by Karl Nehring
Missy Mazzoli: Enthusiasm Strategies; Sean Neukom; 19|20; Beethoven: String Quartet No. 14, op. 131. Beo String Quartet (Jason Neukom, violin; Andrew Giordano, violin; Sean Neukom, viola; Ryan Ash, cello). NeuKraft Records
Beethoven fans will recognize 131 as the opus number of one of the composer’s most beloved creations, his String Quartet in No. 14 in C sharp minor, op. 131, which for most listeners will most likely be the program content that first captures their attention. That certainly seems as though it would be the sole point of giving the album the title 131, n’cest-pas? But as Lee Corso is often heard to exclaim, "not so fast, my friend!" In their liner notes, the Beo Quartet starts off by informing us that 131 is a “Classical Concept Album,” going on to explain that “Our hope is for you to listen to the album in its entirety as if you were in a theatre watching an opera, musical, or motion picture. No matter what style of chamber music we play – the classics, music of living composers, or music inspired by popular genres – we feel that all styles should inform and be informed be one another to help create a story that is unique to Beo.” (A quick aside: kudos to Beo for employing the Oxford comma!) Although listening to a program of music is certain a different kind experience from watching a movie or stage production, further kudos to Beo for making the effort to assemble a program that attempts to present some new music by bringing together new music from the past with new music from the present into one coherent and entertaining whole.
Not long ago we reviewed an album featuring several orchestral works by American composer Missy Mazzoli (see review here), whose brief Enthusiasm Strategies for string quartet opens the program on an energetic if somewhat ambiguous note, for the music seems to convey both optimism and apprehension. Musically, though, it is agreeable and entertaining, an excellent curtain-raiser (to borrow the theatrical analogy). Next up is a work by Beo’s violist, Sean Neukom, titled 19|20. The liner notes by Beo violinist Andrew Giordano explain that the work ”derives its title from COVID-19 and 2020 – the event and the year that may have changed the direction of humanity and certainly altered the trajectory of the arts and artists.” His notes further reveal that “it is a four-movement work with additional pre-recorded material, and when performed live, includes video projection and staging.” As you might expect from that description, 19|20 (its four movements are titled I. Screens, II. Masks, III. Deception, IV. Ashes) is a fairly complex, serious-sounding quartet, hardly the sort of thing you would throw on to hum along with while dusting your shelves or watering your plants. But that is not to say it is forbiddingly harsh or unrelentingly dark, which it is not. Would it be more enjoyable to be able to see the video projection and staging? Most likely. But the music can stand on its own. Remember, after all, recordings are not live performances. Even if 19|20 did not have a visual element associated with it, we’d still most likely prefer seeing the Beo Quartet performing the music rather than just hearing them.
The program then concludes with the ostensible title piece of the album, Beethoven’s beloved String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, op. 131, which he composed in the years 1825-26. Can it really have been almost 200 years ago? Of this piece, Giordano writes, “the culmination of this classical concept album is Beethoven’s powerful and forward-looking Opus 131 quartet, cast in seven movements and played without pause. The somber and depressive opening fugue of Op. 131 can be heard as grief from all the tragedy depicted in 19|20.” Recordings of this quartet are as numerous as the dandelions in my spring lawn, and devoted fans of Beethoven’s chamber music no doubt have their favorite versions. In my own collection, for example, I have collections of the late quartets by the Emerson, Takács, Tokyo, and Yale quartets. But the point of this release is not for the Beo’s version of Op. 131 to displace any of those other recordings, but rather to put Op. 131 in a fresh context and program it with two modern works in an effort to give the listener not only an opportunity to hear two new compositions but also to hear Op. 131 in a different setting – perhaps then to gain if not a new understanding but at least a refreshed appreciation for Beethoven’s music.
I auditioned the CD version, but the album is also available for streaming at sources such as Spotify, Amazon, Qobuz, and Apple Music. In terms of sound quality, I did a comparison to the Emerson recording on DG and found the Beo recording on NeuKraft to be warmer and fuller, better balanced tonally, and just more natural-sounding. Overall, then, 131 is a nice-sounding recording of an interesting program of highly original and imaginative music, some of which, believe it or not, dates from nearly 200 years ago – but don’t let that age factor put you off.