BEETHOVEN String Quartets, Vol 4
‘Art demands of us that we do not stand still.’ Beethoven’s own words as quoted by the Takács to remind themselves (and us) of the humility and sense of adventure needed for the effective re-creation of great music. They might also remind us that no major masterpiece can afford to rest on the laurels of a single ‘classic’ recorded interpretation, Beethoven least of all. Not that I’m trying to let myself off the critical hook.
I spent hours with these CDs, weighing their relative virtues and while ultimately I found the Takács more comprehensively satisfying, there were passages on The Lindsays’ disc that I actually preferred. One occurs at bar 37 into the Adagio of Op 59 No 1 (4'13" on The Lindsays’ disc, 4'05" on the Takács), at the point where the leader repeats a fragile little two-note figure with apoggiatura and the cellist answers him. The Takács do a fine job: controlled, well paced and impeccably balanced. But The Lindsays take us that little bit deeper. Peter Cropper’s lead violin is meek and heartfelt, even a mite numbed, and his colleagues seem to mirror that sense of wonderment. Then again, the Takács excel in the parallel movement of Op 59/2, keeping to a very slow tempo, even slower than the still-unavailable Busch Quartet recording that Sony holds in its archives, and broader than the Emerson Quartet by some three minutes. I marvel at how the Takács balance the music’s vertical and horizontal aspects, long-breathed contrapuntal lines gliding serenely above a sharp, occasionally dramatic accompaniment – masterful playing indeed and typical of this first lap of the Takács’ projected Beethoven cycle.
The Lindsays are already well into their second cycle, which is proving substantially superior to their first. Part of the gain is purely technical, with a recording that is softer grained, better blended and certainly better balanced than its predecessor. Cropper himself is less prominent, and spatial positioning less extreme than before. The playing has gained, too, principally in the way individual quartet members relate to each other, in more refined dynamics and a keener uptake between interconnecting phrases. Like the Takács, The Lindsays admit old-world expressive gestures into their playing – portamento principally – that trace a palpable line of inheritance from the Busch, the Calvet, the Budapest and other fêted ensembles. It’s their world too, or seems to be.
The Lindsays open Op 59 No 1 like a relaxed invitation, so different to the more forceful Takács where András Fejér’s cello interjections are truly forte. Where The Lindsays are pliable, the Takács hold both line and rhythm with imposing control. Their manner of badinage in the mischievously hocketing second movement is more intense than The Lindsays, and their tempos consistently swifter. In Op 59 No 3 the Takács again approximate the Busch in a broad, soulful Andante con moto, this time substantially slower than The Lindsays. I prefer the easier gait of The Lindsays’ grazioso third movement (the Takács push the tempo just a little too hard) though in the fugal finale the Takács are almost on a par with the Emersons, whose demonic DG account is one of the most viscerally exciting quartet recordings around. Here The Lindsays are a good deal more laid back and, in this particular instance, a lot less effective.
In the opening of Op 59 No 2 the Takács make silent music of the pauses while in the exposition the viola’s presence is more strongly felt than usual. The finale is a tautly braced canter whereas in the Scherzo of the Harp, taken at a hair-raising lick, the Takács make obsessive music of the dominating four-note idea – and there is absolutely no let up in tension (or relative tempo) for the cello-led trio. Indeed, the Takács’ Harp is one of the finest ever recorded, with fiery reportage of the first movement’s central development (from around 5'14") and a delightfully playful account of the finale, the ‘tipsy’ first variation especially.
As I’ve already suggested, the jewel of this first Beethoven instalment from the Takács is Op 59 No 2, though I would feel sorely challenged to nominate a rival digital set of Opp 59 and 74 that is better overall. Andrew Keener’s recording (St George’s, Bristol) reports a realistic ‘edge’ within a sympathetic acoustic. You won’t find a finer quartet recording anywhere. We’re told that Op 18 and the ‘late’ quartets will follow during the next two years. So, whatever your interim choices (no one can be expected to live without a Beethoven quartet cycle for two years) be sure to make room for the newcomers. And don’t forget The Lindsays, whose nourishing perceptions are worth anyone’s time, though not as a first choice.