My Favourite Bar (of Music)

cbgbsPA180610The other day we were discussing programming with a string quartet and one of them asked ‘So which Beethoven should we do?’ I blurted out ‘The Harp!’, and the musicians and my artistic director turned as one to look at me, and said equally bluntly, ‘Why?’

Because it’s awesome. Because I adore it with a desperate undying passion. It’s brilliantly written, so clever, the compositional technique is crystal clear and the emotional impact is stunning. If you’ve never heard it I’m probably setting you up to say ‘Is that all?’ when you do, of course.

But then I sat there thinking ‘Actually, I really love just 40 seconds of it. Maybe they can play me that 40 seconds on my birthday and then they can play whatever else they want for the concert.’

It’s about 8’27 to 9’08 in the first movement, and essentially it’s just a crescendo. Here’s the Alban Berg Quartet playing it live.

My only criticism is the viola is slightly underbalanced in this recording (microphone placement), but otherwise I think it’s my favourite version on YouTube – and believe me, I’ve heard them all. And they say women don’t get obsessed with work?

If you’re interested, you can find the score here.

The bit I’m referring to begins 42 bars before the end of the first movement. The first violin goes nuts with semiquavers, which gradually get more intense and showy. Underneath it the other three parts are quietly plucking upwards arpeggios (one of the reasons this quartet got its nickname ‘Harp’). The cello keeps going with that idea; the first violin sticks with its busy semiquavers idea; and in the middle, the second violin and the viola ‑ out of nowhere ‑ have this tiny, beautiful, imitative duet which culminates in a resolved suspension, a chord that crunches then releases, that is possibly my favourite bar of Beethoven ever. Big call I know. ‘Ode to Joy’ is no slouch either, etc, etc.

But that’s how much I like this bit. The counterpoint is PERFECT. Like the best Mozart opera ensemble, you can hear what everyone’s saying at the same time. For a while the first violin steals the foreground; then your attention switches to the cello; then just as you realise what the inner parts are doing, and how you want to listen to that because it’s so gorgeous, they’re through it and you’re left saying ‘But I want to hear that again…’

I’ll save my other Favourite Chamber Music Minute for another post (Dvorák). But feel free to share your own obsessions, if only to make me feel I’m not alone.

Katherine Kemp
Director of Artistic Planning, Concerts


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Welcome to Musica Viva’s International Concert Season blog. Here you can follow and read more about our wonderful touring artists.

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