Beethoven (The) Late Quartets

This cycle’s crowning glory

Author: 
Rob Cowan
Beethoven Late String Quartets, Takacs QuartetBeethoven Late String Quartets, Takacs Quartet

BEETHOVEN (The) Late Quartets – Takács Quartet

  • String Quartet No. 12
  • String Quartet No. 14
  • String Quartet No. 15
  • String Quartet No. 16
  • String Quartet No. 11, 'Serioso'
  • String Quartet No. 13

Late Beethoven is all about contrasts: prayer and play, structural logic and emotional candour, relative convention and daring. Wherever you join the journey, some rogue idea invariably lies ready to pounce: the way Op 127’s Andante con moto chugs along happily then abruptly turns to face us with a weeping confession. Similarly halfway through Op 130’s Cavatina; and Op 131’s Scherzo gate-crashes the tale of the preceding variations. Then there’s the zany humour of the other scherzi – from Opp 127 and 135 especially – or the indescribable feeling of release after the opening hymn in Op 132’s Adagio. All this conceived in the prison of deafness, perhaps the greatest of all musical miracles.

Readers who know these works have little use for such guidelines and yet interpreters have to think harder; they need to convey what at times sounds like a stream of musical consciousness while respecting the many written markings. The Takács do better than most. For openers, they had access to the new Henle Edition and have made use of some textual changes (an E replacing a G at 8’13” in the first movement of Op 132, for example) – nothing too drastic but encouraging evidence of a good musical conscience. In Op 130 they take the long first-movement exposition repeat, using the Grosse Fuge as the rightful finale (Beethoven’s original intention) which, in the context of their fiery reading of the fugue, works well. Contemporary incredulity at the sheer scale and complexity of the fugue caused Beethoven to offer a simpler alternative finale (the last thing he wrote) in which the Takács again play the repeat, which helps balance the ‘alternative’ structure.

The Takács evidently appreciate this music both as musical argument and as sound. Try their glassy sul ponticello at the end of Op 131’s Scherzo, or the many instances where plucked and bowed passages are fastidiously balanced. Attenuated inflections are honoured virtually to the letter, textures carefully differentiated, musical pauses intuitively well-timed and inner voices nearly always transparent.

The F major Quartet’s opening Allegretto has an almost Haydnesque wit about it and, although I would have welcomed a more furioso approach to the first movement of the Serioso (Op 95), the sum effect is still impressive. The Takács are conscientious without sounding overly reverential; they know how to ease the tempo momentarily with such subtlety that, unless you’re consciously analysing each phrase, you would never realise (there are instances in Op 132’s Adagio). As to their pooled tone, the overall impression is lean but expressive, with sweetness kept within bounds and only András Fejer’s cello occasionally sounding reticent. Where Beethoven cues a savage attack, he gets it, but when the heart rules, as it so often does in these works, the Takács take his lead there, too.

Beethoven’s late quartets are the ultimate examples of music that is so great that, as Artur Schnabel famously suggested, no single sequence of performances could ever do them full justice. Still, this set comes close and completes one of the best available cycles, possibly the finest in an already rich digital market, more probing than the pristine Emersons or Alban Bergs (live), more refined than the gutsy and persuasive Lindsays, and less consciously stylised than the Juilliards (and always with the historic Busch Quartet as an essential reference) – at no point did I feel the Takács significantly wanting. They do Beethoven proud and no one could reasonably ask for more.

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