Sir John Tusa in Bold
Krzyzstof Chorselki in plain
Corina Belcea in Italics
What caused you to want to undertake the complete Beethoven string quartets as a whole?
We have always played Beethoven, in fact Beethoven’s quartets were the first quartets we played together, 18 years ago, so it was a natural wish to want to present them all together and I think now is the right time for us.
I remember when the idea first floated into our minds, I questioned if we were ready to do it, but we felt it was such a gigantic task that you will always feel a little bit daunted by this process - it is really breath taking. But at the same time, now I feel we are really ready to tackle it and see what happens. The adrenalin that goes with it, the risk taking and the courage that is necessary to play these works is addictive.
You have, of course, played all of them over the years. Are there some that you’ve played much more than others?
Yes there are, some of the Razumovskys we’ve played more; the Opus 18s we left for a later stage of our playing lives, for some reason they seem the most tricky from a musical point of view, although not so much technically.
Do concert halls ask for the Opus 18s less frequently? Is that almost because they think the early ones are less interesting? Do people want the chunky, difficult later ones?
Well I think that the Opus 18s normally play the role of an opener in a concert, the late ones are obviously so enormous that they normally come at the end. I still find it interesting that there are some promoters that won’t program the late quartets saying that they are incomprehensible.
Well some of them are still incomprehensible to me! For example, in the Grosse Fugue we discover new things about it every time we play it, so I sometimes wonder what the audience get out of it, how they understand it… it’s just so complex and still sounds so contemporary even now.
Tell us more about the Opus 18s as you were saying they are so musically difficult.
They already look forward to something very different from Haydn and Mozart - some of the slow movements are so incredible deep and compassionate. It’s a mixture of Mozartian opera-styled fun and very deep Beethoven, struggling with everything. It’s a very difficult mixture to put together.
You mentioned some are particularly difficult to play, I can’t imagine that any of them are easy.
No, they’re not, because in the Opus 18s there is just nowhere to hide. They will be judged by precision and clarity of presentation. In [Opus] 130 there is more of a message with the music - they have such an enormous impact that the little things don’t necessarily effect the reception of the quartet, so for me that is the most daunting thing about them.
So how are you planning the concerts?
Well, we have early, middle and late quartets in every concert. We are starting with the Op 130 with the replacement finale because we wanted to frame the series with two performances of Op 130 - in a way the two endings make it a different piece of music. The fugue seems to change and confuse the message and structure, whereas the first quartet has a more traditional structure, so the idea was to hear two different meanings of the piece.
How has your approach to the Beethoven Quartets changed over the 18 years?
When we first started playing them I personally didn’t know anything about playing in a quartet. I had only played a handful of quartets before so it was very hard work trying to tackle the technical difficulties of playing these, especially with people you had only met two weeks before! It took a lot of energy from all of us that it seemed almost impossible to get to grips with. Over the years it’s just been lovely to play it for various people, to get coaching and to live with the works.
Do you think you play them differently now?
I think every time you come back to a piece you view changes with it as you let it settle. When you add to things you’ve worked on, you have matured as a person and as a player. This is us at this stage of our careers, presenting the work as it is now, and we hope to have developed again in the future.
What words would you use to describe to way in which you’ve changed?
Well I think the more we live and play different music, the more developed and defined the Beethoven sound becomes. I think it is clear that over the years our sound has become much more grounded, a lot less aimed at beauty as an end. I believe this music has more meaning than superficial beauty. It is so visceral and gutsy, you really have to ask yourself some questions as to whether you want to please an audience or really make an impact that is sometimes quite disturbing.
Please always do the latter!!
I think our playing used to be more aristocratic, I remember many people used to say our playing was very nice but it never really made much of an impact on the listener so I think we are now pushing the boundaries and trying to show these extremes.
Is it possible to ever understand a Beethoven Quartet?
Well not in a cerebral way, but I will say the more you live with this music the more it becomes part of you and that is to do with looking for the correct sound. This is something we have focused on very much recently.
Knowing that you were going to play all of the quartets, did that mean you had a different frame of mind when rehearsing to when you play just one of them?
I think it is very exciting. We were almost buzzing with excitement knowing we were going to be playing almost nothing other that Beethoven solidly for two years. It has allowed us time to really get to know these works. Of course it helps when you perform them more to learn what works and what doesn’t.
As far as the quartet is concerned, you’ve gained two new players over the years. How do you feel the sound has changed?
It is inevitable that the sound will change with new players. Even subconsciously you will try to match the sound of the new player or vice versa. I think first with Antoine we had a different type of sound - vibrato wise he was always pushing us to vary our vibrato much more to create different timbres.
I think the relationship between the left hand and right hand is much more in favour of the bow arm, there is much more expression to be had from speaking and articulating with the bow.
I think obviously it is a traumatic time when you loose a player, but rather than finding someone who will easily slot in and make our lives easy, we wanted to find someone whose playing we admired and wanted to take something from their personality and playing. That was certainly the case with Antoine and with Axel. It has meant an incredible amount of rehearsal - it is necessary but worthwhile. I think we realized early on that we would never be able to recreate the sound we had with the previous members, so we had to embrace that.
In rehearsal, how does the interplay between the four of you go?
We are very comfortable with each other so we have a lot of fun. I think often members of other quartets are shocked, as watching it must look like an inability to make a decision but for us, it is an open process, we like to trial ideas, we are open to anyone testing ideas, especially with Beethoven as their are always infinite options.
We are probably not as efficient as other quartets, but for us it works. We get on on a human level and it means we all have a say in the creative process.
So as you set out on this extraordinary adventure, how are you feeling?
Greatly excited! I have a feeling that after playing Beethoven for two years I will not want to play any other quartet.
You really notice the quality of his writing - when you have focused for so long on such great work, any lesser work is glaringly obvious. But with Beethoven I think we will not get a feeling of overdose, even though we will be playing so much of it. We often think about our programmes for after the Beethoven, we would like to keep Beethoven as part of the repertoire and each of us has a different idea of which ones we would like this to be.
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