Quatuor Diotima in Taipei

It was almost six months ago to the day that I first knew that the Quatuor Diotima would be visiting Taiwan, and that was the same week I posted an article I spent a lot of time preparing for, only to share my most basic thoughts and ignorance about a work they’d be performing, Pierre Boulez’s Livre pour Quatuor.

The work I listened to and wrote about was the original 1962 version, but the members of Diotima were fortunate enough to be able to work with the composer on a new performing version of the work (available here with a very nice interview), (excerpts of) which they gave the Taiwanese premiere of this week. With the previously-unwritten fourth movement, I’m told the work in its entirety runs to about an hour, which is a very long time for such a demanding piece of music (for listeners and performers).

I spoke with Yun Peng Zhao (English word order), first violin of the quartet, and that article and the podcast episode (English and Chinese) is posted here.

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But enough about links and backstory. I’d been waiting for six months to hear one of the most modern works I’d ever heard live up to that point. Many non-classical-music-people may not think of it as such, but 1962 is outstandingly recent for classical music, and the revision of the work is less than a decade old, practically hot off the press.

Boulez’s Quatuor was sandwiched between Schubert’s quartet no. 13 in A minor (Rosamunde) and Beethoven’s 14th, op. 131 making up the second. A quick look through Diotima’s recording catalogue shows that they’ve made a name for themselves, not with Mozart and Haydn quartet cycles (although those would be great as well), but from Lachenmann, Luigi Nono, obviously Boulez, and Feldman. Their complete repertoire shows even more, with the expected names like Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms alongside Georg Friedrich Haas, Brian Ferneyhough and Chaya Czernowin.

Zhao told me in our conversation that the quartet is built around the latter type of works, named after a quartet work of Nono, and that it’s only been more recently that they’ve come around to performing the more standard works in the repertoire. It may be this very interesting statement that colored my perception of the opening piece on the program on Tuesday night, but I don’t think so.

If you’ve ever had the experience of seeing an orchestra as a body, a breathing organism of its own rather than a composite of people, you’ll know what I’m talking about when I say that this quartet, made up very clearly of four humans, was instantly a collective, like the different limbs of the same agile beast. Eye contact, movement, bowing… I don’t play any of their instruments, and I’m honestly not even that familiar with these (famous, I know) quartets, but there was a compelling sense of unity and expression in the performance.

Schubert’s music is full of that tender lyricism, even in its crunchier moments, a vulnerability and the slightest waft of melancholy, and this exquisite palate was beautifully executed by the four performers. I’m far more likely to turn on a Babbitt or Schoenberg quartet than Schubert, to be honest, but there seemed to be something passionately special about an ensemble with such modern chops giving such life to Rosamunde. It left me with a sense of gratefulness that such stunning music exists, and to have heard it performed as such. I couldn’t tell you what it was, and maybe it was just in my head, but there was something unique about this performance with this quartet that made it special.

The suppleness and intense expressiveness of Schubert’s late quartet seemed like a brilliant piece to play before the Boulez. I’ve read many interviews with Boulez, and as you likely know, the man had many opinions about almost everyone, most at least somewhat negative. Schubert remained one of the more positive names in Boulez’s book, but they don’t really have a lot in common. However, the vulnerability and the kind of pleading warmth of Schubert was an emotional warm-up of sorts for the Boulez, something that said “listen to this the same way you just listened to that.”

I’d believed for a while that it was through a kind of “brute force” repeated listening that we’re so fortunate to be able to do in this age of YouTube and iTunes that made one familiar with works like this, but that’s only because I’d never heard any of them live. Boulez’s Quatuor had been a tough nut for me to crack for many reasons, but now, hearing it live, no less from a quartet who had a close relationship to the composer, was entirely different. The work sprang to life, blossomed out into a vibrant, colorful work, still challenging, still obscure to the ear, but positively brimming with expression, granted of a very different palate than Schubert. It was tensile, transparent, elastic, it breathed and moved in a way I could not have imagined from only hearing a recording.

The intricacy of the work becomes very apparent hearing it live, with the four performers intertwining through a discourse of textures and effects to build a structure like a spider spinning a web, and one ended up as much in awe of the energy of the work as the terrifying technical difficulties. I smiled through just about the whole thing.

During the intermission, a few friends and I chatted about the (now very) clear advantages of hearing music like this live, of having the luxury, albeit rare, to experience it in the concert hall. After the break, then, was Beethoven.

Much like the Schubert, there was an immediacy, a passion in the performance, and the best way I can describe it is that the entire approach to the work (granted, one I’m not terribly familiar with) is from a 21st century vantage point, looking to the past, but not wanting to be back in it. Diotima is obviously not an old person’s ensemble, and they don’t present the works from two centuries ago as if they are two centuries old, and this brings, I’d say, a much more ‘level playing field’ to all the music. Don’t play Schubert like old stuffy elevator music, and don’t play Boulez like it’s music you’re not meant to understand.

In the half hour or so of Beethoven’s op. 131, I got to thinking about this matter of perspective, and of humor in Beethoven’s output. Opus no. 131 in Beethoven’s catalogue is a very late work, if not quite as challenging as the fugue, op. 134. His earlier work, like the first two symphonies, had its musical jokes, its boldness, but the latest works seem the most troubled, to present the strongest struggle between the two ends of the spectrum that we’d heard in the concert so far. There are obviously stunningly beautiful moments of melody and exquisite quartet writing, but there’s also expression that seems beyond Beethoven’s time, and to culminate the concert with a work of such magnitude and depth was sublime. The trajectory of the program was wonderful, and while I thought I’d have been maybe more thrilled hearing their Berg or Schoenberg, the Schubert and Beethoven were nothing short of stunning.

But that’s not all! We do get some Schoenberg. Anyone who’s listened to Schoenberg’s earliest, posthumous D major quartet may have been blown away by the work, and the first encore was an even earlier piece, an unnumbered presto in C major, a work that bears the kind of buoyant energy and exquisite writing of that unnumbered quartet, some of the friendliest and sunniest of Schoenberg. But then to top it all off, the last morsel of the concert was not the bright and sunny Schoenberg, but Webern. While the entire six bagatelles of op. 9 would have only taken five minutes or so (less than the Schoenberg presto) to perform, we got no.s 4 and 5 (I think) of the set, and the overwhelming impression was that the silence was a searing white, deafening one. Webern’s early work for quartet (although not his earliest) is sparse, transparent, nakedly bare, and the silences seemed to suck the air out of the room, a very interesting way to end the concert, but perhaps a very suitable final impression.

As if the concert wasn’t enough, there was a quick autograph signing session. I was able, for the first time, to meet one of my podcast guests in person, and beyond that, Diotima and I went out for a late dinner. I had eggs Benedict and a beer, and there were burgers and pastas on the table, and some music scores, and after having the privilege to ask and listen and converse with these four stunning musicians, I have an even greater appreciation for what we in Taipei were able to experience that night. It’s a shame Paris is so far; we’d love to have you back.

Thanks especially to Blooming Arts for arranging Diotima’s visit to Taipei and continuing to bring world-class musicians to our city.

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