reaction of the audience following this performance was muted, perhaps perplexed. I don’t remember the last time this piece was heard in Carmel. It might well have bewildered the first-time listener. (That happens a lot with late Beethoven.) Still this piece retains that inexorable Beethovenian formal logic and development. How he, the straddler between the Classical and the Romantic, could hold those principles in such perfect poise remains as profound as was his fascination for JS Bach, to whom he ‘took a knee.’

The Brentano program opened with Dvořák’s Piano Quintet, Op. 81, joined by Yekwon Sunwoo, winner of the 2017 Van Cliburn Competition and who performed a solo recital in Carmel last October. A highly charged performance assured a shoe-in for audience acclaim. Since winning the Cliburn, Sunwoo has become a regular collaborator with the Brentano Quartet. But for all their fealty to the composer’s score, the reading here was predictable and lacked suspense, missing multiple opportunities to finesse phrasings. Exaggerating contrasts between slow moments and faster ones, by holding back expectations, to elasticize tempos (as Richard Wagner strongly advocated), are the tricks of the trade that enthrall listeners and turn their experiences into future talking points.       

*From Stanford, a brilliant analysis of the “Heiliger Dankgesang,” the slow movement, from the A Minor quartet, with Robert Kapilow of the Stanford School of Medicine and the St Lawrence String Quartet.