Philharmonia Quartett Berlin
Hannaford Hall, USM
March 19, 2017
by Christopher Hyde
An encore by a string quartet! The first I have heard in many years of listening to chamber music, and not a lollipop either, but the first movement of Beethoven’s Opus 18, No. 6.
The occasion was the conclusion of a Sunday afternoon concert at USM’s Hannaford Hall by the Philharmonia Quartett Berlin, one of the world’s pre-eminent ensembles, under the auspices of Portland Ovations.
The quartet had just concluded the Beethoven No. 15 in A Minor, Opus 132, to a standing ovation, when one of the members said something to the effect of : “Well, you liked that, so we’ll give you some more.”
I had been wracking my brains for what element makes the quartet so special —balance, individualization of parts, resonance, microtone precision, passion, dynamics, what some have called “smoothness,” etc. etc., without coming to any obvious conclusion.
After the encore, I saw them entering the elevator, chatting like a group of high school students on a senior trip, and what had been under my nose during the encore, suddenly came to mind: They actually love what they’re doing. It’s what holds them together. I had seen that during the encore, but their cohesiveness was emphasized by their obvious comradery off stage.
The program itself was fascinating, beginning with a Mozart quartet, No. 8 in F Major (KV.168), that was light and lively, the composer making fun of convention with a fugue whose theme was so rapid that it defied the rules of counterpoint.
My favorite, however, was the late Shostakovich No. 15 in E-flat Minor (Op 144). There were no flies in Hannaford Hall, so I couldn’t check the validity of the composer’s dictum that the first movement should be so boring that it would make flies drop dead.
I found it fascinating, an exploration of what could be accomplished with the fewest possible notes, played sostenuto within a severely limited range of pitches. It was extremely effective in a macabre sort of way and lent itself to all sorts of Shostakovian transformations, from heart-rending shrieks to summer insects, to one of his famous sardonic waltzes, to, finally, a dirge to the tune of Happy Birthday.
One would have thought it another poke in the eye to Stalin, except that the dictator had already been dead 20 years when it was written. I think Shostakovich missed him.
I wasn’t as happy with the late Beethoven, also a No. 15, but in A Minor (Op. 132). Not because of its execution, which was well-nigh perfect, but because of my blind spot for these revered productions.
The “Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity by a Convalescent, in the Lydian Mode” (Note the comma. The movement is in the Lydian mode, not the convalescent.) goes on forever. One can imagine God saying: “Enough, Ludwig, I get the message.”
The final movement is livelier, but its false cadences are enough to drive one mad. Sorry. Mea culpa. I really have come to like the Grosse Fugue.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at email@example.com.