It’s hard to talk about Beethoven without using the word “great.”
“When things are great, they’re just great,” said Jonathan Miller, artistic director of the Boston Artists Ensemble. “Beethoven is among the very greatest of all composers—period—and also among the greatest composers of string quartets.”
Its hard for Miller to compare one work by Beethoven with another, because that might imply that all of his music isn’t equally great.
But when it comes to evaluating Opus 31 in C Sharp Minor, which Boston Artists Ensemble will play tomorrow night along with a string quartet by Bela Bartok, Miller can refer to the master himself.
“It was Beethoven’s favorite that he wrote,” he said. “We know that he considered it his best one.”
Miller likes Opus 31 in C Sharp Minor just as much as Beethoven did.
“It’s a fantastic work which has five movements,” he said. “It flows from one to the other, it has no stops, it just evolves. He’s working all the movements simultaneously.”
Miller is pleased to be playing these works in Hamilton Hall, where the ensemble started appearing this fall, after 23 years at Peabody Essex Museum.
“The acoustics are much better at Hamilton Hall,” he said. “You don’t want too many reflections, but you want a little bit.”
The rudiments of good acoustics are wooden floors, high ceilings and plaster walls, Miller said, features that Hamilton Hall shares with Symphony Hall in Boston, where he has been playing for more than 40 years.
“It’s perfect for chamber music,” he said.
The formal demands of string quartets tend to bring the best out of composers, including Beethoven and Bartok.
“Usually composers make their string quartets their greatest works, because it requires so much economy,” Miller said. “Every note has to count. If you write a symphony, you can double up strings and stuff.”
Recent scholarship has revealed that there are subtle differences between three different scores for the Beethoven quartet.
“In the first movement the cello comes in with a note that, instead of a D sharp, it’s a D natural, and it makes tremendous dissonance,” Miller said. “When I played it, the first violinist grimaced because he’d never heard it before.”
Though Miller liked the D natural better, the manuscript evidence supported the D sharp, which the other players preferred.
What finally makes Beethoven’s Opus 131 in C Sharp Minor great is that, in addition to its technical skill, the work delivers a powerful message.
“What makes it beautiful is the depth of human feeling of it,” Miller said. “The depth and the nobility and how painfully happy and joyous and tragic the sentiment is, which puts it among the greatest creations of mankind.”
No degrees of greatness
Bartok wrote six string quartets, compared to Beethoven’s 16, and they are also widely admired.
“People have said of them, he was the first to equal Beethoven in his quartet writing,” Miller said. “I don’t like to talk degrees of greatness, because everyone has to discover the music for themselves.”
Bartok lived roughly a century later than Beethoven, but there are points of comparison between their two quartets.
“The general idea is the motifs start and, like a bridge going up, they keep developing back toward the original material, and it’s all connected,” Miller said. “In Bartok he begins with a little solo with a different instrument each time.
“In Beethoven that doesn’t happen, but each motif is connected.”
As artistic director for the ensemble, Miller chooses the music they will play, and the order in which they play it.
“Originally we thought we would start with Beethoven, and then play Bartok,” he said. “This Bartok is a very dark work, although it has burlesque elements.
“But we feel nothing could be played after Beethoven.”
Miller also chooses the musicians who will play in each concert, and they vary depending on what is being played.
For tomorrow’s concert, Miller will be joined by Peter Zazofsky and Bayla Keyes on violins, and violist Kathryn Lockwood.
“These people have played in other quartets, so it’s cross-fertilizing other traditions,” he said. “The two violinists are in the Muir Quartet. The violist is now in the Lark Quartet, and before that was in the Pacifica Quartet — that’s rather famous now.
“I wouldn’t want to play a piece exactly this deep without having that kind of roots in the people I’m working with.”
If you go
What: Boston Artists Ensemble, playing Bartok String Quartet No. 6 and Beethoven String Quartet in C sharp minor, Opus 131
When: Friday, Jan. 16 at 8 p.m.
Where: Hamilton Hall, 9 Chestnut St., Salem
Information: Tickets $27 general admission, $24 for seniors 65 and over and students with valid ID at www.bostonartistsensemble.org