Beethoven Complete String Quartets
To record a cycle of Beethoven quartets is clearly a major project for any group. Apart from the sheer extent of the music, these works still remain challenging, in technical and interpretative terms, nearly 200 years after they were written. The Emerson Quartet are formidably equipped to meet these challenges, with their exceptional internal balance, technical polish, rhythmic poise and mature, thoughtful approach to the music. The players are quite outstanding, I think, in the fast music – it’s difficult to imagine more joyful, exciting accounts of many of the final movements – the first three of Op. 18, for instance, or all three
Some aspects of the playing style pleased me less. The Emerson, in their admirable desire to be faithful to the composer’s intentions, do sometimes take Beethoven’s expression marks too literally. In the opening fugue of Op. 131, for instance, the crescendo and sforzando that comes with every statement of the subject sound exaggerated. In the Alban Berg Quartet’s beautiful performance the increase in sound is less prominent, the sf more expressive, so that we experience, not the expression mark as such, but rather the pain that lies behind the music’s apparent serenity. Another example of this kind of exaggeration comes in the opening Allegro of Op. 59 No. 1, where the swells indicated to give expressive prominence to groups of notes are performed with excessive suddenness, making for a gushing, slightly seasick feeling. And there were quite a few places where I found myself wishing for less vibrato, and a stronger feeling of the smooth legato line. In the Cavatina of Op. 130, for example, or the Lento of Op. 135, the Italians achieve greater intensity of expression by persuading us to feel the shape of each phrase, the vibrato providing no more than an emotional colouring. You may be less concerned by this than I am – what’s certain is that the Emerson regulate their vibrato very consciously so that, for example, the meditative serenity of the Song of Thanksgiving in Op. 132 is superbly maintained through the purity of sound.
A most impressive series of recordings, then, and the recording quality, clear and intimate, with just enough reverberation to bring out the quality of each instrument’s sound, is equally fine. But is this the version to prefer above all others? The Alban Berg Quartet, recorded at concert performances, bring a sense of occasion and immediacy, with greater freedom and spontaneity of expression. They’re especially good in the more dance-like pieces – the second movement of Op. 132, the Alla Danza Tedesca in Op. 130, the Scherzo of Op. 59 No. 2, and other places where gracefulness or wit are needed. But their expressiveness tends to be very overt, heart-on-sleeve, so that the more profound, meditative moments are lost – in the slow movement of Op. 132, for instance. And there’s quite a lot of rough tone. The Italian players’ greatest asset is their wonderful tonal quality: clear, luminous and as well balanced as the Emerson Quartet. Their interpretations are straightforward and unaffected, with tremendous concentration and exceptional command of legato phrasing in the great slow movements. They favour tempos that are generally much slower than the rival versions, paying little attention to Beethoven’s metronome marks: this does make certain movements sound heavy or tame by the side of the Alban Berg or Emerson. The recordings were made between 1967 and 1975. They still sound well but don’t match the realism of the new version.
To sum up – the Emerson give us playing of exceptional technical accomplishment and an unusually wide expressive range. They continually offer new insights into some endlessly enthralling music. Do hear them.'