By Stephanie Powell
“It’s not hard to settle on Beethoven,” Patrick Jordan, violist in the Eybler Quartet says. And then he beats me to the punch. “The one hesitation we had about it really was that there are so many fine recordings of these pieces already,” he adds, “so, you sort of have to ask yourself the question: Why do another one?”
The Eybler Quartet, made up of violinists Aisslinn Nosky and Julia Wedman, cellist Margaret Gay, and Jordan, released its first recording of Beethoven’s String Quartets Op. 18, Nos. 1–3 (Coro) on March 2. (A second release, of Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 18, Nos. 4–6, is planned for March 2019.) And while Jordan is astute to acknowledge the various recordings already in existence, he also notes that the quartet intended to approach the works in a new light. “Our answer was to really take Beethoven at his word,” he says, “in his 1818 published metronome marks for the works.”
In addition to taking a quite literal approach to the repertoire, the quartet also set itself apart by performing the pieces on period instruments. Jordan recorded on a Viennese viola from 1725, Gay on a 1730 Castagneri cello. As for the violinists: one recorded on an anonymous violin from the 1690s and the other on an early-19th century violin by a Spanish maker. Each player’s bow was modeled after early Tourtes, with the traditional “hatchet-y heads” and an inward camber. As for strings, each instrument had a mix of both plain and overspun gut strings.
The instruments’ setup had an effect on the way the quartet approached the works, Jordan says.
“Having no chin rest changes some choices you might make about how often you shift around and how you shift around,” he says. “You just can’t hold onto the instrument in the same way, so the whole setup with the left hand is completely different.”
Jordan is quick to note that each member of the quartet would probably offer a variety of responses as to how their instruments’ setup affected each individual’s approach to the works. But he adds that overall tackling involved interval string changes became a larger deal. “If you’re choosing to stay in a lower position and deal with string changes rather than shifting up, you might get a slightly more open sound because you have a longer resonating string length as a general rule,” he says. Playing on a combination of gut strings also led the group to embrace more open strings. “I think the nature of the sound of an open string with a plain gut string on the higher end of the instrument is really not as harsh as it can be with modern strings.” Vibrato was also treated as an “ornament” rather than “an integral part of your left-hand technique.”
The quartet’s interpretation of the works already has purists a little perplexed. A review in London’s The Times questions the restlessness during the traditionally slow movement in Op. 18, No. 1. “I love that,” Jordan says, “because when we went into this we didn’t think it should be that restless either. But we looked at what Beethoven said, and he was telling us that it should have elements of restlessness that we wouldn’t have intuited.”
But while the quartet did commit to performing the works according to Beethoven’s markings, Jordan does reiterate that “it’s not every single bar—the object is not metronomic playing by any stretch of the imagination. We’ve sort of had Beethoven teach us what his tempi were in that moment in his life.”