MENDELSSOHN String Quartet No. 6. BEETHOVEN String Quartet No. 16 • Jupiter Str Qrt • MARQUIS 81405 (51:51)
With but few exceptions, almost every new release I’ve received by a recently formed string quartet comprised of young 20- and early- 30-somethings has impressed me even more than the one before it. And the Boston-based Jupiter String Quartet, formed in 2001, is no exception. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they areRead morein fact the exception in that they are so exceptional as to exhaust my inventory of encomiums. This is playing almost too good to be true. If not for some of the striking and unusual interpretive points the Jupiter makes in these scores, especially the Beethoven, it might not take much to convince me that such perfection was achievable only by non-human means.
But human they are, and to give them names, they are Nelson Lee and Megan Freivogel, violins; Megan’s sister Liz Freivogel, viola; and Megan’s husband Dan McDonough, cello. As an ensemble, they owe much to the intensive coaching they received from the Cleveland and Takács Quartets. The Jupiter concertizes widely, and has received numerous chamber-music honors and awards. Recording activity to date, however, has been scant, but I suspect that’s about to change. Paul Ingram gave a favorable review to the Jupiter’s Britten and Shostakovich CD in 31:4, and Adrian Corleonis enthusiastically recommended their Chausson and Fauré disc in a 32:5 review, calling their Concert by Chausson “unrivalled.”
I’m tempted to use the same adjective to describe the Jupiter’s performance of Beethoven’s op. 135, because, frankly, I can’t recall ever hearing it played like this. The first movement has got to be one of the composer’s quirkiest creations. When one or the other of the four voices is not interrupting the proceedings with some seemingly nonsensical non sequitur, it’s busy gossiping behind the others’ backs. It’s like four busybodies—or washerwomen, I think I once said—squabbling over a clothesline. One of the movement’s rhythmically salient features is a pervasive off-the-beat 32nd note, followed by two 16th-notes, followed by a longer note: da/daa-daa/dum, the two 16ths being exactly equal in length. The Jupiters play this straight, exactly as written, until they arrive at measure 81, where, starting in the viola part, the players ever so slightly elongate the first 16th note of the figure, making it sound as if it were dotted: da/daaa-da/dum, imparting a humorous sort of tripping feeling to it. At first hearing, I thought to myself, “I like that, but it’s not the way Beethoven wrote it; the two 16ths are always equal.” Closer examination, however, revealed that the players do not embark on this subtle interpretive permutation until after we’ve been through a series of 16th-note triplet passages, and that what they’re doing is relating the aforementioned four-note figure to the triplets by giving it a lilting compound meter feeling within the duple 2/4 meter bars.
Thinking that the Jupiter may have picked up the idea from one or the other of their mentors, I listened to both the Cleveland and Takács Quartets in this movement. And guess what? The Cleveland doesn’t do it, but the Takács does, and starting at exactly the same place. The difference, however, is that the Jupiter is not as timid about it, being willing from that point forward sometimes to vary the figure and other times not, so that you’re never sure which way you’re going to hear it. There wasn’t time to sample every recording of the piece I have in my collection, but I did check three representative versions: an older one from 1968, the Italiano Quartet; the 1995 Emerson Quartet, according to some, the reference standard; and the new 2009 Alexander Quartet cycle. And none of them engage in this nonconformist rhythmic variation. It’s funny I never noticed it before when listening to the Takács, who may have originated it. You can call me a heretic if you like, but I find it delightful, and something tells me that Beethoven would have too. The Assai lento movement is sublime, and the finale, with its Muss es sein? Es muss sein pretext and its tongue-in-cheek finger-salute ending is played to the hilt.
I can think of no other reason for Mendelssohn’s F-Minor Quartet to be paired with Beethoven’s op. 135 than the fact that each work is its composer’s last. Mendelssohn died two months after completing his quartet, and though Beethoven would wrap things up by writing a substitute movement for the op. 130’s Grosse Fuge, the F-Major Quartet, op. 135, was effectively his last complete work. Mendelssohn, at the time he wrote the F-Minor Quartet, was beside himself with grief over the death of his sister, Fanny; and the series of strokes that killed him less than six months later may have been due to the shock and stress he suffered over Fanny’s sudden and untimely passing. Much of the F-Minor Quartet is highly agitated. Even the expected scherzo is replaced by a movement marked Vivace that is dark and grim. And the only port in the storm, the Assai lento, is sorrowful in its rising and falling gestures, yet somehow strangely muted and detached sounding. For Mendelssohn, the entire work presents a rather cold, stone-faced façade. Thus, we have on this disc two end-of-life works that could not be more different from each other—Beethoven facing the end with a mischievous wink, Mendelssohn with an agonized wince.
The Jupiter doesn’t seem to be quite as into Mendelssohn’s tragedy as it is Beethoven’s tomfoolery, but perhaps that’s because they’re still young and full of life’s zest. Or maybe it’s just my own reaction to liking the Beethoven more than I do the Mendelssohn. Nonetheless, their playing is technically flawless. For my money, the Jupiter Quartet and this CD deserve to win the chamber-music record-of-the-year award.
Stunningly sensitiveJune 7, 2012By Susan Metzger (Ft Collins, CO)See All My Reviews"I can only comment on the Beethoven, as I have not listened to the Mendelssohn with enough attentiveness yet. I am studying the Beethoven Assai Lento movement to play with my own amateur quartet. We've listened to other versions, and we are impressed that the Jupiter takes the word "assai" literally. They play it "very" slowly with extreme precision and sensitivity, something our group is aspiring to."Report Abuse