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Pro Arte: Beethoven

Program 1
Beethoven: Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2
Beethoven: Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95
Beethoven: Quartet in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1

Program 2
Beethoven: Quartet in E-Flat Major, Op. 127
Beethoven: Quartet in B-Flat Major, Op. 130

Pro Arte Quartet
David Perry, violin
Suzanne Beia, violin
Sally Chisholm, viola
Parry Karp, cello


In the second of three pairs of concerts presenting the complete string quartets of Beethoven Friday and Saturday evening at the Union Theater, the Pro Arte Quartet achieved an amazing level of subtlety, concentration and intensity. Though not completely flawless -- great performances seldom are -- the Pro Arte unquestionably reached the very highest standard, both in the overall expressivity of the music and in the fine details of individual sections of the scores. Furthermore, despite the absolute requirement for perfect ensemble in the chamber-music ideal, the playing of the each of the four members was also nothing short of awesome.

It is customary to compare the first six Beethoven quartets to those of Haydn, but it was gratifying that the Pro Arte's reading of the G Major quartet, Op. 18, No. 2 underscored the ways in which the work is uniquely unlike Haydn: an extended development section, a highly compressed recapitulation, and throughout a forward-looking harmonic concept quite unlike the older master's. One can certainly sense the seed we know will sprout later into a whole forest of incomparable miracles in music.

Indeed, after the F Minor quartet, Op. 95, which ended the first half of the program, I commented to the person next to me (a violinist), "There is little to say, really, beyond the fact that we have just witnessed a miracle, something that must be impossible but it happened nevertheless!" It's a feature of this particular work that it makes so much of fairly spare materials. In the very extended F Major quartet, Op. 59, No. 1 the materials are richer but the miracle here resides in the details of tempo, character, articulation, and dynamics. This last was embodied in really outstanding soft playing (ppp, which means "as soft as possible": it was a little softer than that).

The second program comprised two late quartets. In the E-flat Major quartet, Op. 127, soft playing again highlighted the miraculous cantabile of the slow movement, but in the third movement, the terribly brisk tempo was a little unsteady, making the music feel rushed at times. It was here that perfect ensemble proved elusive.

However, in the opening movement of the B-flat Major quartet, Op. 130, rock-steadiness was again achieved and the two slow movements were gorgeous beyond any describing. Concluding the Op. 130 quartet with the "Great Fugue," Op. 133 -- that daunting maelstrom of quartet sound -- the Pro Arte brought to mind the driving, relentless, virtually obsessed character of the extraordinarily dense, concentrated score, a bit like Captain Ahab butting the waves in pursuit of a mythic force: something truly beyond mere human ability.

The capacity audience clapped, cheered, and at the end of the second program stood up to signal its heartfelt appreciation for the Pro Arte's great accomplishments. And rightly so, I thought, for the Pro Arte had to my ears surpassed even the Emerson Quartet, heard in the first pair of the series, which will conclude with the Orion Quartet's appearance in April.

Isthmus, February, 1997
Copyright 1997 Jess Anderson

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