Beethoven Underground

One ensemble bids farewell, with another just getting started

Tenor Ivan Thompson performs with a string quartet in the Green-Wood Cemetery Catacombs as part of a concert presented by Death of Classical, 2020. (Steven Pisano/Flickr)
Tenor Ivan Thompson performs with a string quartet in the Green-Wood Cemetery Catacombs as part of a concert presented by Death of Classical, 2020. (Steven Pisano/Flickr)

The tiny Catacombs in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery might be among the unlikeliest of American concert halls. On a recent evening, an audience gathered in that cavernous, subterranean space to hear the Calidore String Quartet perform one of Ludwig van Beethoven’s landmark late works: the String Quartet Op. 130. The penultimate movement of the piece, the expressive and heartbreaking Cavatina—which Beethoven composed “truly in the tears of melancholy”—unfolded with a heightened intensity. As the movement concluded, I glanced around at the other audience members seated close to the makeshift stage and saw that others also had tears in their eyes. The dissonant counterpoint of the subsequent Grosse Fuge shattered the Cavatina’s introspective beauty, holding listeners in the Catacombs spellbound.

The performance was part of the ironically titled “Death of Classical” series, the brainchild of the classical music entrepreneur Andrew Ousley. In addition to the Catacombs, concerts, take place at two Manhattan venues: the crypt in the Church of the Intercession and the cave under St. George’s Church. The imminent death of classical music has been discussed in earnest for decades, but in the 21st century, string quartets—that venerable 18th-century ensemble—seem to be defying such proclamations. It’s hard to keep up with the groups that have debuted in the past decade or so (including the Calidore, the Beo String Quartet, and the Esmé Quartet), all boasting impeccable technique, deep musicality, and adventurous ideas about programming.

Some of these ensembles, such as the Calidore, count among their mentors the Emerson String Quartet, which took its final bow at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall a few weeks after the Calidore’s subterranean performance—performing Beethoven’s Op. 130 along with Franz Schubert String Quintet in C. (The group was joined by its original cellist, David Finckel, in the Schubert.) Politicians, athletes, and musicians seem to struggle with the question of when to retire, and all too often, musicians perform past their prime. “I’ve never believed that I’m addicted to being onstage, to needing my fix,” Emerson violinist Eugene Drucker recently told The New Yorker. “Yet I’m afraid that might actually be the case.” But the group decided to “quit while we’re ahead,” as Philip Setzer said from the stage before the grand finale, its legacy as one of the classical music world’s preeminent ensembles untarnished.

Setzer and Drucker have alternated roles as first and second violinist since founding the group, named after the American poet and philosopher, in 1976 at Juilliard. The only turnover came when Finckel resigned in 2013 to run the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and was replaced by Paul Watkins. The Emerson was the Society’s first quartet in residence, making headlines with a 1981 recital featuring all six of Béla Bartók’s quartets, in commemoration of the centennial of the composer’s birth.

In the program notes for the Emerson’s final performance, Drucker described the Op. 130—which received its premiere the year before Beethoven’s death, at a time when the composer was completely deaf—as “the summation of our life work as quartet players.” It has been seen by others as the summation of Beethoven’s life’s work, too. A recording of the Cavatina, performed by the Budapest String Quartet, was included on the Voyager Golden Record, sent into space on an unmanned Voyager vessel in 1977. The music on that album represented different languages and cultures, with the otherworldly Cavatina included to give extraterrestrials a fine example of human emotion.

The Emerson has long been admired for its polish and lustrous sound, and the introspective performance of this movement highlighted both, although the group’s signature athleticism was less evident in the technically daunting Presto and Grosse Fuge. The Emerson, with Finckel back in the group, gave a lovely, spirited rendition of Schubert’s amiable Quintet, its congenial melodies concluding both the concert and the Emerson’s career on a sunny note. The audience roared its approval.

It’s a rite of passage for an ensemble to record the entire run of Beethoven string quartets, which the Emerson did in 1997 for Deutsche Grammophon. The group has made more than 40 albums and recently released its farewell recording, Infinite Voyage, which features music by Arnold Schoenberg, Paul Hindemith, Alban Berg, and Ernest Chausson. In addition to canonical works, the box set of the Emerson’s complete recordings, released in January, includes music the ensemble commissioned from composers including Gunther Schuller, Richard Wernick, Ned Rorem, and Edgar Meyer.

The Calidore is proving equally adventurous. Founded in 2010 at the Colburn School in Los Angeles by the violinists Ryan Meehan and Jeffrey Myers, the violist Jeremy Berry, and the cellist Estelle Choi, the ensemble won the $100,000 grand prize at the 2016 M-Prize International Chamber Music Competition, followed by the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2018. Meyers first heard Beethoven’s late quartets at the Aspen Music Festival, performed by the Emerson. When live concerts stopped during the pandemic, the Calidore had time to study and record the Beethoven quartets: it released a disc of the late quartets—the first installment in a projected complete edition—earlier this year.

Interestingly, both the Calidore and the Emerson performed the Op. 130 with the Grosse Fuge as its final movement. At the urging of his publisher, Beethoven ended up replacing this massive, tumultuous, immensely difficult work with a more tuneful and digestible Allegro—for years, the Grosse Fuge was most often heard as a standalone work. Described as “an indecipherable, uncorrected horror” by the 19th-century composer Louis Spohr and “as incomprehensible as Chinese” by a critic at the premiere, the Grosse Fuge baffled both listeners and its initial interpreters (who may well have botched the first performance in 1826). As Oskar Kokoschka said to Arnold Schoenberg, “Your cradle was Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge.” Most contemporary ensembles—equipped with stellar techniques and a lengthy catalog of recordings to study—now choose to program the original version. The fugue’s complexities and dissonances don’t unnerve contemporary listeners as much as they did the earliest audiences, but the piece still sounds surprisingly modern.

Meehan recently told Strings magazine that the Calidore’s interpretation of the fugue has evolved since its first performances: “There’s an inherent chaos that’s written into the music, and our initial approach was to embrace that and to have warring factions within the fugue—everybody fighting for their space in the balance. But as we lived with it more, we started to veer toward highlighting the structure of the work in the way that we would a Bach fugue.”

The ensemble has a distinctive approach: at various moments during its Catacombs performance, my ears perked up at an unusual turn of phrase, an unexpected dynamic shift, and timbres that startled in the close confines of the room. The group played the Cavatina with a singing tone and soulful expressivity before hurtling through the fugue with a gritty sound magnified by the stone walls. I emerged into the still night of the Green-wood Cemetery feeling rejuvenated. Although the Emerson’s distinguished career has come to a close, its legacy lives on through its many recordings and the young groups it has inspired, ensuring that the string quartet, this centuries-old art form, is not ready to be laid to rest.

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Vivien Schweitzer, a frequent contributor to The Economist and The New York Times, is a pianist and the author of A Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera.


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