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March 14, 2000

The Kocian Quartet - unity amid diversity

A Review by Pat and Ernie Pinson

The Mobile Chamber Music Society certainly upheld its reputation for sterling quality in the latest performance given by the Czech Kocian Quartet, Feb. 19. These four men make great music together and their reputation as "the finest of the new wave of quartets established in the long Czech tradition" is well deserved. Although they usually feature Czech literature, this was an all Beethoven program -- and late Beethoven at that.

It used to be said that it took a courageous quartet -- and a courageous audience -- to do the last Beethoven quartets. I still remember the days when a befurred member of the Richmond Va. concert society huffily walked out in the middle of the Grosse Fugue muttering about the assault to her ears. But that was not the case with the Mobile audience on this Sunday in 2000. The seamless artistry of the quartet made the sometimes disjunct and fugal music flow in a powerful stream of intensity. They did not play against each other or make the listener focus on the striving of certain sections, but moved as a textured statement of chromatic exploration vs. sonorous statement, of eruptions of running passages in the midst of a quiet, slower tempo.

In these quartets, there is much written about the tension, tearing asunder, and sacrifice of beauty. And the listener does indeed hear all of this. They often seem to be microcosms of extremes and therefore, of tremendous tensions. In some measures, there is a change of dynamic on almost every note. But then, there will be a fleeting, beautiful theme or a beautiful Cavatina-like dance to give you respite and a glimpse through the clouds.

Beethoven often places the theme in an inner voice -- the viola and second violin share equally with the outer violin and cello parts, and often all four parts lie in close range. This quartet made such passages sound organ-like, all the sounds were so evenly matched and synchronous. The very long sustained sound in the slow movement of Op. 132 could have been disastrous because they seem to go on forever. But there was no boredom here -- the Kocian made every note breathe and vibrate with life.

These quartets moves us away from the more traditional hearing of long, spun-out melodies soaring over the three lower voices and Beethoven modifies the traditional sonata form from four movements to five, six or even seven movements. Op. 132, which was played second on the program, was actually written before Op. 130, which began the program, but the latter is more demanding. The Kocian programmed the Grosse Fugue (Op. 133) in its original place -- as the last movement of Op. 130. This movement seems to make the whole quartet more like a fantasy and fugue because it is so strident, so unrelenting, and long. But they, again, carried it off beautifully, leaving themselves and the audience wrung out. One doesn't stand on the top of Everest and ask for another 1000 feet to climb.

Such a concert is an unusual opportunity for an audience. It gives you the chance to experience some of the deepest and most exploratory thoughts of a great artist. Often those thoughts are not just pretty, they are beautiful -- and all great beauty contains some ugliness. And with this glimpse into greatness, we are pulled to new heights. The audience seemed aware and appreciative of this quest and gave the quartet a deserved ovation. They responded with a very songful, more traditional encore from the same time. We loved it! And bravos to the Mobile Chamber Society for such excellent programming.

The Harbinger