[It was my idea to get the members of the Colorado Quartet together over dinner and tape record a discussion about their experiences of playing Beethoven Quartets, to use as program notes for a Parnassus issue. I was very pleased by the way it turned out. The musicians never complained, but for the second volume of the series they insisted on more standard program notes by a musicologist.]

This conversation took place, over an excellent Italian dinner, among Parnassus producer Leslie Gerber and the members of the Colorado Quartet, violinists Julie Rosenfeld and D. Lydia Redding, violist Marka Gustafsson, and cellist Diane Chaplin, identified by their initials.

LG: I keep hearing from string players that some of this stuff is impossible to play.

DR: It’s impossible. Well, it’s not impossible, but there are some individual parts in some of the quartets which are impossible to play. We figure out how to do them to the best of our ability. It’s a huge, colossal, awesome decathelon, like running a hundred miles. [Note: Redding is an ultra-marathon runner and has actually run 100 miles.] Mentally it’s exhausting. Physically you can damage yourself. Emotionally it’s exhausting. But it’s so totally satisfying that, whatever you put out, however much you waste yourself doing it, you get it back.

JR: One of the more daunting things about playing Beethoven is that there’s such an incredible historical precedent from so many groups. Every quartet worth its salt records Beethoven. What are we trying to convey through these pieces which might have worth in the long run? These are some of the most often recorded and performed quartets in the world.

MG: They can absorb everyone’s interpretation and still come up for more occasions to be interpreted. It has to do with the depth of the music. There’s an inherent quality of struggle and striving in the music that makes it feel physically and emotionally and mentally impossible.

The struggle of having to execute the music and having to absorb it emotionally is part of the character of Beethoven coming through in the music. He was striving and struggling and ranting and raving while he was composing these pieces. We do that too. It comes out in the interpretation.

DC: It is definitely much more exhausting to play an all-Beethoven concert than it is to play any other concert. The concentration level needed for Beethoven makes an all-Beethoven concert more demanding.

DR: It’s the mental focus demanded. The brain drain is exhausting.

LG: So how do you cope with these problems? You remind me of what Vladimir Feltsman once told me about playing Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations. He said that when he was playing them, he would play nothing else for a week before or a week after.

DC: We do that sort of thing also, especially if we’re going to play a cycle. We make out a rehearsal schedule for a month or so in advance, and we rotate the pieces so that we don’t go too many days without touching something. The week before the cycle we have runthroughs of the programs to build up mental and physical endurance. It’s like being in training for an athletic event.

DR: The last six days before a Beethoven cycle we play through in program order to get used to the physical activity.

DC: One of the slightly scary things about playing the cycle in a short period of time, like a week, is that because there are so many pieces and you have to do your runthroughs of five programs, we play program A five days before the concert and then we don’t touch any of those pieces for five days. It’s not like our usual way of working when we rehearse a program for a week before the concert. A lot of it is long term work. You come to the day of the concert and you haven’t touched that music for five days.

DR: A Beethoven concert is so exhausting that you have to limit your rehearsal time on the day of the concert.

LG: If all these great string quartets who came before you have done so much with these quartets, what do you do to make your performances worthwhile?

JR: One of the things we talk, argue, think about to a great extent is something very important about our recording. We decided to take every single one of the repeats. The last time we did the cycle we thought about doing that. The other thing that is slightly controversial is Beethoven’s metronome markings. We’ve been back and forth about these metronome markings. Was Beethoven’s metronome accurate? Did he really mean what he wrote? Some of them are”too fast” and some of them are “too slow,” but you can’t have it both ways. We struggled with this quite a bit and came to a meeting of the minds about how the metronome markings help us understand the character of each movement. We do it differently than other quartets, not necessarily better or worse, but you do get our take on it.

MG: We use the metronome markings to inform our decisions about tempo, character, and feeling.

DC: We often turn the metronome on to hear the tempo and then we play. In the physical effort of the playing, if the tempo is really too fast to play, our bodies just slow it down because we can’t spit out the notes at that speed and make anything musical happen. Beethoven wasn’t hearing people playing the music at those metronome markings. He would hear it in his head and look at the metronome. If you’ve ever tried to time a piece by hearing it in your head, the head always goes faster than the physical music.

I think his ideal is really what he heard in his head. My theory is that if he had been able to hear people playing the music, he would have slowed some of those tempos down.

LG: You hope.

DC: He would have heard that it was unplayable. But maybe he wouldn’t have cared.

LG: We have evidence that he didn’t always care.

DR: “What do I care for your puny violin.” We know.

Against the background of all those years of tradition and of all the great masters who have recorded them before, it takes courage to present them with our ideas and put them up there to be admired or shot down. Everybody differs on how Beethoven’s music should go. It takes years of experience in playing the works and in listening to oneself to become committed to one’s interpretation, to feel like it’s valid.

