It’s pretty dark in Beethoven’s shadow, as demonstrated by the DaPonte String Quartet’s concert Saturday night at the Rines Auditorium of the Portland Public Library.
Their most recent concert series showcases quartets by Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, all of them heavily influenced by Beethoven or written as if that musical giant were looking over their collective shoulder.
Brahms was the most paranoid about it, destroying 20 earlier quartets and not publishing his String Quartet in C Minor (Op. 51, No. 1) until relatively late in his career. (His friend, Robert Schumann, did not help matters by proclaiming Brahms “the next Beethoven.”)
When he did publish his first string quartet, however, it was in the shape of a direct challenge to his great predecessor. It was written in one of Beethoven’s favorite keys and based on a Beethoven-like three-note motif.
The first movement is the most inhibited by the notion of competition – dense, symphonic and one of the most through-composed and carefully constructed that Brahms ever wrote. To lovers of Brahms, it seems almost uncharacteristic.
He lets himself go a little more in each of the following three movements, even incorporating some Wagnerian themes and ending with a finale that could have been written by his protege, Anton Dvorak.
The performance by the DaPonte was almost definitive, illustrating the similarities and differences between the two composers without detracting from the unity of Brahms’ work.
Schumann’s reaction to Beethoven, in his String Quartet in A Major, Op. 41. No. 3, is more defiant. He also uses a motif – a descending fifth that symbolizes his wife, Clara – but constructs a more Romantic edifice than his predecessor ever considered. Every tempo indication is “molto” or “assai,” and the second movement contains a strange waltz, uncannily like that in Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.” The cello part in the final allegro molto vivace sometimes sounds like the drone of a German dance band, something Beethoven liked to ridicule. Is it a horse laugh?
Violinist Ferdinand Liva is recovering from a shoulder injury, so instead of the Mendelssohn String Quartet in D Major (Op. 4, No. 1), cellist Myles Jordan and violinist Lydia Forbes played the Duo, Opus 7 of Zoltán Kodály, written in 1914. The work was so striking and unfamiliar, and so perfectly played, that no one missed the more familiar Mendelssohn.
The Duo, which deserves to be heard more often, utilizes the vocabulary and themes of the folk music that the composer and Béla Bartók collected on their travels through Hungary and Rumania, but presents them in classical guise, such as sonata form, canon and fugue, which only emphasizes their originality. The dialog between violin and cello, which sometimes reverse high and low parts, as played by Jordan and Forbes, was spell-binding. No shadow here.
WHAT: DaPonte String Quartet
WHERE: Rines Auditorium, Portland Public Library
THIS CONCERT will be repeated on Oct. 25 at St. Columba Church in Boothbay and Oct. 26 at St. John’s Church in Thomaston. Tickets are available at the door, or in advance at daponte.org.