This past weekend the Ciompi Quartet took on one of the greatest challenges for a string quartet, a marathon of all of Beethoven’s late quartets (Op. 127, 132, 130 & 133, 131, and 135 in order of composition). The marathon took place in an evening and afternoon performances of the five quartets and an afternoon performance and lecture on Op.133, the Grosse Fuge (which we were, unfortunately, unable to attend). Not only is this a difficult and exhausting feat – even if it is spread over three concerts – but it also requires extensive and equally exhausting preparation. The performances’ strengths and weaknesses reflected some of the hurdles that must be overcome.

The late quartets are in a class by themselves with respect to Beethoven’s overall output. Written between 1824 and 1826, they come as a culmination of all that the composer had developed over his career, as well as an indication of the new direction he might have taken had he lived. While they are one of the mainstays of the literature today, they are quirky pieces, full of new ideas and experiments, and were not well received in their own time. They contain unusual harmonic shifts, abrupt tempo changes and wide mood swings, all requiring the performers to conceptualize each of these sometimes untidy pieces as a cohesive entity. They demand that the performers ask themselves both: “What is Beethoven trying to convey?” and, perhaps more importantly: “What do we want to convey with this music?” There is certainly no definitive reading of these quartets and the frequently difficult interpretive issues combine with equally difficult technical ones.

In Saturday’s and Sunday’s concerts, the Ciompi decided to perform the quartets in order of their composition. The first, Op. 127, is the oddest (some people say “experimental’) and, in our opinion, the most difficult to make sense of with its shifting tempi, indeterminate mood and unexpected modulations into distant keys. Competing for rehearsal time with its more popular and grander mates, it seems to have ranked lowest on the Ciompi’s priority list. First violinist Eric Pritchard had serious intonation problems throughout the piece, and the rest of the Quartet never seemed to sound unified. Rather, their rehearsal energy seems to have been concentrated in the slow movement of Op. 132, one of the most intense utterings of an already intense composer. The challenge here is to maintain the tremendous emotional intensity while playing piano the movement’s slow, sustained chord progressions that should make the listener feel completely drained by the end of it. This movement was beyond doubt the highlight of the evening, although the rest of Op.132 also fared quite well.

Sunday’s concert was a mini-marathon in and of itself. The three quartets, Op. 130, 131 and 135, reflect a steady increase in confidence on the part of the composer – and apparently on the part of the performers as well. They struggled with Op.130, with its intense Cavatina, somehow never seeming at ease with it, although the intonation problems of the previous evening largely disappeared. The entire work seemed, if anything, over-interpreted and belabored. For example, the alla danza tedesca movement lost its flow, with little pauses before each cadence, making it sound like a dance with hiccups.

It was with Op.131, structurally the most unconventional of the lot, that the Ciompi really hit their stride. They were clearly more confident with this work and their performance was exciting. They really cut loose, including all the humor in the presto as pitted against the sudden despair of the following adagio.

The same held for the last of the lot, Op.135, a much more traditional work. Although the members of the quartet must have been exhausted by that time, the somber opening and subsequent drastic shift in mood of the last movement came off with intensity and excitement to spare.

So why were these performances so uneven? One possible answer is that, as a resident quartet who does only limited touring, the Ciompi continually has to work on new pieces without the luxury of taking out these Beethoven masterpieces, steadily and repeatedly working them until they have become second nature.