LG: You have been playing these quartets for quite a while.

DR: We began working on Beethoven quartets at the beginning of our career in 1982. We worked on them as soon as possible because we knew we’d want to have the cycle available for performance.

JR:. The very first quartet we ever played was Op. 18, No. 5. Op. 59, No. 2, which we played in our Naumberg concert, is the second oldest piece in our repertory.

LG: Talk a little about these specific pieces. What special interest does any one of them have for you?

JR: They’re all so incredible. Of the four quartets we have on these CDs, we start with Op. 59, No. 1 which was such a ground-breaker. It’s the very first quartet that has no exposition repeat in the first movement. It’s the first quartet that attempts to have orchestral sonority. He’s breaking the bounds of what the quartet can actually play. He’s changing ideas of structure with the enormous development sections of the first movement and of the second movement, although it’s a Scherzo. The third movement is incredibly sad music that supposedly depicts a weeping willow tree over his brother’s grave, although his brother wasn’t dead yet.

DC: It’s the brotherhood of man!

JR: Then the last movement with the Russian theme for Count Rasumovsky announces that he is starting a new way of writing quartets with this massive piece, almost 45 minutes long. It’s an amazing achievement.

LG: So you feel this is drastically different from the writing in the Op. 18 Quartets.

JR: Absolutely.

DR: It’s a brave new world.

DC: Among other things, Beethoven correctly starts with a cello solo! Name me an Op. 18 Quartet where he does that!

DR: One of the reasons these pieces mean so much to us is the fact that from the very first of Beethoven’s quartets to the last there’s such a huge development of his writing and of music history. We can play those fifteen quartets and see almost the range of music. Some of the late quartets are so modern they’re like the 20th century. It’s necessary for us because the playing is totally fulfilling. If we played no other music, we could almost be satisfied with just the Beethoven Quartets. The Op. 18s are like a really hard bunch of Haydn quartets. The middle quartets are a big physical challenge. Then the late quartets are a huge spiritual and mental challenge. They test us in all the ways they can. We’re fascinated by the personal continuity and development they show.

LG: The three Op. 59 Rasumovsky Quartets are all very popular and are constantly played by every string quartet that thinks they can handle them. Op. 74 doesn’t get played as much. I wonder why.

JR: I think Op. 74 was written when Beethoven learned that Haydn had died. Beethoven had a very conflicted relationship with Haydn. He had studied with Haydn, but chafed at the bit when Haydn tried to correct some of his studies and show him the right way to do things. Beethoven didn’t like having the shackles put on him by a teacher. But Beethoven recognizes his debt to Haydn in the idea of motives, and of string quartet writing where Haydn was the master. In 1809 Beethoven heard of Haydn’s death. He set about to write a quartet somewhat in homage to Haydn. It’s the only quartet of Beethoven that has no dedication. I’ve heard it was because he wanted to dedicate it to Haydn and decided he couldn’t do that. There’s something very classical about it and yet looking forward. The Op. 59s are very romantic in their outlook. Op. 74 is more conflicted in its outlook, more neoclassical.

MG: Less dense, more reserved. Formally it’s more of a throwback. The exposition of the first movement, the slow movement in a kind of developing variation form, I see as formal homages to Haydn.

DR: The tune of the variations is very simple, like a classical set of variations, except it’s weird. That’s Beethoven’s little joke. It’s not exactly Haydn. It’s something else.

DC: The arpeggiated sections in the first violin, near the end of the first movement, are similar to classical quartets with the first violin does all this kind of virtuoso concertante stuff. It’s a definite throwback. You don’t see that stuff in the Op. 59 Quartets.

JR: Op. 59 still has incredibly hard violin parts, though.

DR: One of the reasons Op. 74 isn’t played very often is that although audiences love it, it’s more of a mellow piece than the others. E Flat is a key that Beethoven uses as if he were writing in the Phrygian mode, which lends itself to the sub-dominant having a very strong relationship and that the dominant not having a strong relationship. He uses the sixth in place of the dominant. It gives the piece a lack of tension.

MG: A wishy-washiness?

DR: A lack of tension, on purpose, makes it very mellow and calm rather than very dynamic and exciting like the Second Rasumovsky.

DC: I think the first movement of Op. 74 has some of the most exciting stuff that Beethoven wrote. The Scherzo in C Minor, harking back to the Fifth Symphony, is very exciting. The slow movement is really gorgeous, a little mellow. But the last movement is something of a letdown. It’s not very dynamic, the way all three last movements of Op. 59 are dynamic. Each finale of Op. 59 is”stand up and cheer” music. Op. 74 isn’t.

LG: Like the Brahms Third Symphony.

