Working Their Way Through Beethoven

Philomusica Quartet's Monday concert continues their traversal of Beethoven's quartets, along with a Brahms piano quintet.

By - May 7th, 2015 01:13 pm
Pianist May Phang. Photo by Great Lakes Performing Artists Associates.

Guest Pianist May Phang. Photo by Great Lakes Performing Artists Associates.

Monday evening, the Philomusica Quartet closes their season at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music with a stellar double-header. They will play an innovative late quartet by Ludwig van Beethoven – String Quartet in B-flat No 13, op 130 and a “symphonic” work by Johannes Brahms – Piano Quintet in F minor, op 34.

The Philomusica Quartet has maintained the same membership for seven years – violinists Jeanyi Kim and Alexander Mandl, violist Nathan Hackett and cellist Adrien Zitoun. They came together earlier than that as a “study group” seeking to learn the string quartet repertory from each other. Each has been more professionally engaged as symphony musicians – three with the Milwaukee Symphony and Mandl as a conductor and concertmaster with other regional symphonies. This approach is reflected in their concerts. Music critic Tom Strini has observed, “they have learned to settle on and convey clear ideas, goals and specific sound worlds for just about everything they play.” This is why I enjoy talking through the selections with Mandl when preparing a concert preview.

For several years, the quartet has been working their way through the 16 Beethoven string quartets. String Quartet in B-flat No 13, op 130 reflects many innovations the composer introduced in his late quartets. He initially conceived the quartet as a six-movement work ending with a long and complex fugal movement. This finale extended the length to about 50 minutes. Beethoven was persuaded to replace that with a shorter movement that more effectively integrates what has gone before and ends with greater optimism. The original final movement eventually made its own place in the repertory as the Grosse Fugue, op 133.

Mandl recognizes this work as “an incredible complex quartet, with an intellectually challenging first and third movement.” An energetic scherzo, a German dance and a melodic cavatina are more approachable. The fifth movement cavatina has been a favorite. A recording of the cavatina was even played on two deep space probes launched in 1977 to represent our world to other civilizations. Although a cavatina is an operatic aria, Beethoven marked it “sotto voce” – to be played in hushed tones. Mandl points to a “magical moment in the middle, a yearning melodic line (that ends in) a series of sighs.”

The Philomusica returns to a Brahms piano quintet they played in 2006 to close the evening.

This early work was influenced by Franz Schubert‘s cello quintet. Brahms created a cello quintet, then replaced that with a work for two pianos. The final version, Piano Quintet in F minor, op 34, was written for piano and string quartet. The string quintet has been lost. Mandl finds the piano quintet version better able to blend the tonal colors of the strings with the strengths of the piano. He suggests this work be viewed as a concerto for piano and string quartet. Brahms created an “incredibly powerful symphonic piece … a tour de force for the piano.”

The slow movement lullaby contains Schubert’s lyricism. The scherzo delivers typical complex meter counterpoint. The finale quotes Beethoven. Wikipedia observes that the finale “ultimately culminates in an unrelenting outburst of fiery passion, providing an intense conclusion for the entire piece.”

Guest pianist May Phang will be appearing for the first time with the quartet. Since 2003, she’s been the John Rabb Emison Professor of Creative and Performing Arts and Associate Professor of Music at DePauw University, Indiana, but she has a history here: her prior teaching positions include Carroll College in Waukesha and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.

Philomusica performs Monday, May 11th, 7:30 p.m, in the Helen Bader Recital Hall at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music at 1584 N Prospect Avenue. Tickets may be purchased on-line or at 414 276-5760. Complimentary parking is available at Milwaukee Eye Care, 1684 N. Prospect Ave., located one block north of the Conservatory, for evening concerts.

The Philomusica is next scheduled for an open air summer concert, Monday on July 27th at 6:30 PM in Lake Park.

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