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GoetheInstitute

16/04/2007

Beethoven, is that you?

Volker Hagedorn portrays the Alban Berg Quartet, the world's most famous string quartet, at the end of its career spanning 40 years.

"Hey, you listen up. Shut up and play in time!" Not quite the kind of thing one would imagine being said while the world's most famous string quartet is polishing the finer nuances of its performance. But the viola player was allowed to say it. In fact he used to say quite a few other things too. For example, that you must never get slower when the music is sad. "Otherwise it sounds too leisurely." A shrewd, witty person, the viola player. If you watch him in the film recording of the Alban Berg Quartet playing Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" you notice how often he looks at the others, how sensitively his bow reacts to what they are saying, like in a conversation. But the conversation has been going on without him for a year and a half now: Thomas Kakuska died in July 2005. One of his pupils took his place as viola player, but of course she couldn't replace him. "You should have met Tommy," says Günter Pichler smiling sadly. Tommy was the fourth Beatle of chamber music.



The Alban Berg Quartet with Thomas Kakuska. © Copyright Iain McKell, licensed to EMI Classics


The first was Pichler himself. The violinist founded the Alban Berg Quartet 36 years ago, and it became probably the most successful string quartet of all time. Now it has announced its farewell from the concert stage for the end of the next season. "Actually, it's really very nice," says the 67-year-old Pichler. By going this way they stop at a high level while the string quartet scene is still in its heyday. In Europe there are "more concerts than ever before," he says. And in Germany the concert halls are full, even in the provinces. "Take Uelzen, for instance! Amazing!" In the last fifteen years the great quartets of the 1970s and 1980s, which, alongside the ABQ, included names like the Arditti, Kronos and Emerson quartets, have been joined by some excellent new formations: the Artemis, the Belcea, the Carmina, the Hagen, the Leipzig String Quartet, the Mandelring, the Mosaďques, the Petersen, the Rasumowsky, the Rosamunde

Many of them studied and learned the art of quartet playing with the Alban Berg Quartet. It's not that the four Austrians actually invented the combination of analysis and expression, of precision and emotion that mark their playing. But they have developed a new kind of sound, a voice, a warmth derived from intelligence, which placed the genre in a new light and which established the intimate, unspectacular yet refined quality of four string voices as a musical language among a broader public and inspired many composers. Wolfgang Rihm (more here), for example, wrote a Requiem for the viola player, with the tempo marking grave, which the quartet recently played on a concert tour. At the beginning the viola is silent. Isabel Charisius listens to her three colleagues weaving their way around the emptiness.

Rihm's commemorative music is uncertain in the best sense of the word: arresting, lingering. In a brief moment of consolation, suspended harmonies emerge, only to be abandoned again in favour of the great freedom of experimentation which exists in this form only in the music of this composer. The expressiveness, texturing, whistle tones, accents and nebulousness, sometimes even a major chord, do not create any rules, but there are connections, deeply woven connections. A cadence of structure emerges. With great calm the three voices repeatedly encircle the missing fourth one but not so you could say: there is the centre. Apart from the silent viola, which later plays notes so long they seem to stretch into eternity, the only clearly formal element Wolfgang Rihm allows himself is the repetition at the end of the cluster-like sounds with which the work began. Yet when the Alban Berg Quartet plays, you forget the effort that has gone into making this music sound so convincing and so open. Everything is alive.



The Alban Berg Quartet with Thomas Kakuska. Clockwise from the top: Gerhard Schulz, Günter Pichler, Valentin Erben, Thomas Kakuska. © Copyright Sheila Rock licensed to EMI Classics

"How would you play that?", the first violin asks when he sees a score like Rihm's for the first time, with a quadruple forte and a quadruple piano. "How quietly can you play it, what does he really mean by that?" Only "after spending some time getting acquainted with the score" do you start to understand. That's something the Alban Berg Quartet has had practice at. Right from the beginning they played both old and new music, and so far all the composers who have heard their music played by this ensemble have been happy. Luciano Berio was "grateful forever"; Witold Lutoslawski thought the ABQ's interpretation of his pioneering 1964 quartet was unsurpassable; and György Kurtag said after their performance of his "Microludes": "You are the only ones who can play them," although he had not been allowed to interfere in the rehearsals in the way he was accustomed to doing. The most the ABQ lets composers do is attend the dress rehearsal.

