Beethoven's 16 string quartets are the Everest of the quartet medium. Ensembles have always been intrigued by these pieces and have felt challenged to conquer them, especially the middle and late works.
Quartets know it's a test of their talent and mettle to perform the entire body in a marathon session of successive concerts.
The Fry Street Quartet is preparing to perform the set as a cycle at Utah State University, where they are the quartet-in-residence.
The quartets will be played in a series of six concerts spanning two weeks. The first three concerts take place this Thursday through Saturday. The final three are Oct. 9-11. In addition, an hour before each concert, noted Beethoven researcher Robert Winter will give a lecture discussing that night's music.
Playing the entire set is a massive undertaking, Rebecca McFaul, the quartet's second violinist, told the Deseret News.
"It's the hardest thing we've ever done," she said in a phone interview. "This is testing us in every way. It's testing our technical skills, our ensemble skills, our interpretive skills and our interpersonal skills. It's building us in a way that carrying two or three different (concert) programs doesn't do."
What makes Beethoven's quartets difficult and at the same time so irresistible?
"Every single Beethoven quartet is its own world," McFaul said. "Thematically and harmonically, they're much more demanding (than other chamber works from the 19th century). Schubert's quartets are also very hard, but for a different reason. Both are similar in density, but Schubert writes in long arches, and it is difficult maintaining the scope of a work. But with Beethoven, there are these jagged little motives popping up, which makes it challenging."
Beethoven's oeuvre is conveniently divided into three chronological periods. The quartets span his entire creative life and offer succinct insight into his development as a composer.
"You can really see how he changed through his quartets, especially when they're performed as a cycle," McFaul said. "In his (early) op. 18 quartets, you get glimpses of his late style. In his middle quartets, you can see him feeling himself king of the world. And in the late quartets, he's no longer interested in the world he's interested in the universe."
Programming these quartets can be approached in several different ways, but the Fry Street Quartet with two exceptions decided to include one quartet from each period in their programs.
"There is so much variety in these quartets," McFaul said. "Doing it this way allows us to follow a basically traditional concert model having something from the classical, modern and romantic periods."
The quartets from Beethoven's late period are, in many ways, his most profound statements in the medium. They are novel in concept and structure and frequently baffling.
"He is utterly original and innovative here," McFaul said. "They mystified contemporary audiences and were dismissed as the musical rantings of a composer who had long before gone deaf. They were misunderstood then, and they still are misunderstood today. They remain modern to our ears today."
One work that has bewildered audiences and musicians since it was written more than 180 years ago is the "Grosse Fuge" ("Great Fugue"). Originally written as the closing movement of the Quartet in B flat major, op. 130, it was deemed too difficult to play and impossible to understand. So Beethoven obliged his critics and composed a different, lighter, finale for the work.
When it is performed, which isn't frequently, the "Grosse Fuge," is usually done as a separate work, and quartets normally play the op. 130 with the second ending. The Fry Street foursome have decided to take a different route. They will play the op. 130 twice, on Oct. 10 and 11, first with the later finale, then with the "Grosse Fuge" ending.
"Each ending is a very different experience," McFaul said. "The first and last movements of the op. 130 are pillars and I believe the quartet works better with the fugue you come out of the Cavatina, which is so personal and uncharacteristically short for Beethoven, and then burst out into the forte opening of the fugue. These are two extremes, and it's so effective."
The group recently recorded a CD with the op. 130 with the fugue ending, together with the C minor Quartet, op. 18, no. 4. It will be available for purchase at the concerts. McFaul hopes that this will be the first of the complete cycle.
"We're recording the concerts, and we'll master them," she said. "Then we'll figure out what we are going to do with them."
Of the four members of the Fry Street Quartet, only first violinist William Fedkenheuer has performed the complete quartets. That was when he was with the Borromeo Quartet.
For the other three members McFaul, violist Russell Fallstad and cellist Anne Francis this is a new experience, even though the Fry Street have had most of the Beethoven quartets in their repertoire for years. "We've spent the last two years systematically filling in the holes," McFaul said.
She added that the group felt they were at the right point in their careers to take on the complete quartets. "Will has been with us for a little over two years now, and we as a quartet have just turned 10. We wanted a project to focus our efforts on, and nothing else focuses you more acutely than this."
If you go
What: Fry Street Quartet
Where: Performance Hall, Utah State University
When: Thursday-Saturday and Oct. 9-11, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $7.50-$20