· By Nicholas Stevens

Exchanges of Energy: Calidore String Quartet Plays Late Beethoven

The last string quartets of Beethoven rank among his most thrilling, and have challenged musicians and listeners for over two centuries. Music writer Theodor Adorno saw their sudden changes of pace and mood as points where the fire of Beethoven's personality glowed through the remnants of classical style. To record them is no casual undertaking.

Enter the Calidore String Quartet. Already several albums into a meteoric career, with releases for Signum Classics spanning from Romantic to contemporary fare, the distinguished rising ensemble embarked on a collective journey that will unfold over multiple volumes: a Beethoven cycle. Volume 1 covers the late quartets. ArkivMusic brought the group together to ask what inner flames drive them.


ArkivMusic: You explain in the notes for the album why you embarked on this Beethoven cycle with Signum Classics in the wake of the pandemic. Why did you start with the late quartets?

Ryan Meehan, violin: The Late Quartets, like many of the pinnacles in the canon, have an unwritten rule that a performer cannot do justice to the work until they are of a certain age (usually mid-life or later). But it was impressed upon us, by our mentors (the great string quartet players of the 20th century: Alban Berg, Guarneri, Emerson), that we should incorporate them into our repertoire early in our career. Because with these works, perhaps more than any other, one can only fully develop in their interpretation through years of communicating them with an audience.

The revolutionary style of expression, from the most vulnerable and intimate to outrageous and startling, can, and should be, practiced and rehearsed. But this exchange of energy from Beethoven through the quartet, can only come to life through experienced communication with a live audience. From a practical point of view, these works are some of the most structurally and technically demanding in the repertoire. Therefore, they must be internalized at an early stage of a quartet’s development, to cultivate the endurance and presence of mind to execute these exceptionally challenging scores.

By beginning our journey with these late quartets almost ten years ago, we have been able to find a freedom and ease in the expression that can only come from years of studying, performing and returning to these works. These works are also the most revolutionary in the entire cycle. They are the works that truly broke the mold and launched Western Classical Music into an entirely new era and style of expression. We believe in the enduring relevance of Beethoven’s works for the string quartet. Launching our recording of the cycle with the late quartets most strongly asserts this notion.

AM: Your previous albums straddled eras, ranging from the Romantic era to the recent past. Many of the living composers you’ve worked with, from Caroline Shaw and Mark-Anthony Turnage to Anna Clyne, wear a fondness for canonic rep—including Beethoven!—on their sleeves. What sort of balance between old and new are you hoping to strike?

Jeffrey Myers, violin: In our eyes, it is impossible to have one without the other. Without the old, the new wouldn’t exist, and without the new, our interpretations of the old repertoire would risk becoming stale. One fantastic example of this is the Große Fuge. Though this piece was written centuries ago, it remains in some ways, just as modern as when it was first written.

AM: The late quartets are difficult to play on both individual, technical levels and as a group—yet with the luminous first chords of Op. 127 it’s clear that you are locked in! How did it feel to transcend those challenges and achieve that togetherness as so much of the world was in isolation?

Estelle Choi, cello: As a quartet, we spent nearly four months apart from one another before the summer of 2020, so when we all came back to rehearsals it was with a renewed appreciation for music making. Not having each other's sounds surrounding us for so long, our ears were even more sensitive coming back together, which makes for excellent recording preparation. The time apart also allowed us to listen back to many of our previous live performances and both appreciate what we accomplished and look for new ways to interpret repertoire.

Being glued to screens to reach our audiences had its advantages as I found myself studying my performances, looking for ways to further strengthen my technique and examining any idiosyncrasies that I've developed. As we were deciding what our first recording would be, we were acutely aware of how fortunate we were to be able to come together as a quartet and immediately thought of the incredibly triumphant impact of the opening of Op. 127 as a way of celebrating both our reunion and the beginning of our Beethoven cycle recording project.

AM: It’s been a tough few years to be a musician – especially a chamber player. Audiences and artists alike love the format in part for its intimate connection and nonverbal communication. What would you say to all the peers and listeners out there who may be wondering about the future?

Jeremy Berry, viola: The last few years have been extremely difficult for musicians as well as audiences! We are extremely grateful that over the pandemic many concert presenters instead of cancelling concerts allowed us to submit a recorded performance for their audiences. This was an important step for both musician and audience to have sustainability. However, over time we as a quartet began to feel a void in our music making that only creating live music in front of an in-person audience can fill.

A chamber music concert is an intimate interaction between musicians and audience after which the audience gets to take home a unique experience that only those present that night get to have. Just as the musicians inspire the audience, we feel inspired in a different way in front of every audience and it can greatly affect the way that we perform.

AM: Please describe one moment in your recording sessions that stands out in your memory. It could be a breakthrough, the moment something clicked, an overcoming of doubt, a sudden insight, an unexpected emotional response to the music – anything.

Jeremy: An unexpected surprise for me during our recording sessions was during our recording of the Große Fuge. Going into the session I found the prospect very daunting! A whole day of recording a movement of that historic magnitude, with stresses physically as well as mentally trying to stay focused amidst the chaos of the music. On that day of recording, however, I could feel that we were all exhilarated to be there in the moment creating the music together throughout the whole day.

This is one of the great challenges of any recording session with so many starts, stops, and do-overs in the playing. Keeping the music inspired and energized as if performing for an audience over six or more hours of playing can be a great challenge!

Estelle: Having microphones pointed at you while you're performing is rarely a comfortable thing for me. You can feel like you are under a microscope and that every pore and blemish is being examined. I went into the recordings thinking that I would need to repeatedly remind myself that I was performing for an audience and to have the same passion and abandon that I would exhibit in concert. In reality, I was surprised to find that I didn't need those reminders and that having three incredible friends on stage performing with me and a fantastic producer listening in the booth were more than enough to inspire me and encourage me to take risks as I do in live concerts.

Being able to record in the beautiful Gore Recital Hall at the University of Delaware was also instrumental in creating the spontaneity and the live experience.

Jeffrey: This recording project has been filled with countless memories, but one of my strongest memories is the process of finding the sound for the recording. This project has been something I’ve been dreaming of since I was a young child and you want everything to be just right. After a few different set ups, we finally found a sound that captured our instruments in a way that we were all satisfied with, and we were ready to begin our journey. It has been a wild ride and one that I will never forget.

Ryan: No one particular memory stands out, but rather a general impression and sense of gratitude. We had never embarked upon a recording project of this magnitude before, and we quickly realized that none of it would be possible without the incredible ears, spirit and encouragement of our producer Judith Sherman. She is the fifth element that you will hear on these discs. A legendary professional who loves and cherishes these works as much as we do and is keenly attuned and devoted to what we are trying to accomplish.

Recording can at times feel difficult without a live audience with which to communicate. But these sessions were never bogged down by that feeling of isolation, because Judy always knew exactly how to keep our energy and expression channeled in every moment of making music to the microphones!

Discover Calidore String Quartet's fine recordings today!
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