The very first modern composer to be included in their repertoire was not able to hear them anyway. Their namesake Alban Berg died in 1935. His widow, Helene, wanted to hear the four young musicians herself before giving the quartet her blessing. "We had to play the "Lyric Suite" in the room where Berg composed it." In this piece Berg gave musical expression to his despairing love for Hanna Fuchs, the married sister of Franz Werfel. Laden with symbolic motifs and a concealed subtext, which at one point breaks out quite openly in a quotation from Tristan and Isolde, it is one of the most passionate declarations of love in the string quartet repertoire. "That was really exciting for us," says Pichler, relating how all the big names on the Vienna music scene came to hear them play. "Helene listened very intently and with great interest" – and she was taken with them.

What the four musicians planned to do was still very unusual in the early 1970s. The two quartet formations that used to give concerts in Vienna at the time consisted of orchestral musicians, and they never played music by composers like Schönberg and the Second Viennese School. Pichler was only able to take the risk of founding a full-time quartet that included twentieth-century music in its repertoire because he already had a name. Herbert von Karajan had personally appointed the violinist from Kufstein as concertmaster of the Vienna Philharmonic, although Pichler left the orchestra again at the age of 23. Seven years later he founded the quartet. People advised him against naming it after Alban Berg, "but it was actually the name that helped us enormously," because it stood for something new. The record companies did not understand that at first: Deutsche Grammophon started by offering the newcomers a contract to record all the quartets of Beethoven's contemporary Cherubini.



The Alban Berg Quartet with Isabel Charisius. © Copyright Juri Tscharyiski licensed to EMI Classics

Pichler turned it down – something that had never happened to the famous yellow label before. Teldec's rather odd request to have the quartet record the complete Haydn quartets was also rejected. "We are in the process of building up our repertoire," the four young musicians declared stubbornly and suggested instead bringing recordings of Haydn and Alban Berg onto the market at the same time "and seeing which one sold better." So that is what happened, and both recordings were major successes. Since then the quartet has produced some 170 recordings, although it has recorded some works twice, like Beethoven's string quartets. They were recorded for the first time in the studio around 1980, and ten years later again, this time as live recordings of concert performances.

Asked what has changed over the years, Pichler says the quartet's "feeling for tempo" has improved. Their sense of both security and freedom has grown too. "The freer you are, the better you breathe and the more easily you can get across what you wish to communicate." He says he does not practice much alone, "really only to strengthen my feeling of psychological security." But this is made up for by the amount the quartet rehearses together: "You can achieve 90 percent relatively quickly, the rest takes a very long time." And you can get on each other's nerves a bit in the process. How can that be avoided? For a long time they tried being polite. But that politeness was too much for viola player Kakuska, who joined the quartet in 1981. "Make rules," he said, "otherwise I feel nervous!" So that is what they did. Rule No. 1: Everyone is allowed to try playing a passage three times. If after that it's still not right, he has to go away and practice in "isolation." Rule No. 2: If someone wants to end an argument, the argument has to end – as in "Shut up…" Another rule was introduced by cellist Valentin Erben: "Please don't criticize me until I can play it!" You don't need other people to tell you about the mistakes you notice yourself. And if it isn't clear where the problem is, "you don't have to figure it out right away," says Pichler. Everyone should first try to find out: "Is it my fault? Whose is the dominant voice? Who blends in? Even if two violins play absolutely perfectly, if they don't blend together well it doesn't sound right."

It's exciting to hear how in a concert the playing of two violinists as different as Günter Pichler and Gerhard Schulz comes together. Pichler is agile, always on his toes, bouncing on the edge of his chair and even jumping up sometimes when he plays accented notes. Schulz, eleven years his junior, is calm and collected, watching quietly. A big man with a full beard, he looks like a bear, making his nimbleness all the more astonishing. A great chance to find out a lot about Valentin Erben, the cellist, comes when the cello's A-string breaks at the beginning of a performance of Beethoven's opus 130 in the Hamburg Laeiszhalle. You hear a ping between the notes, but the Allegro continues for another two or three bars without any sign of alarm on the stage. You wonder whether something has actually happened after all. Then Erben leans forward giving a polite little nod, as if telling his dinner guests he needs to make a brief phone call, and leaves the stage. This mixture of calm decisiveness and modesty are also hallmarks of his playing. Even Erben's soli are never big entries but rather a precise balance of character and abstraction. With a new string on the cello opus 130 turns into quite an experience. The fast movements sound witty and at the same time sharply illuminated, so that a certain tension keeps you on edge – like, for instance, when they play the accents in the middle of the bars in the Presto.



