By Inge Kjemtrup | From the March-April 2023 issue of Strings magazine
When is the right point in a string quartet’s career to record Beethoven’s quartets? Can a young, recently formed quartet have the depth of understanding to tackle these monumental works? Or must a quartet wait “until they have a few silver hairs among the gold before recording this cornerstone of the repertoire?,” as Guarneri Quartet first violinist Arnold Steinhardt writes in his memoir Indivisible by Four. In the end, Steinhardt and the Guarneri players didn’t wait, recording the cycle in 1970, not long after their founding.
Now the Calidore String Quartet is following in the Guarneri’s footsteps with a new Beethoven cycle for Signum Records. The dynamic young quartet first came to international attention in 2016 after winning the $100,000 Grand Prize at the 2016 M-Prize International Chamber Music Competition and, in 2018, the Avery Fisher Career Grant. Critics and audiences alike admired the “balance of intellect and expression,” as the Los Angeles Times put it. Is there really any question of whether they were ready to record Beethoven?
“There is a kind of stigma that you have to have experienced everything in life in order to accurately convey the sentiments in these works,” says Calidore second violinist Ryan Meehan. “From the very beginning, [our coaches] said we need to tackle the pinnacles of the repertoire, like the late Beethoven, late Schubert, because the only way to live with the pieces is to actually know them already. It’s not like if you come to them when you’re in your mid-sixties that they’re suddenly going to be so much easier than they [would have been] for you in your twenties!”
“I remember speaking with Arnold Steinhardt about how they accomplished such a feat and he said, well, when somebody offers you an opportunity like that, you just kind of figure it out,” says first violinist Jeffrey Myers. “It’s daunting to feel like when you sit down to record that you’re etching your Beethoven interpretation in stone. But it is kind of a snapshot of what you have to say at the moment. And having all that time to work together in the pandemic and be in a kind of a different mindset than we had running around the globe doing what we were doing before. I’m really glad that it was captured in the way that we’ve done it.”
“The biggest challenge I see for groups tackling this repertoire is simply covering it all well,” says David Finckel, former cellist of the Emerson Quartet, who has worked with the Calidore since they met at the Aspen Festival. “The 16 quartets are all connected by Beethoven’s extraordinary life and artistic evolution; every quartet is a part of that evolution. So until you know them all, you are missing chapters of the story.”
The initial Calidore Beethoven release features the late quartets. Does it make sense to open a cycle with the late works? “It’s a very personal choice where to start and finish a large project such as this,” says Finckel. “Coincidentally, we just had a conversation last night with a pianist who has decided to take on all 32 Beethoven sonatas. I did advise beginning with the late sonatas; when one is familiar with where Beethoven wound up, artistically, one can recognize and highlight harbingers of that style in his earlier works. The knowledge of his final destination informs the journey and enriches the experience for both performer and listener.”
The Calidore tell me via a Zoom call that they learned most of the late quartets first. “The experience of performing them for the first time was always quite terrifying,” says Meehan. “I think we’re all grateful to have gotten that out of our system at an early stage. You can really start to dig and work once you have the confidence of, ‘Okay, I’ve already done this a number of times.’ You just become more and more immersed in the music rather than yourself.”
The Calidore Quartet was fortunate to have made this recording with Judith Sherman, a Grammy Award–winning producer who has recorded the Cleveland, Kronos, and Alexander quartets, among many others. I spoke with Sherman via Zoom in late December, when the recording sessions were still ongoing at the Gore Recital Hall, University of Delaware, Newark, where the Calidore is on the faculty.
“Wait until you hear their Grosse Fuge—you will not be able to sit still! It’s dance music!” Sherman enthuses. High praise indeed from a producer who has recorded the entire cycle four times. “My assistant said if I ever took on another complete Beethoven set, she was going to quit,” Sherman laughs. “There are certain movements that we despise because they are so repetitive. The slow movement of Opus 132. The Presto of Opus 131.” She rolls her eye in mock anguish.
Working with the Calidore “has been a joy,” Sherman says. “They are so good at talking to each other and exchanging ideas.” She adds, “I can see they are a quartet. They all have their individuality, but they think of themselves as four, as a unit.”
The admiration was mutual, says Myers. “Judy is a big believer in just capturing the string quartet sound, and she is making sure that everything is heard properly, but we’re responsible for the balance in the session.”
Recording is very unlike concert performance, Sherman explains. “A session is really about focus. To focus for that many hours in a day, it’s like brain cells to the fore all the time.” As a producer, she says, “what you’re looking for is always the best that can happen on this day.” If she feels a performer is being too cautious, she will push for something more imaginative. “And the next take, it’ll be very interesting.”
