This is our first all Beethoven programme, the first of 6 that we will play over the next 2 year and that constitute a Beethoven cycle.
I can’t believe this day has finally arrived… We started planning these cycles more than 3 years ago, and some of our dates have been in our diaries for more than 2 years. The build up to the start of the cycles has been really exciting for us. When we first decided to present a Beethoven cycle, one of the first things we had to decide was in what format we would offer it. There are 17 quartets, (16 plus the Grosse Fugue, op133, which was written as the last movement for op130). But op130 also has an alternative finale. So first question: do we play op130 with the Grosse Fugue? But then we miss out the alternative finale. Do we play the Grosse Fugue on its own, as other quartets sometimes do? But then it doesn’t have the effect Beethoven originally intended. Do we play the cycle in 5 or 6 full evening concerts? Or in 8 or 9 one hour concerts? How do we pair the pieces together? In the end, inspired by how the Lindsays used to do it, we decided to do op130 twice. When else than in a complete cycle?! And to present it in 6 full concerts, adding the string quintet to the mix, both because it is a great piece, and to make balanced programmes. And as for format, we thought we would give ourselves the best chance possible to give our best performances and have time to grow with each programme by presenting the 6 concerts over 2 years.
Since then, a lot has happened! We’ve been very fortunate that 10 venues across the UK have responded to our offer, and taken on the full cycle. A few asked for a slightly different format (starting a bit later, over a shorter period etc…) and we have been happy to be able to oblige.
Then the whole website idea emerged, which has made our preparation for this undertaking part of the journey. Normally when we go somewhere to play a concert, we present a product, and that’s all our audience sees of us. There might be a pre-concert talk, or a radio interview, but mostly to our audience we are the music that we play at that time, and only that. With the website we were able to share a little bit of our preparation, so when people come to the concert, they have had some idea of who we are, and what has gone into the build up to the concert. This has made the cycle preparation all the more real for us, and I’ve had the feeling that this whole thing is much more than concerts, it is a journey.
I’ve always been interested to know how I will feel after having performed all the quartets. Will it make us play some of them differently? Will some quartets evolve more than others? Will we feel better in a specific quartet for playing it paired with another one in a programme? I guess we will see!
For now let me tell a little bit about the experience of playing our first programme: 18/5 - op59/3 - op131
We’ve performed it 4 times now, in Oxford, Muncaster Castle, Southampton and Reading.
Oxford Sheldonian Theatre
This is it. The cycle is starting. I haven’t really slept last night, I was both excited and scared about tonight. Op18/5 is new to us, tonight is our first performance. Op131 is pretty new as well, we only performed it once before. Op59/3 is a little like an old friend. Or shall I say an old enemy turned friend? We played for the first time in 2005 and I have to say back then I was having a lot of trouble with it. It’s not a piece that naturally suited us. We like minor and dramatic/sad/nostalgic pieces, I guess that’s what comes most naturally. But 59/3 is SO happy, brilliant, ecstatic. So we had to work really hard to find the right feel, and push ourselves in a direction that perhaps was not instinctive. We played it then, left it a while, came back to it, left it again. And every time it was a little less puzzling, and felt better. Hence the friend. I love performing it now, it’s so exhilarating and exciting.
It is really interesting having it in the first half. In a mixed programme, it would almost always be the last piece in the programme, such a great finisher with its incredibly exciting fugue at the end. But here it is second, with op131 to come in the second half. Does it change our approach of it? Not really, I don’t think so. I certainly don’t consciously plan on playing it differently. But yet it does change things… For me at least. (I haven’t talked about this with my colleagues, and they might think completely differently!)
The first obvious difference is that in this programme it doesn’t stand on its own in one half of the concert. It comes straight after op18/5 (although we do take a couple minutes backstage between the 2 to have a drink of water and re-tune our instruments) so when we start the introduction, so dissonant and tense, it feels a little like a bridge between the two pieces, a no man’s land full of mystery and undercurrent pain that must result in something explosive. And to me that first diminished chord makes more sense here where it is not only a expectant start to the piece, but also a link between the light and Mozartian A major of op18/5 and something just as bright, but possibly bolder and more serious. It is sort of like a call of destiny, telling us that something is changing.
Another thing that feels very different for me is knowing that op131 is still to come. That somehow allows me to revel in the up-beat and happiness of 59/3 without feeling that I am leaving out a side of Beethoven. Because I know that the other side is coming in the second half! This was never something I consciously thought when playing 59/3 in mixed programmes; I never though, oh, there is much more to Beethoven than joy and brilliance, I must show that in the playing. But playing 59/3 between 18/5 and 131, I realise that I put less pressure on our performance of it and am able to enjoy the moment and what is in the music a little more fully. Because although it is a great masterpiece that is very complete, (I haven’t mentioned it, but there is also of course the heart breaking slow movement that darkens the whole piece a little and balances everything), it is only one side of Beethoven. It is what came to him at a certain moment in time, and no matter how long he spent writing it and how many corrections he made to it, that’s all any piece of music can and should ever be.
So it is the interval, we have played op18/5 and 59/3. That is a LONG first half. It lasts more than an hour. When I come off stage I feel exhilarated but also completely spent… How on earth am I going to find the energy to play op131? It is such a huge piece, where the emotional depth is staggering, where we have to dig so deep even when played on its own… But you know what? Somehow, it’s ok. Somehow it works. Because it is such different music, that I feel it’s a different part of me that plays in the second half. Op 131 is as soul-searching as the first half was bright and happy. It is a totally different ball game. And I have found that, fed by the music, I have had no problems finding the strength and inspiration to perform it in the context. Sara’s little introduction is always very inspiring right before we play it. Even though I have now heard it 4 times, (and although it changes a little every time, the message remains the same) it still moves me. It puts me in the mood for this journey of a piece, where Beethoven has done away with any traditional form, key relationships or tonal boundaries that might have been in place at the time, and leaves us with pure emotion. So when we start I feel like I am a different person than the one who played in the first half, and I know that by the end of it, I will feel changed yet again.