BEETHOVEN String Quartets Nos 3, 11 & 13
In case you cast an eye across the movement contents of Op 130 and feel short-changed because Beethoven’s rewritten finale is included rather than the original Grosse fuge, fear not: Volume 1 in the series (reviewed by Peter Quantrill, 4/15) includes an alternative performance (February 20, 2014) where that massive, gnarled denouement rounds things off ‘by giving each gesture the rhetorical space of a Bruckner finale’, as PQ appropriately puts it. The rounding off in this instance is almost as effective, tiny changes in pulse and dynamic, not to mention bringing to the fore significant inner voices, lending that closing Allegro a trenchant, animated feel that does indeed suggest a true finale. Fail in that respect and you’re left with a journey without destination; at least that’s how I hear it.
Right from its Adagio opening, the first movement urges forwards, with firm sforzandos, then at 2'47" Marie Bitlloch’s sotto voce cello leads to Sara Bitlloch’s lead-violin-playing of the second subject, lifted on the shoulders of a marked portamento, with quiet, finely tensed ben marcato figures thereafter. The lead-in to the (essential) repeat is malleable, the trance-like development (from 9'23") pulsing away gently, with meaningful embellishments intensifying the mood. This is characterful, well-paced playing, the Trio to the Presto second movement gutsy and rasping; and note how beautiful the preparatory phrases for the Andante sound, leaning dolefully before the cello takes the music into a more playful place. The Cavatina attempts to express the inexpressible, most famously at the point when the first violin is marked beklemmt – oppressed, anguished, like a stifled sob (from 5'12") – here so fragile and delicate, Sara Bitlloch’s playing somewhat reminiscent of Adolf Busch.
As to the D major, Op 18 No 3, Bitlloch leads yearningly into the opening two bars, almost as if the music starts andante (which it doesn’t), though once into the Allegro there’s plenty of light and shade to arrest one’s attention. This is another fine performance, very key-conscious. So too is Op 95, even within the first minute or so, with numerous varieties of attack and dynamic, while the startled third movement is very much a deer caught in the headlights, and the finale, again thoughtfully prepared, dances away with just a hint of desperation about it.
These are in many respects remarkable performances but how do they stack up against the competition? The Belcea Quartet (Zig-Zag Territoires, 1/13, 8/13) match the Elias for intelligence but are less conspicuous on the portamento front, in case that concerns you, while the Takács (Decca, my favoured option all-round) falls somewhere between the two. But what’s for sure is that all three ensembles convey the essence of these timeless masterpieces.