Thursday, 1 February 2024

CHF 50 | 30.-

19:30 Eglise de Rougemont

C. Debussy
Quatuor à cordes en sol mineur op. 10

L. van Beethoven
Quatuor à cordes n° 14 en ut dièse mineur op. 131

Under the patronage of

Concert presentation

Debussy: String Quartet in G minor op.10
There were a great many influences behind Claude Debussy’s String Quartet, when he began work on it in 1892. His patron Nadezhda von Meck, famously also Tchaikovsky’s patron, had been inviting him to Moscow for a decade, and had instilled in him a passion for Russian music. Four years earlier, he had attended Wagner operas in Bayreuth. He had finally made the acquaintance of Stéphane Mallarmé and Erik Satie. Debussy had just turned 30, but had already passed the midpoint of his life: his intimate lyricism, his erudition and taste for experimentation attained an ideal balance. For despite its traditional form and instrumental combination, this Quartet unveils an unprecedented sonic landscape. It is as if the twin blend of two violins plus a viola and a cello was an invitation to a thousand new parallel universes, and as if the family of strings, thanks to their echo of a certain French glory, constituted the ideal vehicle to mediate between gypsy heartbreak and the tonal mysteries of the Far East. It is worth mentioning that in 1889, Debussy had been captivated by the discovery of the gamelan at the 1889 Paris Exposition, so much so that he wrote to Pierre Louÿs. ‘Javanese music [contains] every possible nuance, even those that one can no longer name – tonic and dominant are no more than empty apparitions.’

It was no accident that Sigmund Freud, at the time Debussy was formulating this work, was arguing that one’s childhood tended to foreshadow one’s destiny. Here, too, an early theme, set out from the opening of the piece, will prove the basis of all that follows. Is this a storm? A spiral of conscience? How curious, this score, held together by something incapable of holding anything together! A kind of dislocated orientalism seems to slam the lid back shut on the tomb of Romanticism, opening the way towards the diabolical 20th century. The second movement, Assez vif et bien rhythmé (‘Rather lively and very rhythmic’) emerges in a meadow of virtuosic pizzicati. But the musical line soon dissolves, giving way to a palette of textures, spatial contrasts and intermingled textures. It is hard to believe that the author of Clair de lune was capable of stitching together this litany of madness. The Andantino is a battlefield emptied of its belligerents, meditative rather than overwhelmed: no one has died. The song of the viola is clad in a material with four threads, braided with gold and plumes of water. The rivers of Edward Burne-Jones are not far away. The final movement is interwoven by all the aspects of the initial theme, which goes on to be multiplied in a vast, spidery web. Debussy laboured over this section, which evolves into a chimerical voice of four fused instruments – and concludes with the stratospheric flight of the first violin. It was Eugène Ysaÿe himself who led the premiere in Paris of Debussy’s only quartet – as if everything had already been expressed and narrated in this piece, whose modernity initially went unappreciated.

Beethoven: String Quartet no.14 in C sharp minor op.131
Beethoven’s penultimate quartet, published just after his death in 1827, is arguably the most temperamental and all-encompassing of all. In a now famous verdict, Wagner saw in it the meditation of a saint isolated in his deafness, translating the secret music of his soul before his death; and even going as far as to mark his hopes of immortality in the score! For everything here – from the absence of a double bar at the end of the movements, all seven to be played through without a break – hinges on the idea of continuity. Between sound and silence, gravity and light, indeed life and death? After all, God created the world in seven days. Why not Beethoven?

This feeling of unity, despite the diversity of the content, owes itself most of all to the transitions between the movements; the third and sixth movements barely exceed 30 bars each, serving the function, rather, of passing the baton from one bravura section to another. And from start to finish, the whole work is played through in 40 minutes without a pause. As for the slow opening movement (described by Wagner as ‘the most melancholy thing ever told in music’), it could be seen to serve as a majestic introduction. This reckoning is followed by four genuine chapters – the conventional number in a string-quartet structure. In contrast to the return of sorrow, the Allegro molto vivace summons images of wind and flowers together. Its momentum is as unpredictable as that of a butterfly. The ensuing third movement is a preface to the movement that follows, also in A major, offering up an affecting monologue on the first violin. Next comes the Andante, the longest section in the work, and its centre of gravity; equally, it is a kind of quartet within the quartet, sustained by the seven variations on its theme. This is followed by a magnificently free and playful Presto, where vertigo is pitted against pleasure, and vice versa: pure jubilation, punctuated by clownish pizzicati. The penultimate Adagio re-establishes the sombre face of reality, as brief as it is poignant. The final chapter, an Allegro, condenses in six minutes the entire substance of Beethoven’s language. For Wagner, again, this whirlwind ‘is the dance of the world’ tamed by ‘a prodigious musician’. And yet did Beethoven sense that he was writing his own last will and testament? He described this quartet to his copyist as ‘seven pieces stolen from here and there and assembled together’. Was this the ultimate in humility, or blindness to his own genius?

Same day