The truth emerges when Beethoven is turned upside-down

The Vanbrugh Quartet’s unusual approach played up the contrast between early and late Beethoven

Order matters. Just ask yourself when you last began a meal with a dessert. Language has peculiarities that are not immediately obvious. There’s no real difference between “apples and oranges” and “oranges and apples”. But there’s quite a lot between “he took a run and jumped in the river” and “he jumped in the river and took a run”.

So it’s perfectly obvious why order matters. And it certainly makes a difference when it comes to creating concert programmes. The cliche for an orchestral concert is to have an overture followed by a concerto followed by a symphony. The cliche for most every other type of concert is to follow a chronological path: Bach before Mozart, Beethoven before Liszt, Debussy before Shostakovich. There are other considerations, of course. A work long enough to take up half a concert is usually placed after the interval. And the practicalities of stage management can on any occasion overrule all other considerations.

Overturned order was key to the Vanbrugh Quartet's new cycle of the Beethoven String Quartets, which started at the National Concert Hall's refurbished Kevin Barry Room on Sunday afternoon. The Vanbrugh shied away from the purely chronological sequence that, for instance, John O'Conor has favoured when performing a cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas. And they moved away from the early- middle-late sequence with which they opened the cycle of the quartets they performed for their 25th anniversary in 2010.

Instead, they began at the end, in the middle of the 1820s, with the Quartet in E flat, Op 127, jumped back to the Quartet in F, Op 18 No 1, from 1899, and then forward to 1806 and the Quartet in C, Op 59 No 3. The effect was to make the earlier works, even the probing slow movement of Op 18 No 1, seem almost lightweight compared with a piece of which Basil Lam wrote that “the difficulty of comprehension is to come to terms not so much with extreme complexity as with a blinding simplicity”.

To be sure, the Vanbrugh’s approach to late Beethoven had something to do with the extent of the contrast. Each of the four players seemed so taken with his own part as to want to project it into the foreground rather than stand back and yield to a colleague. Density ruled.

It was actually the more laid-back approach to the performance of the earlier works that I found more persuasive, but there’s no doubting that the extremity of the distance between early and late Beethoven would not have stood out so sharply had conventional order been followed.

When the Kevin Barry Room was formally opened a couple of weeks ago, the conventional layout of the room was turned through 90 degrees, with the performers placed along the inner long wall rather than one of the short walls. The Kevin Barry Room is part of a suite of rooms, with doors taking up most of the space on the separating walls.

The new arrangement has the advantage of almost halving the maximum distance between performer and listener, heightening the intimacy of an already intimate venue. That’s a serious benefit in a space that has always been on the dry side for music. The opening concert had the connecting doors open, and, very embarrassingly for all present, this allowed the sound of chirruping birds to penetrate from the world outside. No one seems to have thought that the outer rooms might need some soundproofing too. Happily, on Sunday, with the doors closed, there were no problems of this kind.

The Webern challenge

The RTÉ NSO also engages in programming adventures, with late-night chamber music sometimes following on their orchestral performances. On Friday Alan Buribayev’s sonically spectacular performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony was followed by the RTÉ Contempo Quartet in two early works by Webern, the ardently romantic Slow Movement and the Five Movements Op 5, some of the most intricately condensed music of its time.

I couldn’t help thinking about Mahler’s reaction to an earlier string quartet by Webern’s teacher, Schoenberg. “I have conducted the most difficult scores of Wagner,” said Mahler. “I have written complicated music myself in scores of up to 30 staves and more; yet here is a score of not more than four staves, and I am unable to read them.”

Neither the Contempo Quartet nor Friday’s listeners seemed fazed by the challenges of Webern. In fact, the audience was as large as any string quartet can expect to attract anywhere in the country.


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