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Beethoven: Sonatas and Quartets


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Alice Elms considers how classical music is performed through a series of concerts.

Image of Beethoven: Sonatas and Quartets
Image credit: Benjamin Ealovega

Showing @ City Halls, Glasgow, Sat 27 & Sun 28 Sep @ times vary

A gloriously thorough series of chamber concerts completed the 2nd stint of its colourful journey last month. Exploring the full run of Beethoven’s piano sonatas and string quartets, the second year of this mini-festival covered a broad range of these chamber pieces, spanning from the altogether youthful to late works. Taking the lead in performing the programme were the London-based Elias String Quartet and the Welsh pianist Llyr Williams. They also gave a series of interpolated lectures, whose purpose was to explore the way the music of this oft-mythologised composer engages and speaks to us.

The premise of bringing together performances and talks to work in tandem in this manner shows the kind of programmatic inventiveness, and even a faith in audiences, that can be lacking in the generally proffered classical music performance calendar. A glance at the programme alone gives butterfly-inducing clues to the kind of musical experience this might be: pleasurable and effortlessly edifying.

On the day of Middle-Period Beethoven performances the Elias String Quartet open proceedings with a lecture. Being no stranger to community engaging activities, they adapt with ease from the Concert Hall to the more intimate setting of the City Halls’ Recital Room to eek out some gritty details of their meaty topic – Beethoven’s Op.59  (one of the ‘Rasumovsky’ quartets). Met with incredulity in its time, the players take it in turn to briefly outline some of this historic detail, before engaging the audience’s help to explore emotive responses to the actual music. All this is done with a light-heartedness and sense of fun that generously offers insight into the performers’ working processes and some nuts and bolts of compositional craft. It’s riveting stuff. Even for the more experienced listeners it’s surely a delight to hear certain concepts illustrated live in sound by such masterful players. And furthermore it’s pitched well, being neither patronising nor too technically overwhelming.

Later, during the full performance, it could be hoped that audience members might discover additional listening pleasures by way of their new-found knowledge. As the lecture emphasised, it’s not always essential to understand (and consciously hear) the way particular musical devices get under the skin in order to feel their full force. Nevertheless, it is exciting to recognise on second listening that ‘tentative, uneasy’ passage, and remember exactly how the harmony underpins and evokes it; or equally, to understand why that serene melody suddenly feels bloated with joy.

An exquisitely placed ‘bonus track’ concludes the day of Middle Period Beethoven. A few – no doubt tired – listeners escape the hall, but the rest do as bid by the Elias and gather closer to the stage to savour this strange delight. It’s the ‘Serioso’ quartet, intended by Beethoven to be heard by a ‘small circle of connoisseurs’ only. Certainly, our circle is more intimate now, and those left have been brought as close to that “connoisseur” state as could be hoped in a weekend. It’s a huge pity that it isn’t practically and financially possible to present more chamber music in this way: up close, the sound envelops more fully, further energising this invigorating music. The quartet goes by in a furious late night flurry. Bow hairs break and fly while prodding to life jagged melodies, careering rhythms, frenzied unisons, the occasional sweet respite. It’s a perfectly enticing teaser for a final day of Late Works.

It is the turn of pianist Llyr Williams to verbally pique the audience’s curiosity at the start of the culminating Beethoven day. His lecture is on the last three piano sonatas (to be played later), and is conducted in the guise of a question and answer session with Rosenna East. Although a little less comfortable in this mode than the Elias, he conveys a sense of his profoundly worked-through and thoughtful relationship to the repertoire, and shines a light on types of calculations that mould interpretive decisions. For example, he chooses a slight tempo change between theme and ‘variation’ because it serves to further muddle the unusual relationship between the two that Beethoven has used to disguise his form.

A sense of these kinds of logical and structural calculations pervades the quality of Llyr Williams’ piano playing. Its affect on the performance of the middle period sonatas was that of an even-tempered, sedate approach to what is generally considered the most tempestuous period in Beethoven’s piano sonata writing. Some of the ragged expressiveness is not fully explored – or indulged – to aid a longer-ranging structural vision. And if a few details are lost, there are other outcomes that compensate; the impressively solid gravity of the Op.26’s funeral march, or the soothingly elegiac sweep of the ‘Moonlight’ sonata’s so well known first movement.

It’s an approach that serves best the final three late sonatas that finish the weekend’s musical explorations. Williams establishes an exhaustively exacting control over this material, and is admirably unflustered by the few histrionically virtuosic passages in what he describes as this largely ‘too lyrical’ music. The structures he creates have an ineluctable forward motion, most noticeably in the sweetly tender elaborations of the theme in Op.109’s variations, and in Op.110’s exhilarating fugal closing. It’s an absorbing and magisterial performance, one that the audience are soon on their feet to vociferously applaud.