Something Borrowed? Maybe, But It’s Not Blue

United StatesUnited States Beethoven, Golijov, Haydn: St. Lawrence String Quartet (Geoff Nuttall, Mark Fewer, violins; Lesley Robertson, viola; Christopher Costanza, cello), presented by Cal Performances, Hertz Hall, University of California, Berkeley. 23.11.14 (HS)

Beethoven: String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131
Golijov: Qohelet
Haydn: String Quartet No. 62 in C major, Op. 76, No. 3 (Emperor)

Qohelet, by the Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov, returns to Jewish themes inspired, even if obliquely, by the Old Testament in his Yiddishbuk. Golijov’s latter piece, premiered in 1992 at Tanglewood by the St. Lawrence String Quartet, used apocryphal psalms by Kafka to echo memories of the Holocaust. The new one, written for the same quartet and premiered at Stanford University in 2011, looks to Ecclesiastes for its inspiration. In the composer’s notes, he refers to the Bible chapter’s mix of motion and melancholy.

I got all that on this occasion, at the center of the quartet’s recital last week at Hertz Hall, presented by Cal Performances at the University of California, Berkeley. But after the first few moments, it almost didn’t matter. The sheer musical language was compelling enough. Nervous rhythms emerge from a fog of soft dissonances. Hints of a tune try to poke through until eventual a richly expressive melody soars in the first violin, and eventually through all four instruments. The second half settles into a gentle, pulsating rhythm as a meditation against the melody. The first violin expands on it, using Golijov’s signature synthesis of modern gestures and familiar harmonies.

With Golijov, “familiar” is a fraught descriptor. He has gotten into hot water in musical circles for his extensive use of other people’s music. In Sidereus (also debuted in 2011) he appropriated discarded swaths from a film score he co-wrote with another composer (with the other composer’s permission, it should be noted). Many of Golijov’s most loved works use music from bygone eras, as well. In the original version of Qohelet a Brazilian carioca tune found its way into the second half. Apparently this sort of appropriation is OK in current-day popular music forms, where it’s called “sampling,” and it was OK for classical composers in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, but woe betide a modern composer who isn’t entirely original.

Unaware of all this before hearing Qohelet (I learned about it while reading up on the piece’s background for this review), I can say that the St. Lawrence’s emotionally wrought performance of it moved me. Their work was simultaneously unsettling and satisfying, never straying from a purposeful forward motion. And what of that carioca tune? Nothing jumped out to me as such, perhaps because the composer reworked the entire second half of the piece and extended the running time from its original 10 to its current 12 minutes. In an interview last year, he said his intention always was to distort the tune much as Dali had “melted” the watches in his famous painting, and did not change it enough in the original score. It seems to have melted in nicely into this version.

Beethoven and Haydn, two composers who weren’t above stealing a tune here and there themselves, sandwiched the Golijov piece in resplendent, vivid performances.

The program opened with Haydn’s String Quartet No. 62, the one that contains the entire theme we now know mainly as “Deutschland, Deutschland Über Alles.” Although second violinist Mark Fewer’s bow exploded only two measures into the first movement, he returned after a few minutes offstage with a fresh one, and the quartet, unperturbed, launched into a lively, rhythmically buoyant performance of the Allegro. Before the deft minuet and crisp finale, they flowed gracefully through the slow movement’s variations of the tune Haydn wrote as a new Austrian national anthem (which was also appropriated by others). Was that a sly wink toward Golijov I heard in their playing?

After intermission the group settled into Beethoven’s Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor in their clear-eyed, hair-trigger-responsive playing style. Tempo and dynamics ebbed and flowed with uncanny unanimity as they wended their way through Beethoven’s unexpected harmonic twists and turns.

Harvey Steiman

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