Edmonton’s Enterprise Quartet, in another exceptional concert, last Sunday afternoon, at City Hall, to a full house, played quartets by Cherubini and Beethoven. The Enterprise Quartet is comprised of Guillaume Tardif, first violin; Yue Deng, second violin; Leanne Maitland, viola; and, Colin Ryan, violoncello.
The Beethoven Op. 95 in f minor from 1811 has long been my favourite of the Beethoven quartets, but I knew the Cherubini, his first quartet, in E flat major, from 1814, not at all. The latter seems to be enjoying a warranted resurgence amongst quartet players round the world.
If you look at the score of the quartet, it will be clear that it is far from easy. The part-writing is intricate, often highly transparent, and frequently demands the players to play passages in which their instrument is highly exposed, or is in dialogue or sequence with another’s, or requires the most stringent attention to silences. In addition, the rhythmic challenges are considerable. The Larghetto, a set of variations in a very tight 2/4 meter, requires meticulous execution of short, complicated note values within a demanding context of dynamics. The scherzo gives the players no respite, and its trio, pp légèrement et detachées throughout, requires the utmost of technique. Fugal passages are often in evidence, and provide an interestingly integrating character to the piece, which does not permit the players any surcease of application even in the finale.
Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842), although born in Florence, spent most of his life in France. It is possible that he was acquainted with Beethoven’s Op. 95. In any event, this E flat quartet is not in the tradition initiated by Haydn, and pursued by Mozart and Beethoven. Cherubini has been dismissed as a capable composer handicapped aesthetically by his predictability of style and inalterable adherence to the standard tenets of harmony and modulation in music. “Pulverizingly correct,” as Harold Schonberg put it. Even if so, this quartet fully attracts one’s attention. Even Bacharach and Pearce’s The Musical Companion comments that Donald Tovey “acutely remarked that the inner parts of Cherubini … quartets are often more interesting and idiomatically written than Haydn’s.”
The composer’s name, incidentally, means ‘little cherub.’
If Cherubini is nicely expansive, Beethoven (1770-1827) in his f minor quartet is concision to the point of the remarkable. The other works in the same category are his 30th piano sonata in E major, Op. 109, and the Coriolan overture, Op. 62. András Schiff considers that piano sonata the finest of Beethoven’s, and although I am hardly in the same critical league as Sir András, that, too, has long been my view. I have the same view of the Coriolan overture, however much Leonore and the Count of Egmont appeal to me.
The Enterprise Quartet gave this work, frankly, a fantastic performance fully worthy of its composer. The opening movement, with that fierce violence that Beethoven keeps only barely beneath the surface, was stunningly effective. The felicities of the slow movement were sustained with a great purpose of beauty, with particularly fine expression, throughout, of the part for ‘cello, and of the part for viola, on which the central fugato so intensely relies. After the tensility of the scherzo, it is often difficult to bring out the bittersweet ache of the final movement; but not this time. In fact, for once, even the concluding, faster section in the major key, sounded perfectly in place, and not a retreat from the investigations that the preceding has put before the audience.
When I returned to Edmonton three years ago, I heard the Quartet play Beethoven’s Op. 18, and the following year, all the late quartets, twice, including the Große Fuge. Now, I will be leaving Edmonton shortly after hearing the Op. 95. All of these performances were free to the public, and played with musical skill, understanding, and dedication.
If there is one thing I shall most miss about Edmonton, it will be the Quartet.