By James Ehnes

This is one of my very favorite pieces—I’m performing it with my quartet, the Ehnes Quartet, over the next few months. It is the first of Beethoven’s late quartets that I got to know well, and I find it to be profoundly moving and satisfying to play.

This edition is quite wonderful. The editors are not afraid to leave many of Beethoven’s textual ambiguities in place—as opposed to other editions that sometimes make decisions based on scant evidence or shaky premises—and the notes in the back of the part and score are well detailed.

I have studied this piece off and on for years; Marlboro in 1994, Juilliard in 1997, the Seattle Chamber Music Society in 1999, and at various points since. I have performed both [violin] parts, so I know it fairly well, but there’s always more to learn! It’s an immensely challenging work, both technically and interpretively. My advice to any quartet preparing this piece is: Leave lots of time not just to learn the notes and rehearse, but to let the piece settle and the interpretation to become natural.

Leave lots of time not just to learn the notes and rehearse, but to let the piece settle and the interpretation to become natural.

It’s very useful to have an overview of Beethoven’s compositional style in this late period of his life. I find that Beethoven was rather consistent in his notational quirks during specific periods of his life; playing all of the late quartets certainly helps one understand each individual quartet much more thoroughly. And the technical refinement one strives for when playing this difficult music undoubtedly pays dividends for one’s overall instrumental ability.

Though not all textual questions can be answered, knowledge of his other works (particularly the late piano works) can provide very valuable interpretive insight. But it is important not to lose oneself in the many, many details; making the music speak and flow in the most natural way possible is definitely the most important part of any performance.

I would say the music’s [power comes from its] combination of beauty, intimacy, virtuosity, generosity of spirit, and great range of emotion. It has a little bit of everything, and brings the listener on an epic and deeply satisfying journey, whether one concludes the piece with the published finale or the originally conceived Grosse Fugue.

 

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