Thursday evening, June 25, saw the renowned Guarnieri Quartet play the Chamber Music Northwest Festival as part of their farewell tour. After 45 years together, 2009 will be their last season.
Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium was full to capacity to hear them play two late Beethoven quartets, No. 12 in E-flat Major and No. 15 in A Minor, Op. 127 and 132 respectively. These deeply pensive works seemed somehow fitting for a farewell concert.
From the exclamatory opening chords of the No. 12 onward, the Guarnieri Quartet (violinists Arnold Steinhardt and John Dalley, violist Michael Tree and cellist Peter Wiley) displayed the masterful ensemble playing for which they are known. Their ability to generate a rich and complex depth of sound often gave the impression that there were more than four instruments on stage.
Certain moments stood out as particularly exceptional. In the Adagio, cellist Peter Wiley was able to bring a delectable, murmuring melodic motive up from the depths, retreat until it threatened to fall back into the dense harmonic texture and then suddenly bring it forward to make its presence felt once more. There were times his singing timbre made it sound as though a second viola had entered. During the Scherzando, the entire group played a galloping mezzo-staccato couplet theme in perfect unision, drawing the full melodic meaning from this difficult texture. The old joke that Beethoven was the greatest composer who couldn’t write a melody was put to lie; the challenge is to find and draw out that melody, and this group certainly did that whenever it was called for.
Opening the second half with the A Minor, the playing in parts of the first movement seemed a bit restrained, almost rote. This was soon remedied by the extreme, intentionally jarring dynamic contrasts of the Allegro ma non tanto. The middle of this five-movement work, the Molto adagio, was sublime and absolutely magnificent. The GQ interpreted the many different shades of this long, meandering segment with the utmost skill and dexterity. At times it felt forward looking, an almost Dvorăkian hymn to the splendorous, wide spaces of America. At other times it seemed as though Beethoven was quoting the main theme from Pachelbel’s Canon, and the GQ captured this sensitively, rendering a warm, woody intimacy that called to mind a chest of viols from a far earlier era. Their superb interpretation, their ability to intuit the spirit of the many different musics Beethoven seemed to be invoking was rapturous, and the auditorium felt breathless and transformed as the movement died away to a whisper. The Guarnieri Quartet plays at Reed College again tonight, featuring a concert of late Brahms, including the famous B-Minor Clarinet Quintet featuring Festival A.D. David Shifrin on clarinet.