Beethoven String Quartets, Vol.1

Author: 
Stephen Johnson

Beethoven String Quartets, Vol.1

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

It seems that for many an image goes with the name Alban Berg Quartet: polish, finesse intellectual penetration … ''But does the playing draw blood?'' asked one critic apropos the Quartet's first, studio recording of the Beethoven A minor, Op. 132 (EMI, 8/85). His answer was emphatically negative. Mine would have been more qualified—I do think there's a lot more than stylishly presented analysis in the first reading—but with regard to the new version in Vol. 2 of this cycle, it has to be an enthusiastic 'yes'. In fact, I wonder if one or two of these concert performances might not cut a little too deep for some tastes. The Grosse Fuge, for instance, can be pretty wild, its edges sometimes alarmingly keen. I worried about it at first, but now I think the excitement and the dangerousness of it are well worth having—and hearing repeatedly. Wildness and roughness were, after all, supposed to have been characteristics of Beethoven's playing, and I can't believe that he would have expected elegant accuracy in that jagged first violin writing. And it is wonderfully alive—even the silences towards the end are full of energy.
Wildness, roughness, dangerous energy: can all this really be the Alban Berg the critic was talking about? Or could that just be one freak instance—a momentary brainstorm? No, there's exactly the same powerful urge at work in the fugal finale of Op. 59 No. 3—the shouts of approval from the Viennese audience at the end sound not a decibel out of place. For digital age perfectionists the surprises may not always be pleasant. There are intonational problems in places: from Gunter Pichler for instance in the opening Adagio fugue of the C sharp minor Quartet, Op. 131—and there's Pichler pressing ahead of the other players in Op. 131's Presto. But only a completely recording-nurtured listener would expect concert performances to be free of that sort of thing, especially in music that remains as difficult and challenging as this. And it often surprises me how some apparently delicate ears don't seem to have the same trouble with the old Busch Quartet recordings—great versions, I agree, but intonationally, rhythmically flawless?
The wonderful things certainly outweigh the flaws for me, and I particularly like the way the Alban Berg manage to blow the aura of sanctity away from some of the slow movements—not a hint of musty, po-faced Protestant religiosity. It's a long time since I've heard the Adagio of Op. 59 No. 1 played with direct, powerful expression, and the emergence of the Russian-dance-based finale from this feels organically emotionally spot on—not something I'd feel like saying after every performance. Several of the other slow movements have fixed themselves in my memory: the rapt Molto adagio of Op. 59 No. 2, the Adagio of Op. 127 (richly cantabile here), the Lento assai of Op. 135—more powerful silences there, and after such an explosive Vivace
I do have a few complaints. The players are a little parsimonious with repeats, and the Grosse Fuge is placed, not merely on a different disc from Op. 130 (to which it originally belonged) but in a different volume—it doesn't exactly encourage experimenting with alternative finales.
The recorded sound perhaps adds to the up-frontness of the effect in places, though tone immediacy and balance are generally more than acceptable. What the engineers haven't done is keep out audience noise—is that really a late arriver in the Adagio of Op. 131? All things considered though this is an outstanding modern Beethoven quartet cycle-the encore at the end—the Cavatina from Op. 130—is thoroughly merited and beautifully, movingly played. Start there if you need convincing. I'm quite convinced, and until EMI do finally reissue those Busch versions on CD I think I'll be returning to this set to keep my spirits up—and perhaps for even longer than that.'

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