Monte-Carlo’s music festival Printemps des Arts has a mission: to prove that classical music is still relevant. The innovative programs thoughtfully developed by the festival director, the composer Marc Monnet, present a heady mix of styles and periods. This year one can take in traditional Mongolian music, sacred choral music by Heinrich Schütz, concertos by Beethoven and Brahms, rarely-heard pieces by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Mauricio Kagel and newly-commissioned works. Each concert featuring older music begins with a work by a living composer, creating a stimulating dialogue between art of the past and the present.
The spirit of the festival is perfectly demonstrated by this season’s four-concert cycle of Beethoven string quartets, as these works were found enormously challenging to their first listeners. After the 1825 premiere of Op. 127, for example, the critic for the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung (a sort of Classicagenda for nineteenth-century Germany) wrote ‘it was understood and completely comprehended only by the very few’. The following year, when Op. 130 was first heard, the same critic lamented that the ‘Grosse Fuge’ finale was ‘incomprehensible, like Chinese’. These criticisms led Beethoven’s musicians to institute a radical experiment in programming: presenting each of the late quartets twice in a row, without any other works on the program, a strategy that would not be revived until performances of Stockhausen’s Gruppen in the 1960s. The Printemps des Arts festival allows the audience to explore the historical and aesthetic context of these quartets in fascinating pre-concert lectures given by musicologists Hélène Cao, Marc Dumont, Tristan Labouret and Jean-Claire Vançon.
The first concert was given by the Parker Quartet from the United States. The program featured the Suite (from Capriccio, 2013) by the American composer Jeremy Gill and two middle period quartets (Op. 74 and Op. 59 no. 2) and one early quartet (Op. 18 no. 6) by Beethoven. The musicians were impressive in their energetic quicksilver playing, but the consistently fast tempi left one breathless and craving moments of expansiveness. Even their choice of encore, Shostakovich’s Allegretto (Polka) for String Quartet (1931), underscored their mercurial approach.
The French Quatuor Diotima began their concert with a work commissioned by the festival from the composer-in-residence Alexandros Markeas. Entitled Die neuen Ruinen von Athen (The New Ruins of Athens), the work refers to Beethoven’s Die Ruinen von Athen (1812), and imagines Athena’s reaction after awakening from a 2000-year slumber to see her once prosperous city in ruins. Markeas’s highly original work begins with almost inaudible wisps of music passed from player to player, and continues with extended techniques using whistles and plectra. The second half of the program consisted of Beethoven’s monumental Quartet Op. 131, in a mesmerizing interpretation that succeeded in maintaining an intensity throughout the seven interconnected movements.
The highlight of the cycle was the third concert, given by the Cologne based Signum Quartet. The program opened with (rage) rage against the (2018) by the South African composer Matthijs van Dijk, which allowed the musicians to indulge in highly aggressive playing. As was the case with each contemporary work presented throughout this cycle, however, one could not help but conclude that today’s composers’ attempts to shock their audiences pale in comparison to Beethoven’s daring experiments. This was particularly the case with respect to the breathtakingly dissonant ‘Grosse Fuge’, rarely heard in its original position as the finale to the Quartet Op. 130. The Signum’s interpretation of this work revealed a universe of expressive nuances, from the virtuoso scherzo to the most introspective moments of the cavatina fifth movement. The Quartet Op. 132 was marked by a sensitive and vocal approach, particularly in the ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’ third movement, where the musicians refrained from using almost any vibrato until the very end. As an encore, the Signum performed Schubert’s ‘Du bist die Ruh’ in a heartfelt arrangement by the quartet’s violist Xandi van Dijk (Matthijs van Dijk’s brother).
The final and most eagerly-awaited event of the cycle was given by the Quatuor Renaud Capuçon, whose members include some of the leading young soloists in France. The program opened with Mauricio Kagel’s Pandorasbox (1960) for bandoneon solo, in a virtuoso interpretation by Jean-Etienne Sotty. The quartet portion of the concert, however, was something of a comedy of errors. When Renaud Capuçon lifted his bow to cue the beginning of the Quartet Op. 127, violist Adrien La Marca was not yet ready, and the majestic first chord was missing the viola part. The subsequent movements were plagued by recurrent intonation and ensemble problems. When the quartet began the Quartet Op. 135, cellist Edgar Moreau waved for his colleagues to stop playing and all four members left the stage so that he could fix a problem of a slipping tuning pin, before returning to start the work a second time. Aside from these accidents, the ensemble of admittedly superb soloists never really gelled into a cohesive quartet, often producing overly harsh accents that lacked tonal substance.
Curiously, the accidents that befell the Quatuor Capuçon were similar to those that befell that Schuppanzigh Quartet at the work’s première in 1825. Contemporary reports inform us that the opening of the first movement was not together, and that the ensemble problems continued until the first violinist broke a string and had to interrupt the concert. In short, even two hundred years after their first performances, these works remain difficult for musicians and audiences alike. As Igor Stravinsky remarked, Beethoven’s late quartets are ‘absolutely contemporary music that will be contemporary forever’.