BEETHOVEN Late String Quartets – Amadeus Quartet

Author: 
Robert Layton

Beethoven Late String Quartets

  • String Quartet No. 12
  • String Quartet No. 13
  • Grosse Fuge
  • String Quartet No. 14
  • String Quartet No. 15
  • String Quartet No. 16
  • String Quartet No. 1
  • String Quartet No. 2
  • String Quartet No. 3
  • String Quartet No. 4
  • String Quartet No. 5
  • String Quartet No. 6
  • String Quartet No. 7, 'Rasumovsky'
  • String Quartet No. 8, 'Rasumovsky'
  • String Quartet No. 9, 'Rasumovsky'
  • String Quartet No. 10, 'Harp'
  • String Quartet No. 11, 'Serioso'
  • String Quartet No. 12
  • String Quartet No. 13
  • String Quartet No. 14
  • String Quartet No. 15
  • String Quartet No. 16
  • Grosse Fuge

As a glance at the small print above will show DG have issued the Amadeus cycle from the 1960s on seven CDs at a very competitive price; EMI have dismembered the three Alban Berg boxes on ten CDs, making them all available separately albeit at full price, Calliope have packaged the Talich Quartet's cycle on to seven discs, again at full price. (The CDs really represent not only a significant gain in quality but in economy: the whole cycle originally occupied ten LPs!) and ASV have at long last reissued their Gramophone Award-winning late quartets in a box of four CDs at full price. Now let me add a reminder that there are other important sets that should not be passed over: the Melos Quartet on DG on nine discs—the Op. 18 on three ( 410 971-2GH3, 11/85); the middle quartets on three ( 415 342-2GH3, 9/85) the late quartets also on three ( 415 676-2GH3 10/86), the Vegh on Valois/Pinnacle V4401–8 (eight discs, reviewed at various times but mostly in 6/87 and 4/88) and last, but most emphatically not least, there is the Quartetto Italiano four-disc set of the late quartets ( 416 638-2PH4, 6/87); Philips will, I assume, follow it up with the remainder. And so, CD collectors are now faced with something of the embarras de richesses with which we were all too familiar in the heady days of plenty on vinyl. The appearance of so many new CDs in the last three months provides a useful opportunity to take stock of the current Beethoven quartet discography.
Admirers of the Amadeus will doubtless welcome the reissue of their set. It was recorded between 1960 (Opp. 18 and 95) and 1963 (Opp. 127–35), and its merits are well known. In terms of the quality of the recorded sound, the set wears its years relatively lightly though the top-heaviness of which the late-lamented Roger Fiske complained is noticeable. Generally speaking, they are at their best in Op. 18, as indeed are the Alban Berg. In discussing the slow movement of the F major in 1961, Dr Fiske noted that ''the Amadeus show that a quickish tempo can be united with passionate tragic feeling, they do in fact come nearer to Beethoven's metronome mark than any other ensemble in my experience'' and though he complained that they considerably shortened some of the rests, he hailed it as ''a superb performance of one of Beethoven's very greatest slow movements''. Put it alongside the Vegh, however, and an altogether different perspective emerges, for there are human depths that remain unexplored. The way that Sandor Vegh articulates his long opening theme goes straight to the heart of this music in a way that eludes even as imaginative and musical an artist as Brainin. It certainly eludes the Melos Quartet, who give high-powered but relatively routine accounts of all six quartets.
In terms of technical finesse the Alban Berg remain in a class of their own, but reminding myself of their finale of Op. 59 No. 3 (a bit too rushed) and putting it alongside the Talich, who find the tempo giusto, and the Amadeus, I must say that all three ensembles are pretty impressive (all that goes for the Lindsay, too). Of course, these are inevitably matters of personal taste and although I intend no disrespect to his musicianship I do find Norbert Brainin's wide vibrato obtrusive at times, as RF pointed out when Op. 18 first appeared, sforzandos are occasionally a bit rough and ''in fortes the first violin should, perhaps, have a little more tone''. In any event, from the vantage point of 1989, I would not prefer the Amadeus on seven CDs to the Talich, in spite of the less handsome packaging or the advantage in price—and in spite of the fact that the Talich's set of Op. 18 falls a little below the quality of inspiration that distinguishes the rest of the cycle. I have discussed them relatively recently, and will say no more than reiterate that they offer ''dedicated performances, stripped of glamour and unconcerned with surface beauty'', though paradoxically there is no lack of tonal beauty. Like the Vegh set which