BEETHOVEN String Quartets Vol 11 (Cuarteto Casals)
Bored of Beethoven? Judging from the advance reaction to next year’s 250th anniversary celebrations, some people already are. Perhaps you know one of these jaded souls, in which case I can think of no better prescription than this latest release from Cuarteto Casals. These interpretations don’t just strip off the varnish; they tear off the gilded frame, X ray the canvas and light it in neon. If, after listening, you still think that Beethoven has nothing new to say, you’re probably a terminal case.
If you’ve heard their previous release (9/18), you’ll have some idea what to expect: fearless tempos, radical dynamic contrasts, rhythms that aren’t so much dancelike as instinctive and a style of playing – improvisatory, light-footed and often vibrato-free – that draws deep charcoal blacks from Arnau Tomàs Realp’s cello and glinting, quicksilver brilliance from the two violins (Vera Martínez Mehner plays first in most of the works here, with Abel Tomàs Realp taking the top line in Op 18 No 2).
You could call this historically informed (I believe they use period bows on modern instruments); in fact, I kept reaching for modern parallels. In the outer sections of the ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’ slow movement of Op 132, they evoke Feldman or Pärt, creating ever-deeper pools of sonic stillness even while, over the course of the movement, they gradually intensify the expression to the point where Beethoven’s anguished sincerity feels almost too piercing for the naked eye. The final moments of Op 59 No 3 and Op 74, breathlessly fast and superbly controlled, suggest Bartók or Ligeti’s insect-like swarms of high-velocity counterpoint.
These players are uncompromisingly committed. You can tell a lot about a quartet’s approach to the Op 18 set from the first two bars of Op 18 No 2: measured rococo ornament or improvisatory swirl? With Cuarteto Casals, it simply seems to flash away into the ether. Op 74, that most fantastically coloured of all Beethoven quartets, is like a sonic kaleidoscope here, its loose-fitting textures held tightly under control.
Still, you don’t come to Cuarteto Casals for Biedermeier charm (though they sing very beguilingly in the slow movement of Op 18 No 2): you’re here for Beethoven in the raw. If the cello’s pizzicato in the slow movement of Op 59 No 3 can rarely have sounded quite so sinister, nor can Beethoven’s merrymaking with the Russian ‘Slava!’ theme in Op 59 No 2 have conveyed quite such mischievous glee. Vibrato-free, the opening dissonance of that same work really sets the teeth on edge and the ensemble seems to trip almost by accident into the main Allegro. As I’ve said before, these performances won’t be for everyone. They might offend some. But you’d need cloth ears and a very closed mind to find them dull.