Breakfast with Champions (Steinhardt, Chung, and the Aizuri Quartet)

1 IMG_6249_edited-1These days, I start many a morning by tuning in to my own version of a talk show: The Curtis Institute of Music’s The World of the String Quartet MOOC. The extent to which I’m enjoying it can be directly measured by how much I look forward to getting on to the next episode even though spring weather is finally here.

What I know about string quartet music, particularly when compared with what there is to know, could just about fill a thimble, so I’m particularly grateful for The World of the String Quartet’s offering of a “right-sized” and engaging overview of the genre. Among other things, Arnold Steinhardt tells real-life stories from his long years with the Guarneri Quartet, Mia Chung offers clear, useful information about “nuts-and-bolts,” and, to cap it off, Steinhardt and the Aizuri Quartet talk about aspects of particular string quartets, after which the Aizuri performs, with consummate style and skill, a sample of what’s discussed.

Of course it’s a nice connecting point for me that I’d had the chance to hear the Aizuri Quartet live, not so very long after the quartet had been formed, performing string quartets by Lembit Beecher and Béla Bartók.  What a pleasure it is now to have the opportunity to hear from the Aizuri’s members—and from Steinhardt—something of what it takes to do what they do so well.

This is going to be old hat to those who know the genre, but here are just a couple examples that made me sit up and pay attention:

Steinhardt noted, of Antonin Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 14 in A-flat major, op. 105, B. 193 (1895), that A-flat major is probably the hardest key of all for string players to play, as “it uses no open strings and therefore makes the task of playing in tune that much more difficult.” Dvořák was a string player, so he had to know what he was demanding in choosing that key. Steinhardt affably commented, “If we meet in the afterlife, I plan to confront Dvořák and simply ask, sir, why A-flat?”

Mia Chung, in her discussion of the Scherzo: alla bulgarese (in a Bulgarian manner) from Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 5 Sz. 102 (1934), noted the asymmetrical meters, with eighth note units grouped as 4+2+3 in the scherzo and 3+2+2+3 in the trio “or in other combinations [e.g. 2+3+3+2 and 2+3+2+3] for the accompanying voices even as the first violin carries on” with the grouping of 3+2+2+3.  When the Aizuri Quartet performed the scherzo and trio, do you think I could even follow that count? Not at all, yet the Aizuri performed the scherzo/trio as if they’d been dancing alla bulgarese since before they were born.

Listening List

Antonin Dvořák String Quartet No. 14 in A-flat major, op. 105, B. 193 (1895)

On Spotify: Guarneri String Quartet (the quartet number has been mislabeled on Spotify)

On YouTube: Shanghai String Quartet

Béla Bartók String Quartet No. 5 Sz. 102 (1934)

Aizuri Demonstration: If you do nothing else, please watch the Aizuri demonstration. To sign up for the course is free and entails no ongoing obligation, though I’ll acknowledge it will make for a very strong enticement to embark on the entire course.

On Spotify: Emerson String Quartet

On YouTube: Takács Quartet

Bonus Track: Watch the Aizuri perform Beethoven Quartet Op. 59 No. 3 Mvts 3 & 4 (4th movement begins at about 5:28, and watch them fly!)


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Credits: The quotations may be found at the links noted in the post. The images, as always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, are mine.

10 thoughts on “Breakfast with Champions (Steinhardt, Chung, and the Aizuri Quartet)

  1. Jane and Lance Hattatt

    Hello Susan,

    We know just what you mean about finding a favourite radio programme and following its every episode, often rearranging life around it accordingly. That always used to be the way for us in England with Radio 4 and The Archers!

    And, what delightful music you provide for us here. We have to say that we are becoming more used to Bartok as he seems to form at least a part of most concerts we attend here in Budapet. Increasingly, young musicians seem to include his works and those of Ligeti in their programmes and we are the more knowledgeable for it.

    Of course, we wait for the day when Bartok may be heard by you in the land of his birth rather than on the radio!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Jane & Lance: What’s nice about this program, for me, is that, unlike radio shows had been, it’s available on the internet anytime you want to listen in (and also anywhere in the world). Over here, they call this sort of course a MOOC (massive online open course). I tend to start a section in the morning, thinking I’ll just listen and watch a couple episodes within the section, then move on to the rest of my day, only to be drawn back later in the day eager to hear and see what comes next. Most recently, I completed “The Internationalists, Part 2: Debussy, Ravel, Barber, Shostakovich, and Britten,” so you can be sure I felt entirely in my element there, particularly with the last two. With Bartok, yes, I hope one day–meanwhile, though, I did have the luck to get a wonderful introduction to his String Quartet No. 1: at Estonia House in New York City, with a live performance by the Aizuri Quartet!