is a bit tubby, the Talich is open to the charge of being just a little bottom-heavy—the acoustic properties of the venue and the rich tone of the violist (Jan Talich himself) and the cellist may have something to do with this, but it worries me far less on CD than it did originally on LP. Their Rasumovskys are in a totally different league from the Alban Berg and the Melos, and their late quartets are naturally expressive performances with something of the concentration and depth of feeling that distinguish the great classic accounts by the Busch and the Vegh. ASV have followed their Op. 59 No. 1 ( CDDCA553 4/87—short on playing time but long on musical satisfaction) by coupling their Op. 59 Nos. 2 and 3 together. I have written at length about the merits of the former—indeed the E minor is one of the very finest on record.
In his fine monograph Basil Lam spoke of how ''in the Missa solemnis and the Ninth Symphony the resources of music as a communicating art were strained to the verge of impossibility; perfection became not so much unattainable as irrelevant … Because he turned away from the populous world to write his latest works in a more than Miltonic isolation, it is often assumed that he moved into an ever more concentrated subjectivity. The converse may be nearer the truth. The Mass and the symphony are the utterances of a man speaking to men, but in the last quartets Beethoven is as indifferent to communication as he is to self-expression.'' It is in this respect that they represent the Alpine heights of the repertory which few traverse unscathed. As I have suggested on earlier occasions, the superiority of technical address enjoyed by the Alban Berg is almost an encumbrance in the late quartets. Late Beethoven as I said, ''is beautified at its peril'' and I cannot say that I have returned to this set very often. The finest to my mind are Opp. 127 and 135, and the Op. 132. In Op. 131, which I found greatly impressive at the time, the Alban Berg are no match for the Lindsay whose inward, unforced quality is much nearer to a composer indifferent to communication or self. A truism no doubt but every quartet brings a different set of insights to this great music so that you cannot possibly hail any one version as the only one to have. However, I cannot speak of the Vegh or Talich performances without something approaching awe, and the same applies to this Lindsay set. I have no quarrels with the sound picture or the balance in the ASV recordings which enjoy a better focused aural image than do either the Talich or the Vegh. The Lindsay won a Gramophone Award when their set first appeared on LP, only a year after the Alban Berg, and their merits were outlined at great length at the time. As first issued the Lindsay played Op. 130 with the Grosse Fuge as finale. In the present form, the finale Beethoven subsequently composed is included: it is placed after the Grosse Fuge so you will have to programme your player accordingly if you want to hear it in the way Beethoven finally intended. At present the first disc containing Op. 127 only is to be had on its own, but I imagine the remainder will follow in due course. Whether separately or on their own, these are performances of stature and they sound splendid in the new transfers.
As a pendant to these complete sets, two new CDs which have appeared recently on the Harmonia Mundi label should be mentioned. They come from the Brandis Quartet of Berlin, one of the most respected ensembles of the day and listening to their two records it is not difficult to see why. As in their account of the A minor Quartet, Op. 132 (HMC1221; HMC90 1221, 12/86), which was handicapped by too brisk a Heiliger Dankgesang they produce a refined and well-blended sonority free from the glamorized tonal polish that one finds in, say, the Guarneri. These are humane, civilized accounts that well deserve to be considered alongside the very best. I started my listening with Op. 18 No. 3 and with great pleasure. This is a fine performance, totally straightforward and unmannered, with well-judged tempos and thoroughly musical phrasing; more alive than the Talich and technically more finished than the Vegh though perhaps not seeing quite so deeply into the music.
Were I making a purely personal choice from among the abundance now on offer I would be happy with either the Vegh or the Alban Berg in Op. 18, while I would not want to be without the Lindsay's Rasurnovskys. In the late quartets, the Lindsay, the Talich and, of course, the Vegh occupy the commanding heights; nor should the claims of the Quartetto Italiano be forgotten for theirs are deeply rewarding and selfless readings.'

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