Beethoven: Late Quartets

Author: 
Robert Layton
Beethoven's Late QuartetsBeethoven's Late Quartets

BEETHOVEN Late Quartets – Alban Berg Quartet

  • String Quartet No. 12
  • String Quartet No. 13
  • String Quartet No. 14
  • String Quartet No. 15
  • String Quartet No. 16
  • Grosse Fuge

The Alban Berg are the first to give us all the late Beethoven quartets on CD. The Fitzwilliam Quartet on Decca are part of the way there, having recorded Op. 132 in this medium (CD 411 643-2DH, 1/85) with Opp. 130 and 132 scheduled for CD release, and I gather that it will not be long before the Gramophone Award-winning set of the late quartets by the Lindsays will appear on CD. As I said in reviewing the Alban Berg LP account of Op. 132, in terms of sheer technical address, tonal finesse and balance'', they enjoy a superiority over almost every other ensemble of their generation.
Indeed, some listeners particularly those brought up on the Busch (HMV) or Vegh Quartets (Valois), may find the sheer polish of their playing gets in the way, for this can be an encumbrance: late Beethoven is beautified at its peril. The Busch and the Vegh, to whom I would add the Talich (Calliope), dig deeper into the soul of this music, as for that matter do the Lindsays, and this tells in movements like the Heiliger Dankegesang of Op. 13i or the Cavatina of Op. 130. But then, as Schnabel said of the late sonatas, no matter how good the performance is, it can never be good enough.
I have written at some length about all these performances and will not repeat myself here. In sampling these CDs alongside the original LPs, I have to report the greater clarity of focus, particularly at the bottom end of the spectrum, and a distinct gain in presence. The new medium does full justice to the magnificently burnished tone that the Alban Berg command, and the perfection of blend they so consistently achieve.
I have some sympathy with Mr Robert Adlington who complained in our April issue (page 1172) of the length of pauses between movements on records. I mentioned this in my original review of Opp. 130 and 133. The CD preserves the same order as the LP issue leaving the same few seconds between the end of the Grosse Fuge and the beginning of Beethoven's second finale. Of course, many CD players can be programmed to sort this out and with a remote-control handset, you can pause as long as you like between movements. Op. 127 also preservers exactly the same length of time between the end of the Adagio and the beginning of the Scherzo (not much more than two or three seconds) though at least there is a decent gap at what was the turn-over point between Scherzo and finale.
Summing up, RF in discussing the release of the HMV discs as a set in April this year, wrote, ''I don't think you'll find a better box . . . but I can confirm that deep thought behind the playing is everywhere apparent''. No one version of the late quartets can give us the complete truth and no set is more magnificently played and recorded. Indeed, in this respect it is likely to remain unchallenged: yet at the same time, I must repeat that I still can't suppress the feeling that others convey even more of the stature and depth of these great and profound works. Be that as it may, the Alban Berg are still superb, and strongly to be recommended in any format, but particularly in this.'

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