Climbing Everest seems relatively simple compared with what Philadelphia's Daedalus Quartet faces in playing all 16 Beethoven string quartets.
After a certain point with Beethoven, there is no trail, no map, and only a few distorted points of reference. And then, near the summit? "Some of the craziest music ever written," says Daedalus violinist Min-Young Kim, whose ensemble has now played two of eight concerts in a series that this fall brings the Beethoven quartets — plus accompanying lectures and even a full-length play — to numerous venues on the University of Pennsylvania campus.
The "crazy" she's talking about the Grosse Fuge, a late Beethoven pieces that seems at the edge of human imagination, with the quartet's four linear voices rigorously ordered but simultaneously launching guerrilla warfare with one another. "You have a piece that's on the border of chaos, at least for the first few minutes," Kim said. "But it has almost everything in it — a slow, lyrical section and an incredibly triumphant end. I love playing it."
And the rest of the journey? The already-performed first two concerts, last Sunday and this past Tuesday, set the tone for what's to come.
Though the Daedalus cycle is thought to be the first played by a single group in a single season in Philadelphia, Beethoven string quartets are ever-present here, often played by the best quartets in the world, mostly brought in by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. Against steep comparisons, Daedalus more than held its own on Sunday. Formed in 2000 at the Marlboro Music Festival, the quartet represents a very different generation than the Promethean hit-the-molten-core-at-any-cost playing that came out of that chamber-music crucible the 1970s and 80s.
With Daedalus, tone isn't forced. Using little or no vibrato, the group achieves air-tight blends. Beethoven's slow introductions to The Big Idea, which can seem like throat-clearing, are an essential part of Daedalus interpretations. When the music starts ricocheting between thoughts, there's more continuity than explosivity.
In its current lineup (including Kim, violinist Matilda Kaul, violist Jessica Thompson and cellist Thomas Kraines), Daedalus is more like the music's prism than its messenger. The group has yet to achieve a distinctive sound, and some of the passage work is smudged. But Daedalus does what visiting quartets cannot — employ the larger community to help elucidate Beethoven.
With the contacts and partnerships that Daedalus has made as Penn's resident string quartet, the group expanded its Beethoven concerts to include larger discussions. Tuesday's program at Kelly Writer's House had local poets with work inspired by the Beethoven quartets. On Oct. 13 at the Penn Smilow Center for Translational Research, the infamous Grosse Fuge will be heard alongside a lecture by Yale Cohen, director of the Hearing Sciences Center at Penn Medicine, regarding Beethoven's deafness — one of the most fateful disabilities in cultural history.
Never the best-socialized person in 19th-century Vienna, Beethoven grew increasingly isolated — his career as a piano virtuoso becoming impossible — and the music he wrote in complete aural isolation is like nothing else by him or anyone else. Nobody agrees on what caused his deafness, though one recent theory suggested that deterioration of his skull crushed his auditory nerves. In addition, Beethoven was hardly immune to other difficulties of human existence. His troubled nephew Karl attempted suicide while in the composer's care, and claimed Beethoven drove him to it.
The purely musical noon Oct. 20 concert at the Arthur Ross Gallery, featuring String Quartets Nos. 6 and 7 (respectively Op. 18 No. 6 and Op. 59, No. 1), illustrates how Daedalus contrasts the composer's three creative periods. Though the two quartets here follow each other chronologically, they're a world apart. The earlier one (in a collection written between 1798 and 1800) soaks up influences from Haydn and Mozart with more muscle but less charm.
In some of these earlier quartets, Beethoven seems incapable of expressing his inner self. Beginning with his five middle-period quartets, written between 1805 and 1810, he could do nothing else. Every piece was a new adventure — or, if you believe his contemporaries, a new catastrophe.
The final quartets, written between 1823 and 1826, are works of torment, isolation, and spiritual serenity. The largest among them, the seven-movement, 40-minute String Quartet No. 14 Op 131, arrives as the Feb. 4 concert and illustrates how music from this creative period truly exists out of time. If it's futuristic, its future hasn't happened yet. Beethoven truly went places no other composer could, or is likely to.
Audiences might tire of the more over-exposed Beethoven symphonies, but Op. 131 is so fathomless as to be a distinctively different experience with each hearing. Kim admits that the Daedalus interpretations will probably always be provisional: "This is our vision of the piece right now."
Daedalus is gamely playing Op. 131 alongside a staged reading of the Michael Holliger play Opus, which premiered at the Arden Theatre in 2006. In contrast, that play does exist in time. The story revolves around a string quartet that has been invited to perform at the White House and daringly decides upon Op. 131.
That might not seem so farfetched in the Obama era. But violinist Kim believes that Daedalus in the White House "would look really bad to the current administration's constituency."
But just for fun, what music would she play were she asked? "We'd play a shorter selection," she says, "and a piece that's about climate change." Beethoven never got around to that one.
The Daedalus Quartet's Beethoven cycle continues as follows: