The leader of the Kelemen Quartet discusses spontaneity and scales in the first movement of this ‘Rasumovsky’ Quartet. From the January 2018 issue
The Kelemen Quartet first learnt this piece for the Premio Paolo Borciani Competition in Italy in 2014, and we loved it. We had already learnt the other two ‘Rasumovsky’ quartets, so this was the icing on the cake.
As is the case with most quartets from the 18th and 19th centuries, they were not written for professional players: the first full-time performing quartets were only established in the 20th century. Instead, they were played by well-educated music lovers who did it for fun. This approach to chamber music changed in the first half of the 20th century, when professional string quartets began to record LPs. This started to give performances a more clinical, set feel, where everything had to be precise and perfect.
We want to avoid that clinical feel, and to interpret these pieces in the spontaneous, interactive way they would have been played when they were first written. For that reason, we don’t decide exactly what we are going to do in each performance. Instead, we leave space for new, personal ideas to come through, and to react to each other in the moment. This makes it especially important for each player to be on top of their own part before the first rehearsal, so that we can work on musical issues without being held up by technique.
Practise your scales and etudes!
All four parts of this quartet are challenging. The writing is often pianistic and in places, without the other parts to harmonise the lines, the first violin could almost be playing a scale or etude. Once, when I was practising the first violin part of this quartet, around bar 156, László Fenyő, our cellist, walked in and laughed because he thought I was playing an etude. The same mistake could be made in bars 42–43, and 81–82; and bars 236–239, which are easy on the piano but terrible on the violin.
It’s amazing how often Beethoven uses scales for melodies: bars 9–19, for example, are almost completely in step. It’s the same with his ‘Spring’ Sonata: if you started three octaves higher, without register jumps, you could play most of the theme in descending steps.
If you learn your scales, arpeggios and etudes well, Beethoven will never be a problem – but you cannot expect Beethoven to teach you how to play scales! You should have been perfecting them for 15 years before you even attempt this sort of music, in every tonality. This will give you more flexibility when playing repertoire, as well as a more relaxed, free technique, with rounded fingers and thumbs, power and the ability to vibrate.
If you came to me and played Beethoven without rounded thumbs, I would tell you to go back to scales using a slow bow, then to build up the speed gradually and introduce etudes – usually the Twelve Etudes by Rode. After that, practise the same scales and etudes as fast as you can until you have complete control. Then you can come back to Beethoven.
Scales and etudes are also important for practising bow strokes and experimenting with colour. Play closer to the bridge in higher positions, such as in bar 331; for the piano in the following bar, you will need to play further from the bridge. A high note on the G string can sound intimate and personal when played sul tasto.
Dynamics and communication
Emphasise Beethoven’s pianos, and have countless varieties of piano within them – sometimes we forget how many varieties there can be. The same goes for crescendos: experiment by playing them earlier, later and with different shapes, types of vibrato, contact points and bow speeds. Listen to your own voice, and create a sound that is personal to you and your instrument.
For example, there is a piano in bar 21, but no crescendo is marked until bar 26. Sometimes I like to come down even more in bar 24, so that the beginning of the crescendo is very soft and the crescendo itself becomes extra dramatic. Then, in bar 26, my crescendo takes me to sforzato in one and a half bars, all under one slur; after that, within a bar I am back to piano. The other parts do not always move together, and we can’t see a concrete shape for the diminuendo here, so we make our own individual shapes and react to each other on stage, without talking about it. This creates a slightly different effect every time and we love that, because it makes our performances much more spontaneous.
All four of us were at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest together and have known each other for years, so we have similar backgrounds and a similar musical culture. Our second violin and viola players, Gábor Homoki and Katalin Kokas, alternate parts; Gábor was a student of Katalin’s and mine while we were at the school. We know each other so well that we can interact easily in a way that makes a spontaneous approach very exciting for us.
In bar 71, we plan the crescendo a little more carefully: the second violin has moving quavers (f) while I hold one long G, so it sounds better if the second violinist leads the change in dynamic, which sounds ugly if it comes from the first violin.
Make sure you don’t ever crescendo right through to the end of a note or phrase: every crescendo should finish with a tiny diminuendo. For example, at the end of the movement, which crescendos from pianissimo to forte and then fortissimo in the space of two bars, don’t land heavily or unmusically on the final forte or the last chord. That sort of mechanical playing should be reserved for Stockhausen! It is also a good idea, in a string quartet, for the lower strings to lead each crescendo, and for the higher voices to lead the diminuendos, for maximum effect.
Communication is always important in chamber music, particularly in passages such as bars 369–371, where there is a triplet discussion between the first violin and the rest of the ensemble. As a quartet we love to look at each other when we play, but this is never planned. On the other hand, one of our mentors, Péter Komlós, was once told by pianist Annie Fischer that 90 per cent of the time the audience will look at the leader. To counteract this, the first violinist should always look at the player with the leading voice, to indicate which musician the audience should watch!
In string quartet work, often the bow needs to be ready to launch from the string, rather than from above it, so all the players can articulate together. The articulation on the minims (h) of bars 89–90 is very important: these are not staccato marks, but lines to indicate that care must be taken on these notes, and that these should contrast with the minims in the four bars before. They should be played in a way that is rounded, but not long. Lift the bow off the string slightly at the end of each one, and keep the left hand down so that the notes ring. If you are performing in a dry hall you will need to hold them for longer; in a more resonant acoustic, you can make them shorter. Always listen to discover what is best at that moment.
In singing phrases, ‘articulation’ does not mean that the sound should stop. When we speak, often we close our mouths during a word (after the letter ‘m’, for example), but the sound and air still flow through our noses. Similarly, to come off the string should not mean a break in sound – the dynamic and resonance should be sustained over the phrase.
Balance and intonation
Finding the correct balance between parts is incredibly important. If musicians with good ears are playing out of tune in a quartet, it is usually because the player with the most important voice isn’t leading effectively, and the less important voices are too loud. When we realise that and amend it, 80 per cent of the time the intonation problem will be fixed. Why? Because there is always a note in the harmony on which the other parts rely to find their pitch. Often the harmony of the bass parts is very important.
It’s crucial to play from the score when you start to learn a string quartet, to help you identify which voices are the most important in which places. For example, at the beginning of this movement the cello plays the melody, but the fifth note, a C, should not be too much louder than the A in the second-violin accompaniment. The A is the major 3rd of the chord and very important in the key of F major, so it must be heard or the line will be unbalanced – particularly where the tonic occurs too, because the 5th automatically sounds as an overtone. The 3rd should always be louder than the 5th – even if the 5th is in the melody and the 3rd is in the accompaniment.
INTERVIEW BY PAULINE HARDING