The Alban Berg Quartet with Isabel Charisius. © Copyright Juri Tscharyiski licensed to EMI Classics

Probably one of the most typically Viennese things about the ensemble is that it simultaneously dissects and glosses over such intense passages, playing the accents with a slight air of recklessness. In the Cavatine, drawn out until it almost becomes a Mahler-like adagietto, a movement that brought tears to the eyes of Beethoven himself, they anticipate the climax very slightly, so very slightly that it does not feel anticipated. Music does not breathe according to strict measures, after all. After this one wonders how the most relentless of all movements ever written for string quartet will sound, a movement which so upset the audience at the first performance that Beethoven later wrote an alternative for the final movement. In its cumbersome counterpoint, the great fugue – in fact a series of fugues – breaks away both from tonality and from the character of the instruments, allowing only the occasional passage of "intimacy," as Pichler calls it. Igor Stravinsky said: "This is modern music and will always be modern music."

In order to understand this music, the ABQ enlisted the assistance early on of a great Viennese musical analyst, conductor Hans Swarowski. They played him the work shortly before his death and would have liked to have recorded his comments. But Swarowski refused. For this reason the notes Pichler made of the great oracle's words were the only thing that became public. In them the violinist tried to turn Swarowski's analysis into a concept for performing the work. "Impossible," he says. Yet when you hear the quartet performing the work on stage, you notice that all the rough edges, all the leaps and accents are also outlines of ideas. And you realize that the great fugue is alive. It awakes like an animal that not just anyone is allowed to bring to life (rather in the way that some pianists are liable to get mauled by the Hammerklavier sonata), and all the while it exhibits a sweetness and charm that can be touching. It confronts the musicians, but they won't be back down. Sometimes you can almost hear them tearing at the music, as if they wanted to find out what's inside it. Or who? Ludwig, is that you? Come out, we'll help you!

"I've personally become closer to Beethoven," says Pichler. As he says, Beethoven's letters don't reveal nearly as much as Mozart's, "but there is an intimacy in his music that no one can create if they aren't capable of profound intimacy themselves." He believes you can "understand Beethoven as a person," more than Haydn or Mozart. He made life more difficult for himself too, because "he feels bound by his material. The material is simple, but he continually varies the way he uses it." Pichler reads a lot: the analyses by Charles Rosen and "the extremely valuable books by Nicholas Harnoncourt." He compares dozens of interpretations, but there is nothing scholarly about the way he tells you about them, nor does he try to portray himself as an artist. More like a craftsman at work among the gods. "In chamber music seriousness continues to be an important factor," he says grimly, looking askance at the risk-free glossy products of well-paid orchestras perfected in a couple of rehearsals.

Pichler gets really angry when he talks about how soloists are trained, about teachers who hone the talents of the highly gifted for competitions telling them to "play as neutrally and with as few mistakes as possible!" By comparison, the art of string quartet playing seems almost like a blessed isle, where musicians are still willing to take lots of risks in front of packed halls. A practice to which the Alban Berg Quartet has contributed a lot. In what high estimation the ensemble is held, among colleagues as well as among the public, was demonstrated last autumn. The memorial concert in Vienna for the viola player brought together the creme de la creme of the music world. Claudio Abbado conducted, Simon Rattle played the piano, Thomas Quasthoff sang. Irvine Arditti, the leader of the world's other best quartet, played in the orchestra. And the Alban Berg Quartet played in the orchestra too. What is more, there was not a single string quartet on the programme.

*

The article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on March 22, 2007.

Volker Hagedorn is music critic for Die Zeit.

Translation: Melanie Newton

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