Beethoven Late String Quartets

Author: 
Robert Layton
Beethoven Late String QuartetsBeethoven Late String Quartets

BEETHOVEN Late String Quartets – Lindsay String Quartet

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

I should say straight away that this is a most impressive set and contains some of the most searching late Beethoven currently on record. The Lindsays get far closer to the essence of this great music than many more glamorous ensembles and offer performances that are far superior to their earlier records of the Op. 18 Quartets (ASV ALHB304, 12/82). One of these discs, the Op. 130 Quartet with the Grosse Fuge as finale, has appeared before when RF hailed it as ''a triumph'', noting that the ''Lindsays can withstand comparison with the best these days, which is as well for they are up against the best here''. Much the same applies to the set as a whole when one recalls that the Quartetto Italiano (Philips) and the Vegh (Astree) are the leading contenders for attention, and that the 1958 Hollywood set has only just reappeared (HMV mono RLS7707, 12/82). There are powerful individual performances too, from the Talich (Calliope), and most recently performances of Opp. 127 and 135 from the Alban Berg Quartet (HMV ASD4305, 3/83).
The Lindsays have the benefit of better balanced recording than the Vegh and the Talich, which are both a little bottom heavy. The sound on this ASV set is more present and vivid, and while I am on the subject of recording quality, I might add that the surfaces are immaculately silent. Roger Fiske thought the Lindsays ''good on tempo'' in Op. 130, taking the Cavatina unusually slowly, ''which makes it sound marvellous''. But so often throughout this set, I thought that they had found tempos that somehow strike you as completely right, and which therefore, enable them to convey more bothe the letter and the spirit of the score. Finding the tempo that completely matches the conception both of detail and the overall architecture and vision of a piece strikes me as crucial. It enables a phrase to breathe in a way that harmonizes exactly with the interpreters' intentions, and it is this that gives the impression of complete naturalness. The slow movement of Op. 135 is much broader than it is in their most recent rival, the Alban Berg, who produce the more integrated and beautiful sound, yet do not penetrate the same depths as the Lindsays. Incidentally, having been disturbed in one or two instances by imperfect intonation in the Op. 18 set, I must say that I have no grumbles here: in fact, Sandor Vegh is more vulnerable in the opening bars of Op. 131 than is Peter Cropper, not that the od blemish worries one, given the insight both quartets bring to this repertoire.
In terms of tonal blend and refinement of ensemble the Alban Berg are probably superior in Op. 127, but the Lindsays bring such richness of characterization and musical strength to it. I can't recall a better paced account of the first movement; everything seems so completely natural and dynamic markings, which are scrupulously observed, arise organically; in other words, one does not have the feeling that they have mastered the notes and then painted on the tonal colour and the dynamic nuances. There is some wonderfully rapt playing in the slow movement and the sensitive touches which one admires but which at the same time never draw attention to themselves, are too many to enumerate. In those circumstances it seems curmudgeonly to draw attention to infelicities but I did find the molto Adagio middle section of the Heiliger Dankegesang not wholly convincing in one small respect—the leader eschews vibrato altogether though not his colleagues and I am not sure that the effect is tonally beautiful. (In the opening of OP. 131, the reverse is the case where his vibrato is slightly wider than those of his companions.) Yet tone is often most beautifully matched as between the two violins in the fourth movement of Op. 131. And everywhere the listener is carried along by the sheer spirit of the playing which at times quite properly places truth before beauty, as for example in the finale of the same quartet or in the Grosse Fuge, where risks are taken with beauty of sound for the sake of truth of character.
There are two small points—indeed, one is not so small! First and least, the turnover point in Op. 131: most records from the early days of LP onwards accommodate the first four movements on the first side and this is the case with the Quartetto Italiano and the Vegh, but the Lindsays break in the fourth movement just before the Andante moderato e luisinghiero, which strikes me as a pity. Looking back in the score to check the exact place reminded me of how marvellously the Lindsays play that movement and in particular the Adagio ma non troppo semplice section. However, the second point is more serious: there is no other set of the late quartets that omits the alternative finale of Op. 130 and this strikes me as a needless and self-inflicted handicap. As RF indicated in his original review, the slow speed of the Cavatina did not leave enough space for both the Grosse Fuge and the finale that Beethoven substituted later. Room could surely have been found for it at the beginning of the Op. 131 disc whose first side could accommodate the eight or so minutes required. I only hope that this will not diminish the appeal and circulation of what is a most distinguished set.'

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