DC: It’s an awkward piece to program at the end of a concert. As wonderful as it is, the ending just doesn’t invite the audience to leap out of their chairs. It’s a mellow finale. We program it first on a concert or before intermission, but we don’t play it at the end of a concert. It doesn’t strike the audience the same way as the Op. 59s.

JR: Beethoven is in a very different mood than he was in during the Op. 59s. He’s hiding in the basement. The Third Rasumovsky is the same length, but it has a very different feeling to it.

DC: The Op. 59s are more virtuosic for the whole quartet. In Op. 74, because it’s more neoclassical, the notes are just not as hard for the individual members. Julie has some of those arpeggiated things in the first movement, but I don’t think even those are anywhere near as hard as similar passages in Op. 59. In the finale of Op. 59 No. 3, the fugue, it’s in four equal parts and everyone is playing very fast notes in a very extroverted way. We don’t have that virtuosity in Op. 74.

LG: What was it like recording these pieces, and how is that different from playing them in public?

DC: It’s hell recording. The good part is that you can do it over and over and over again [sounding exhausted]. We’re not going to say anything about recording that hasn’t been said by others for years and years. There’s a lack of spontaneity when you’re recording. You don’t have an audience there making you excited, giving you feedback. You don’t feel like, right now, I’m on the line here. I have to play well right now. This is my one chance.

[someone mutters]: Yes you do.

DC: When you’re recording, you have to continue to play well for days and days. You’re a hostage.

DR: What I find difficult is the demand for perfection. Perfection can become a real tyrant. At a live concert, you’re always trying to play well but you put the performance of the work ahead of perfection, getting the audience involved and enjoying yourself.

JR: I don’t disagree, but there’s something liberating about letting the producer worry about the perfection aspects. Judy Sherman, whom we love, will tell us if something’s wrong. You can try different fingerings, different bowings than you have been used to.

DC: We try not to monitor ourselves. We’re not allowed to stop if we miss something or play something badly. At the end of a take we can say, Judy, don’t use that, I played a wrong note. But basically we are freed from having to critique our own performance as we play. We totally trust her as she sits in the booth and takes notes about what was good and what wasn’t good. Sometimes there will be a section which for some reason wasn’t good enough any of the times we played it. We’ll play it ten more times if she says to. We don’t have to keep track of whether we played it well enough or not. We just play it.

DR: There are times when you come to that one little passage that was always really hard, and you never quite took the time to fix it in rehearsal, and then it comes to recording and you can’t really play it. Leave this part out!

DC: One of the ways we prepare for recording is by taping ourselves in the couple of weeks before recording. We have a schedule for the two weeks before a recording project. We also rotate our repertoire and we’re trying to listen really critically. We sit there and we say, “Judy would say that’s not good enough. Was that good enough for Judy?” She’s become a persona we carry around in our heads. It’s like having your coach for your sports team there all the time. We listen for the things that need extra rehearsal.

JR: She’s the fifth ear. She will often pinpoint things that we didn’t even know were happening. “Did you know you were shortening the rests in the first movement of Op. 59, No. 2? Dum-pum, one, two. That wasn’t long enough.”

LG: Were there any surprises during the sessions?

DR: I think so. The timing things especially. We didn’t realize some of them. Some places we hadn’t been listening to carefully enough. Judy would say, “You know, that’s not together,” and we’d say,”œWhat?” She would be listening objectively from the outside and we wouldn’t be hearing it from the inside. We couldn’t begin a note exactly together.

MG: There were things that we were absolutely sure of. We had been monitoring ourselves with Beethoven’s tempo markings. But we had gotten really drawn out in some of the slow movements and really fast in some of the fast movements. When we were called upon to match tempos in other sessions it was really difficult. But it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. In doing alternative tempos we found a different kind of expressivity. We had to cleanse our palates.

LG: Any pleasant surprises?

All: We survived.

DC: Every once in a while when I hear some bit of us recorded I am surprised by how fast a tempo is. When you’re in the middle of it and you’re playing it, we slow down time. We have all these notes under our control and it doesn’t feel as though we’re playing as fast as we are. There is that pleasant surprise about, wow, we’re really doing it.

LG: The trumpeter Armando Ghitalla once recorded the Hummel Trumpet Concerto. After he heard the playback he accused the recording engineer of speeding up the tape. He said, “I can’t play that fast’ but he was wrong.

JR: I don’t think we had any big surprises because we’d done a lot of taping and listening. We basically knew what was going to come out. A few little things got tweaked. That’s what you want in a recording session. If we didn’t have many surprises, that means we had a successful session. You don’t want big surprises. You want to know what your product is. That’s why we do tapes in advance, to avoid the horrible shock of hearing the first playback and saying, “Oh, my God, that’s awful.”

–Leslie Gerber

Comments are closed.