  2. Friko

    I am always amazed at how seriously you take your music. When I remember the old Acorn days
    I note quite a marked difference. It is good to have an absorbing passion as the years pile up, so much better than driving along in ancient ruts. Now even the radio gets in on the act!

    Would you think me a boring old stick in the mud when I admit to a great liking for Schubert’s string quartet? I am nothing if not entirely predictable and conventional.

    OK, Bartok is not bad either (at a pinch). :-)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Friko: You are right, absolutely, it’s good to have an absorbing passion (or two or three) “as the years pile up,” not to mention during the long winters as the snow piles up! This is actually not a radio program, but an internet-based MOOC, so it’s possible to listen in (and watch, as the presentations are videos) anytime that’s convenient (as you can, too, if so inclined–it’s free and available around the world). “Course” isn’t really the right word to describe The Art of The String Quartet, either: there are no essays, grades, and all of that; just thoughtful, enjoyable presentations of interesting information about string quartets from the Classical period on that don’t require technical expertise to be understood.

      Now, if I were to think you a boring stick in the mud vis-a-vis Schubert, I would be revealing a serious lack of musical judgment! (I suspect you would very much enjoy “The Humanists” section of the course, covering Schubert (D. 810, “Death and the Maiden”), Mendelssohn (Op. 13 and Op. 80), Schumann (Op. 41, No. 3), and Brahms (Op. 51, No. 1). And speaking of Schubert . . . and of Raining Acorns, I will never forget this post of yours from those days: “. . . . . . . . . And How!”

  3. David N

    Encouraging to know that there’s intelligent stuff on American radio that isn’t just about playing concerts. And from the horse’s mouth is always best. I must return to listen to your clips – loved the lead shot and the slideshow – but in the meantime, following up what you wrote about having your devotion to one player in Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto sidetracked by another, I have to say that the piece in question really didn’t work for me at all until I heard a cellist play it whose name I’d never encountered before, Johannes Moser. Such an extraordinary communicator that I imagine he could bring most new or newish pieces to life. Not come across him since, but will look out.

    Meanwhile we are in seventh heaven about one good thing re the Proms, which is various as always: Yo-Yo Ma, who survived my Altstaedt test re the Bach Cello Suites, is going to play all six from 9pm to 11.45pm, and Alina Ibragimova will essay all the Bach solo violin works over three evenings. There’s something about hearing a solo instrument in that tricksy place the Albert Hall which works a special magic and draws you in.

    1. David N

      PS: only just read your reply to Fricko – I too had not understood the difference between radio and MOOC, a concept I have yet to embrace.

      1. Susan Scheid Post author

        David: I seem to have confused everyone so far with my “talk show” analogy! I’ve added “MOOC” in the text to make it clear.

    2. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: I sort of love that everyone here so far has thought radio show (so very British, in a way–the Edu-Mate is also a connoisseur, with many fond memories from the golden age), whereas I was thinking TV (ironically, of course, as I can’t stand TV talk shows of the current ilk). Anyway, I’ve made it clear now in the text that it’s a MOOC. It’s very well done, not fussy or flashy, just clear information, clearly presented, “from the horse’s mouth.” An excellent model for other music MOOC creators to follow, I think. I’ve taken all three Curtis MOOCs, and I’m really impressed by how much they’ve looked at each, taken the best, and continually developed the presentation style and mode. With the last one, I have to say I felt as if I were scaling the citadel, even though I recognize that wasn’t the intention. This one has taken the best of the first two, and all the lessons learned, and created a wonderfully welcoming approach.

      As for Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto: I did really enjoy Paul Watkin’s performance as my introduction to the work, but that said, it’s taken me a while to get my ears around it, no matter who performs–though I have liked it better and better on each listen. What’s coming up for you sounds wonderful. I do remember from my one experience in the Albert Hall, all thanks to you, that, at least where we were sitting, the solo instrumental passages came through beautifully in Elgar’s The Kingdom.

      PS: I’ve now had a look/listen to Moser in the Lutoslawski and Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1, and I can sure see and hear what you mean! Definitely a cellist for whom I’ll be keeping an eye out. (I popped the YouTube links in the relevant comment on the previous post here:

  4. shoreacres

    With all of the wonderful musical learning to be had, all of the demonstrations, discussions, and performances: how completely appropriate that you’ve been enjoying them by way of what we might call a MOOC synthesizer!

    I had to smile when I saw string quartets were your subject. I’ve been introduced to some Australians who do a fair job with some interesting music. They’re called Stringspace, and I listen now and then in the evening. When’s the last time you heard a string quartet cover Metallica? Here’s their version of “Nothing Else Matters.”

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: MOOC synthesizer, now that is brilliant! I think it’s safe to say I’ve never heard a string quartet cover of Metallica. The website makes clear they’re hardworking, enterprising musicians. Good on them!

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