Sunday, October 16, 2016

concert review: Late Style 1

Come along, earthman, or you will be late.
Late? Late for what?
Late for the Beethoven "Late Style" concert, of course, which I nearly was, owing to the difficulty of finding parking in San Francisco on a Saturday evening. I count nabbing a space in an alleyway only a block and a half from Herbst, ten minutes before the concert, as one of my greatest achievements.

The concept of "late style" is a fashionable one, "of interest to writers and philosophers from Adorno to Said," as the program book puts it. It applies to all the arts, but seems especially notable in music. Doesn't matter how old the composer was at the time, something about accumulated mastery plus, perhaps, the sense of impending death, makes for a gestalt considered worth chewing over.

The gimmick for this one is that the Brentano String Quartet and pianist Jonathan Biss would play Beethoven's final work in each of the three large-scale genres in which he was most prolific: piano sonata, string quartet, and violin sonata. (Actually, depending on how you count the number of works, Beethoven could be considered as having written more piano trios than violin sonatas, but let that be.)

The last violin sonata, Op. 96, is not very late, dating from 15 years before the composer's death, but the last piano sonata, Op. 111, is much later, and the last string quartet, Op. 135, was his last completed full composition. Although each work had its dramatic passages - raised to violence in the quartet, which played them as if it were ripping something not easily repairable - what struck me was the resignation and peace throughout long stretches of all three works, something again emphasized by the quartet with a light but clear, feathery tone.

All three, however, were highly abstract and, though consonant, not at all ingratiating. I'd expect a concert of late Schubert chamber music (which would ideally consist of the G-major Quartet and the String Quintet) would feel very different. There's another of these coming up, by a potpourri of composers, but no Schubert.

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