Between Joseph Haydn's Opus 1 and George Crumb's Black Angels – two centuries, give or take a decade – lies the realm of the string quartet, subtlest and most secretive of all kinds of music, demanding the listener's most concentrated patience and rewarding it the most lavishly. Within a week, as it happened, we were blessed by both the first of Haydn's quartets, at the County Museum, performed by the Angeles Quartet, and Crumb's stupendous outcry played by the Kronos at Irvine's Barclay Theater. Wow.
Those mileposts are not fixed, of course; there were string quartets before Opus 1 from 1760 and string quartets after Black Angels of 1970. Composers with serious matters on their minds seem to find benign companionship in two violins, a viola and a cello, and probably always will. The deep melancholy in the slow movement of Beethoven's first quartet (Opus 18 No. 1) is phrased in terms far more mysterious than the language in his first two symphonies of about the same time. There is nothing in his late orchestral music, not even the Ninth, to match the crushing dissonances in his Grosse Fuge, the world's first X-rated music. I cannot claim that every one of Haydn's 80-odd quartets holds me by the throat, but most of them do, and all of them form the laboratory of one of music's supreme innovators. The operative word for this music is fearless, and that applies as well to our excellent local Angeles Quartet, which is performing them all at the County Museum over several years, and recording the whole caboodle for Philips. The first release is due out this year.
Already in Opus 1 No. 1 there is amazement. Haydn hadn't yet mastered the art of freeing each of the instruments as an individual voice, as he soon would; the violins play their gorgeous tunes to a steady accompaniment from the lower strings. But in one of the minuets there is a fine trick, the two violins quickly alternating bowed and pizzicato passages, and you know that this isn't more of that bland KUSC music you can just doze off to. The Angeles program also included Opus 33 No. 1, from 1783. Haydn by then was twice blessed: a steady job with an employer who encouraged innovation, and a group of players willing and able to tackle all challenges. This work is supposed to be in the key of B minor, and the unwritten laws of the so-called classical style ordain that you make your key clearly recognizable right at the start. Not Haydn this time; he begins somewhere else, and only slides into the “right” key after leaving his listeners baffled for several bars. Beethoven used that device at the start of the Ninth Symphony, and gets all the credit; here is Haydn doing it 42 years before. When Haydn's Opus 33 quartets were performed in Vienna, the recently arrived Mozart was in the room, and he later credited Haydn for showing him the inner secrets of string-quartet creation.
Two quartets from Haydn's Opus 50 rounded out the Angeles program: No. 1, with its heart-rending, throbbing slow movement, and No. 4, with its final, gnashing fugue that again carries portents of the Beethoven to come. The Angeles, its new second violinist, Sara Parkins, joining Kathleen Lenski, Brian Dembow and Stephen Erdody (bearer of the illustrious name of the countess who was Beethoven's “lady confessor”), played with marvelous flexibility, the sense of adventure that permeates this music and raises it above the cliches and customs of its time. In tracing the growth of Haydn's quartet mastery in this series of concerts at the Museum, the Angeles itself has also grown.
Black Angels lies at the foundation of the Kronos Quartet; hearing it on the radio 25 years ago, says the group's founder and first violinist, David Harrington, instilled an obsession to create an ensemble that could play it. The work is about Vietnam; its language of shrieks and groans, with the strings purposely overamplified and interlaced with feedback mixed in with spoken, agonized gibberish from the players, may claim descent from Beethoven's grinding masterpiece, but its concerns are of its own time, and they are expressed in an extraordinary richness of language. It belongs alongside Luciano Berio's only slightly less frantic Sinfonia in its way of hurtling out from the stage with music that hovers on the edge of urgent speech about the world in horrific crisis.
Crumb hadn't been very productive in the 1980s, but Quest, a big recent piece for the guitarist David Starobin and a chamber ensemble, released on Starobin's Bridge label, sounds to me like a welcome return to center stage. He is an important creative figure, especially for his ability to orchestrate the implications of his times into hugely compelling music. Larry Neff, the Kronos' lighting wizard, and Jack Carpenter have worked out a staging for Black Angels, mostly a matter of flickering lights and shadowy shapes on a darkened stage, around a kind of ceremonial altar under a rising and falling canopy. The effect is stunning, but tells me nothing that the music by itself doesn't make achingly clear.
The Kronos' Irvine program also included other bitter, lacerating music in the body of Alfred Schnittke's harrowing Second Quartet, and Terry Riley's two brief Requiem Quartets, in memory of recent deaths within the Kronos family, music of ethereal poignance that seemed to hang in the air. (I wish I could say as much for Riley's UCLA concert of piano improv two nights before, which for once in my long admiration of his music I found meandering and pallid.)
At Royce Hall the night before Irvine, the Kronos kicked off with Ben Johnston's gleeful and gritty version of Harry Partch's U.S. Highball, with the hobo texts declaimed by David Barron; so far so good. At the end, however, the quartet was joined by Margaret Kampmeier in a pointless if not downright goofy arrangement for piano and strings by John Geist of, if you're ready, Stravinsky's sublime orchestral tour de force The Rite of Spring. Why, for God's sake? Even Stravinsky's own two-piano reduction, created to make the work portable for audition purposes, makes some sense; it at least preserves some of the percussive effects. This version locates a place for the music on a dusty shelf as some insipid piece of French chamber music, a d'Indy reject perhaps, plus a few kicky rhythms. The opening, that unearthly bassoon incantation that can still raise goose bumps 85 years later, turns pale and featureless translated to a solo cello. To paraphrase whoever it was who said what about whom: The Kronos doesn't make many mistakes, but when it makes one it's a beaut.