Toronto Summer Music Festival (Part 5): Beethoven: String Quartet No. 13 

Jonathan Crow.

Jonathan Crow.

The Toronto Summer Music Festival presented Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B flat Major, Op. 130 and Grosse Fuge, Op. 133; performed by Jonathan Crow and three members of the TSM Academy Fellows (Katya Poplyansky, Minkyoung Lee and Allison Rich). 

Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet No. 13 in B flat Major, Op. 130 and Grosse Fuge, Op. 133

I. Adagio, ma non troppo – Allegro

II. Presto 

III. Andante con moto, ma non troppo. Poco scherzoso 

IV. Alla danza tedesca. Allegro assai 

V. Cavatina. Adagio molto espressivo

VI. Große Fuge 

After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music” said aldous huxley (born 125 years ago this week) in Music at Night, his seminal contemplative on the inherent spirituality of the musical experience. elsewhere in the book he recalls the memory of a quiet summer evening, so dark and still that he could think of no better way to honour the silence than with a random selection from his record collection: 

Suddenly, by some miraculously appropriate confidence (for I had selected the record in the dark, without knowing what music the machine would play), suddenly the introduction to the Benedictus in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis begins to trace patterns on the moonless sky. “” aldous huxley, Music at Night 

toronto’s classical music scene needs more evenings like this past thursday night’s Toronto Summer Music (TSM) Late Night program; the silence of the late evening only further accentuates the kind of music that is the only comparable alternative to silence. TSM’s production of beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 at Koerner Hall was performed by an impromptu quartet spearheaded by Toronto Symphony Orchestra concertmaster and TSM festival director jonathan crow, alongside three fellows of the TSM Academy: katya poplyansky (violin), minkyoung lee (viola) and allison rich (cello). the composer’s initial finale to the quartet, a Grand Fugue, is a 20-minute novella of music against which his publishers successfully petitioned a shorter and lighter replacement. the TSM performance chose instead to revert back to beethoven’s initial intentions with the performance of a final movement that sounds more like the soundtrack to the film Interstellar than a quartet written in 1826 vienna. their performance was, as expected, a picturesque rendition of a legendary piece, but brought into the local realm of the moment by sincere evocations of the endless stream of musical subjects spent by the six movements. 

no piece of classical music has travelled further than this quartet. after 40 years of space-travel the Voyager spaceship carrying the fifth movement of this quartet (Cavatina)--alongside other compositions as a sort of mixtape  for potential extraterrestrial life--entered interstellar space (about a hundred times farther from the sun than the earth is) in 2017. it’s one of the last compositions by the ailing beethoven, whose loss of hearing and intestinal woes further isolated the composer into what was already a lonely private life (as confessed in his collection of letters known as the Heiligenstadt Testament). the general character of his last five quartets is that of a composer prescient of the end of his output and therewith in a hurry to say as much as he can. that is beethoven at his best, firing off his seemingly inexhaustible artillery of musical ideas. he remains, as musicologist jan swafford observes, one of those composers whose name and notoriety gets in the way of the truly indefinable multivariety of their musical output: 

The trick to truly getting into Beethoven, beyond the cliche, is to put aside the hoopla and rediscover the passion, the humanity, the strangeness, the unceasing variety within his tireless pursuit of organic unity. Forget the myth. Listen to the music. You will find not “Beethoven,” but instead a collection of unforgettable individuals that steadily reveal new territories of sound and emotion. “” jan swafford, Language of the Spirit

it’s that incessant variety that defines this quartet, no one theme dominates the scenery of these six movements, especially so in the Grand Fugue. it seems as if everything a quartet can do---from the slow and stately to the fierce and obstinate---can be found in that first movement, whereby wild swinging melodies on cello hold together the wonderfully triangulated sounds the composer is able to draw out of the instruments---flawlessly realized by crow and company. the Presto is a short and dandy exposition on a couple short phrases played out in a single breath in one continuous driving force. with the third movement, the fleeting flutterings of the violins in the Presto are replaced by heavy bellows on the cello as pizzicato on viola and 2nd violin introduce a subject that thereon gathers into a sweeping melody. a waltzy fourth movement and the heaving, laborious Cavatina make up the rest of the standard sections of the Quartet No.13. 

‘Beethoven’ by Jeremy Lewis for Blue Riband @jplewisandsons

‘Beethoven’ by Jeremy Lewis for Blue Riband @jplewisandsons

sliding in to fulfill the role of first violin for several quartets throughout the festival, crow has been an indispensable unit, a perfect fit next to the exceedingly capable but relatively unknown TSM fellows. one is liable to take as a given the near-exactness of his technical delivery, the ease with which he reaches the end of every movement like clockwork; his consummate musicianship and natural demeanor on stage perhaps provides for the other quartet members what he appreciates the most in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s incoming music director: group confidence, a sense of preparedness and of being comfortable together onstage. taking on the Fugue along with crow, violist lee and cellist rich seemed easy in their element, exhibiting an instinctive understanding of both their individual parts and how it formed a cohesive sound as a quartet. the standout, however, was violinist katya poplyansky. there are certain members of the TSM Academy that have a certain watchability--cellist jaeyoung chong and baritone clarence frazer come easily to mind in that regard--watchable because of the visible enjoyment they have in their instrument and the palpable innervation they obtain from the experience of performing for an audience. poplyanksy belongs at the top of that list. in an interview with the Royal Conservatory last month, her expression of the joy she relishes from performance in noteworthy: 

 When I was ten I was just really excited to perform in front of people, I found that there was a facility to it. I felt comfortable playing the violin, something maybe I didn’t feel when I was swimming or playing the piano or, doing ballet even […] I love to perform and having this privilege to say something to a large group of people.  I get to talk to people through it, and they listen. It’s to me very special and I consider myself very lucky to be in music. “” katya poplyansky, RCM interview

aside from her stage presence and poise, her technical prowess is as well commendable, especially evident in several segments of the Fugue. in fact all four musicians had standout moments throughout the long, craggly and challenging sprawl of the Fugue. what unfolds is a blitzkrieg of short phrases, each with the potential of engendering their own development sections but instead are usurped by yet another catchy subject. the movement opens with short staccato proclamations on the four instruments before the second violin (poplyansky) enters with a crackling cadenza that gives way to a duet with viola (lee) before settling down for a cerebral and ethereal slow development section. thereafter the pace quickens again for an potentially flammable stretch of music.

the Toronto Summer Music festival runs from july 11th to august 3rd.