As the Calidore finished up the recording in December, they were preparing for a busy 2023, reminiscent of the hectic period they found themselves in at the start of 2020. “Right before the pandemic, we were extremely busy,” says Meehan. “We had a world premiere of Anna Clyne’s piece that she wrote for us called Breathing Statues, which was supposed to be a partner piece to our Beethoven cycle in concert.” They had made their first South American concert tour and a European tour. “Then we’re hearing about Covid and everyone’s like, ‘Oh, I don’t know, it will just blow over.’ And then we didn’t see each other for four months.”
This gets a rueful chuckle from the rest of the quartet.
Reflecting back on that time, violist Jeremy Berry says, “There was nothing good about the pandemic, but one of the silver linings is that January 2020 through the beginning of March was probably the densest concentration of performances over the most number of countries that we had done. To be able to catch up on sleep and be in the same time zone, at least for those first two or three weeks before we got fidgety, was actually quite refreshing.”
With concerts out of the question, “we just decided to put the brakes on and see how things panned out,” recalls cellist Estelle Choi. “Let’s just do whatever we have to do to feel safe, take advantage of the time, and just breathe a bit.”
For her part, Choi did a lot of online teaching. Yet as much as she loves teaching, Choi realized she needed a balance. “I need the teaching plus the performing. I was really craving that energy and that rush you get from sharing your music with more than two or three people, and getting the feedback from an audience.”
Meehan, along with his pianist wife, Gabriela Fahnenstiel, set up an online festival, the Virtuosi Virtual Summer Academy. “We saw that all the summer festivals were being canceled. So we came up with this idea to take advantage of all of these famous artists who were just sitting at home twiddling their thumbs. We started an online festival for about 40 violinists and pianists. We had the likes of Julia Fischer and Augustin Hadelich and Jeffrey Myers all giving master classes or talks.”
In the summer of 2020, the Calidore decided to meet and rehearse. “Those are some of the most memorable rehearsals I think that we’ve ever had,” says Myers. “To be able to be in the presence of each other and be able to make the music that we did in that summer was very powerful. It gave us perspective on what we get to do for a profession and what we’ve dedicated our lives to. Goosebumps from the first notes that we got to play together again. It kind of changed my perspective on what we do going forward and how lucky we are to get to do it.”
“I remember even when Jeff played his open strings to start tuning and I hadn’t heard another instrument tuning for four months,” Meehan says. “It was very emotional to hear those open strings!”
In their choice of mentors and coaches, the Calidore has intentionally sought out a wide array of viewpoints, “from the European traditions of the Alban Berg Quartett and the Quatuor Ébène to the American legacy of the Guarneri and the Emerson,” says Meehan. When Calidore started studying Beethoven, they studied parts used by the Alban Berg. “They’ve figured out so many solutions to problems that are inherent in the writing, just from a practical perspective. It really gave us a jump start.”
I ask the Calidore for their thoughts about playing and recording the late quartets. “The more we work on the pieces, the more startling it is to think about the condition in which he wrote these works and that he was able to create such beauty from such struggle,” Meehan says. “There are so many poignant moments within the late quartets, like the Heiliger Dankgesang of Opus 132. There is a triumphant quality in a lot of his music, too, but there are those intimate moments of wondering about his own existence and what the future has in store for him, like the beklemmt section of the Cavatina in Opus 130, or that very hushed instant in the slow moment of Opus 135. The enduring legacy of Beethoven is that he brings voice to these feelings that we all have at some point.”
“As string quartet musicians, we all talk about how exhausting it is to play Beethoven,” says Choi. “And yes, technically, of course it’s all extremely difficult. But there is that emotional side to it, where you have to give everything of yourself in the way that Beethoven did. Essentially you have to be very vulnerable to do justice to his music. You go from the most sensitive, extremely subtle feelings to just over-the-top expressions of very passionate feelings. The genius of his music is that as much as you’re learning about him, you’re actually tapping into those emotions within yourself.”
What of the Grosse Fuge—how did they handle that? Berry describes the “earth-shattering first chord, which is followed by 15 minutes of havoc. It is just written in the most magnificent way imaginable. It still to this day sounds like contemporary music. It’s so far ahead of its time, which is probably why the publisher didn’t like it.”
Meehan says, “Our interpretation of the fugue has changed a lot since we first began performing it. There’s an inherent chaos that’s written into the music, and our initial approach was to embrace that and to have warring factions within the fugue—everybody fighting for their space in the balance. But as we lived with it more, we started to veer toward highlighting the structure of the work in the way that we would a Bach fugue. He was so inspired by Bach, and this was really his greatest homage to what Bach had achieved.”
For the Calidore, this recording project is a landmark in their career. This year they will be performing plenty of Beethoven in concert, including the entire cycle at places including Music@Menlo in California. And who knows? Like the Guarneri, they may find themselves in the studio with Beethoven again 20 years after their first recording.
David Finckel praises the Calidore’s bold move to record Beethoven now. “They will be working on these quartets—refining, changing, tinkering with their interpretations—for as long as they play together, so getting started on that process early puts them at a huge advantage. They will learn a tremendous amount about the music and about themselves through the recording process. I wish them a great experience and much success.”