Fort Worth — Does the world need a string quartet transcription of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata?
That’s the question I asked myself going into Saturday’s concert of the Amernet String Quartet, presented by the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
I came out of the concert knowing that, indeed, this particular transcription by Jeffery Briggs does what a transcription is supposed to do: adding new understanding to an existing work and expanding the base of musicians and audience-members who have access to the work.
Even more than that, however, as I stepped into the unseasonably warm afternoon, I knew I had heard an ensemble of remarkable precision, musicality, and beauty of tone.
The transcription of the Appassionata was the first item on the agenda, and, from the haunting opening motif—in octaves in the original version for piano but here assigned as a single line for cello--it was obvious that this was a version worth hearing. Briggs’ career as a composer includes a substantial body of original works in the classical tradition (including four string quartets of his own) as well as digital music for popular video games such as Civilization. The Appassionata transcription which premiered Saturday in Fort Worth is part of a monumental project by Briggs titled “The (New) Beethoven Quartets” which will eventually include quartet transcriptions of all 32 of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. The Amernet Quartet is in the process of performing all the transcriptions in concerts at various sites, and will complete its part of the project, which began in March, 2015, in Miami in December, 2019.
If there were such a thing as a sophisticated listener who hadn’t heard the Appassionata Sonata in its original version for piano solo, that listener would assume, on hearing this version, that this was an original work for string quartet. The qualities that a string quartet has that a piano doesn’t include, obviously, the rich vibrato as well as the light pizzicato capabilities of string instruments, as well as the combination of those two effects—all of which were used very effectively in this transcription. Beyond that, the string instruments have, of course, the ability to sustain notes and, thus, to create a singing tone which the piano can simulate, but never actually achieve at the level of a string instrument.
All of which gave the audience Saturday afternoon an entirely new outlook for a work that most music lovers, here in Piano Town, U.S.A. (also known as Fort Worth), have heard numerous times.
The dissonance and unique architecture of Bartók’s Third Quartet, the second item on the program, can, in some performances, be off-putting; the superb precision and insight of this ensemble gave the work a compelling momentum. Each of the four musicians (violinists Misha Vitenson and Franz Felkl, violist Michael Klotz and cellist Jason Calloway) possesses a full, gorgeous tone; violist Klotz in particular produced sit-up-and-listen moments with his full, contralto-like quality.
After intermission, Dvořák’s early Romance Quartet in F minor (more frequently heard in versions for violin and piano and for violin solo and orchestra) provided a lyrical prelude to the second half of the concert. The same composer’s Quartet in D, a worthy reminder of Dvořák’s matchless ability to integrate passionate romanticism into strict classical form, here, allowed the Amernet Quartet to prove itself as capable with Dvořákian warmth as it had been with Bartókian dissonance. The ensemble closed the consistently fine performance with an encore consisting of another radiant romantic work, Hugo Wolf’s sunny Italian Serenade.