These 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.
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!)
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.