Beethoven runs through it.
Even though there’s not a single piece by Beethoven on the next program of CU’s Takács Quartet (at 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 28 and at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, April 29 in Grusin Music Hall), the quartet’s first violinist sees him everywhere he looks.
“I’m rather obsessed with Beethoven,” Edward Dusinberre admits, “so I tend to judge everything by Beethoven.”
Actually, on the program there are three great and eternally popular pieces from the chamber repertoire, all by composers who can be linked in one way or another to Beethoven: Mozart’s String Quartet in E-flat, K. 458 (“Hunt”), Béla Bartók’s Sixth Quartet, and Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings.
For Mendelssohn, violinists Lina Bahn and Charles Wetherbee, violist Thomas Chawner and cellist Judith Glyde will join the quartet.
It’s not just Dusinberre who finds Beethoven everywhere he looks. He so dominated the musical world that many later composers felt intimidated. And today, we unavoidably judge composers before Beethoven by how much they look forward to his accomplishments. You can hardly perform symphonies or string quartets without bringing up Beethoven.
Dusinberre admits that Beethoven influences his judgment of earlier works, including the Mozart “Hunt” Quartet. Beethoven wrote particularly long and intense development sections, and Dusinberre says, “I always look at the development section to see what’s going on. The longer the development section, the more interesting the movement, in my experience.”
“This one” — the Mozart “Hunt” Quartet, Dusinberre says — “is pretty good. There’s quite a lot of it, and that’s good.”
He finds more specific traces of Beethoven in the other two works on the program.
“You’ll laugh at me,” he says. “The first movement [of the Bartók quartet] I would say is extremely influenced by Beethoven, the second movement of his Op. 131 Quartet. The theme [has] the same character.”
And in the Mendelssohn Octet, “You can feel Beethoven in the last movement, which is surely influenced by the last movement of his String Quartet Op. 59 No. 3, a kind of perpetual motion, one part coming in, then another with the same very fast passage and just building.”
But Dusinberre quickly adds that there is far more to all three pieces than the traces of Beethoven.
“The Mozart is new for me,” he says. “I find there’s a real depth emotionally, which I’m enjoying very much. There’s a very refined surface, but underneath there’s a real emotional complexity.”
Bartók’s Sixth Quartet was written at a critical moment in the composer’s life. The last piece he wrote before leaving Hungary for the United States in 1939, it is thought to be pervaded by the composer’s premonition of the coming war and his grief for his mother, who died soon after it was finished.
One unique feature is the quartet’s structure. The first movement starts with a slow introduction, marked “mesto” (sad) and played only by the viola. The introduction returns before the next two movements, each time with an additional voice added, and in the last movement that idea expands to be the subject of the entire movement.
“In the meantime each of the [first] three movements is a little character study,” Dusinberre explains. “The first is fresh and spring-like. It couldn’t be more different than the despair of the opening solo. The second movement is a rigid, nightmarish march — as if he was in some bizarre way predicting the forced marching of prisoners in the concentration camps,” and the third is “funny but twisted at the same time.” The finale, built from the “mesto” material, is “like a chorus commenting on the action.”
Mendelssohn wrote his octet when he was only 16. One of his most sparkling and delightful pieces, it ranks as one of his first great masterpieces.
“I still am kind of shaking my head how he could write a piece like that when he was so young,” Dusinberre says. “It’s a great party romp to play that piece; it’s like a joyful riot.”
“The octet is a bit of a danger for performers, because it is such great fun to play,” he says. “There’s just an awful lot going on, and it’s easy to just sound like a big sort of mush. You’ve got to make some clear decisions about texture, modify the dynamics a bit and tweak it a little bit to profile things.”
Then he adds, “If you’ve never heard a chamber piece, that’s probably a good place to start. I mean, it’s just got everything in it.”
ON THE BILL: Takács Quartet and guests play Sunday, April 28, and Monday, April 29, at Grusin Music Hall. Tickets available at www.cupresents.org/events/takács-quartet-3.