BARTÓK; BEETHOVEN; DEBUSSY String Quartets
This disc is a sort of 10th-anniversary gift from the Benyounes Quartet to themselves: a programme of three works with which, apparently, they ‘feel a particularly strong connection’. Ten years: does that make them a novice group or a well-established one? There’s certainly not the smallest trace of overfamiliarity or routine about these three interpretations. The whole disc is charged with an energy and a sense of excited discovery that I found immensely engaging.
And if you begin in the middle, with the Beethoven, you’ll hear it right away – the breathless verve and the terrific bite (listen to the black-toothed rasp of Kim Vaughan’s cello) with which they launch into this super-concentrated masterpiece. From the explosive opening to the needlepoint hilarity of that astonishing, scurrying F major final coda, the Benyounes never let up: dynamic contrasts are bold and characterisation is larger than life. That spirit seems to filter out across the whole disc into the Bartók and Debussy quartets that surround it. Even in the tenderest moments (and they handle Debussy’s slow movement with exquisite control) there’s no loss in tension. Everything here feels alert and vibrantly alive.
And yet there’s nothing raw or undercooked in these interpretations. From the rapturous way Zara Benyounes’s violin crests the first climax of the Bartók to the almost improvisatory ebb and flow of the first movement of the Beethoven, these are readings which – however fresh – are born of deep familiarity with the score and a corresponding trust between the four players. A couple of tiny smudges to passagework or intonation are a small price to pay for such life-affirming playing: if this was a live performance I suspect I’d be raving about it for days afterwards.