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BEETHOVEN Op 18 1-6 and new string quartets by Alvarez, Beamish, Firsova, Jegede, Smirnov and Tanaka.
Vanguard Classics 99212. 73'52", 70'13" & 76'51".

One of my criteria for a new CD is that it should be unique. This set satisfies that wish easily. The Brodsky Quartet set up a project An Homage to Beethoven to mark the Millennium and the bicentenary of Beethoven's groundbreaking early, yet mature string quartets. They commissioned quartets to reflect upon each of the Op 18s from composers of very different affiliations, and the results were premiered at Cabot Hall on the Isle of Dogs (see S&H review, March 1999).

The Mexican Javier Alvarez came up with a playful, very rhythmic piece, Metro Nativitas, with short motifs in recurring shapes, named after a Mexico City metro station, and reminders of the salsa. Tunde Jegede sought the inspiration for his String Quartet no.2 in Beethoven's No.2 and reggae. His idiom has minimalism affinities. The Brodskys expected an avant-garde response to 18/3 from Karen Tanaka, but she surprised them by keeping closest of all the composers to Beethoven's own world in her tonal At the grave of Beethoven. She interprets its first bars to reflect today's tensions and her second movement is a chain of modulations, influenced by the Kosovo horrors and seeking consolation and hope for serenity and peace. Sally Beamish came back from California to this commission, with new 20th. C. American music in her head, reflected in a new, lighthearted direction in her musical language. For myself, the most satisfying reflections on Op. 18 were by the Russian husband and wife expatriates, Dimitri Smirnov and Elena Firsova, who came up with very different solutions. Smirnov has an Invitation to the Dance, bringing quotations from numerous other composers to the party. Firsova in her 10th String Quartet responds to the sadness of the melancholy beginning of the finale of Op. 18/6.

For CD collectors of novelties, the whole of this enterprise is more than the sum of the parts. All the new pieces are worth hearing, so long as you don't expect six masterpieces. It is refreshing to have the Beethoven sequence varied by the interposition of these modern reflections and the web of interactions may be thought akin to those of linkages on the Web. The Beethoven quartets are well played, and were recorded at The Warehouse in London, a new home for contemporary music (see S&H's reviews Sept/December 1999 of last autumn's series of concerts). For a straight alternative set of Beethoven's Op. 18 on their own, amongst the numerous versions available, I have found the Vanbrugh Quartet's recording very satisfactory [Intim musik IM043-4].


Peter Grahame Woolf


Rob Barnett

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