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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827)
String Quartets complete
Guarneri Quartet: Arnold Steinhardt, John Dalley, vv; Michael Tree; vla; Michael Soyer, vc.
Notes in English, Deutsch, Français. Photo of artists. Music notation references.
Recorded 1966-9, location not given. ADD BMG RCA 82876-55704-2
[8 CDs: 68.58 + 55.34 + 63.40 + 68.28 + 55.14 + 64.59 + 77.57 + 65.05]

String Quartets: No. 1 in F Op. 18 No. 1 (1798-1800) [26.28];
No. 2 in G Op. 18 No. 2 (1798-1800) [21.22]
No. 3 in D Op. 18 No. 3 (1798-1800) [21.08]
No. 4 in c Op. 18 No. 4 (1798-1800) [24.41]
No. 5 in A Op. 18 No. 5 (1798-1800) [30.53]
No. 6 in B flat Op. 18 No. 6 (1798-1800) [25.24]
No. 7 in F Rasumovsky Op. 59 No. 1 (1805-06) [38.16]
No. 8 in e Rasumovsky Op 59. No. 2 (1805-06) [35.30]
No. 9 in C Rasumovsky Op. 59 No. 3 (1805-06) [32.58]
No. 10 in Eb Harp Op. 74 (1809) [33.35]
No. 11 in f Serioso Op. 95 (1810) [21.39]
No. 12 in Eb Op. 127 (1823-24) [38.29]
No. 13 in Bb Op. 130 (1825-26) [38.48]
No. 14 in c# Op. 131 (1826) [39.28]
No. 15 in a Op. 132 (1825) [48.14]
Grosse Fuge in Bb Op. 133 (1825-26) [16.45]
No. 16 in F Op. 135 (1826) [26.17];

Comparison Recordings

Vegh Quartet (1952) mono [ADD] Music & Arts 7 CD 1084
Talich Quartet [middle quartets] mono [ADD] Calliope 9636/7/8
Alban Berg Quartet Opp 130/1/2/3 EMI 72435 69793-2 & CDC 7 47136-2
Hollywood Quartet [late quartets + G.F.] mono [ADD] Testament SBT 3082

Many times I have said in my reviews how I’m sick of Beethoven but it was always to be understood that I never meant the quartets, of course. I don’t listen to them often any more, but when I listen I want to hear it right, and the Guarneri are the ones who get it right from the beginning to the end — Early, Middle, and Late. They make this music sound as important as it is and treat it with the respect it deserves, and make a damn good show if it at the same time — finding grace, charm, even humour.

When I first discovered these recordings I played one for a dear old lady friend of mine and she protested: "Something’s wrong with your set," she said. "The volume keeps going up and down." "Helen," I replied, "That’s called drama." But of course her old ears did not deceive her — these are very strongly modelled performances, in dynamics as well as in texture. These are the ‘Leopold Stokowski’ performances of the Beethoven Quartets. They are classic in another sense as well, for if you note my list of comparison recordings above, this is almost the only one in stereo. I take scant interest in more recent, more popular, more fashionable Beethoven quartet performances. Oh, I’ve heard them, but they leave me uninvolved. At least one of them moves me to noisy ridicule, another to vocal profanity, but I will be uncharacteristically polite and not mention the names. What are these dumb kids thinking? Some of them are thinking that since these Quartets are the genesis of Schoenberg’s atonal style that they should be played as though Schoenberg had written them. Baaad mistake!

The Berg quartet play with scholarly authority and impeccable logic. These are wonderful things, and I would not be without them, but perhaps not for every day. Beethoven was a showman, and whether or not his public appreciated these quartets, he intended them to be entertaining. Better than any of the other groups, the Guarneri find that theatricality here and express it effectively. The Vegh quartet play with an Eastern European, almost brutally Slavic kind of intensity. Such an ethos was present in Vienna when Beethoven was there, and the music gains from having it expressed. But, again, maybe not for every day.

The whole of the Guarneri’s Opus 18 is brilliant, not too distant from Haydn but not too close, either. After hearing these early quartets you know you’re in for something special to come, and there is no disappointment. In Op. 59 #3, last movement, they challenge the Vegh Quartet to a race, and at 5.25 they win it, although the Vegh version at 6.24 has long been held to be the fastest possible performance (the score says only allegro molto!). But then the Talich quartet does it in 6.11, proving once again that subjective musical time cannot be measured scientifically.

In Op. 130, the presto has never been played so affectingly; the Alla danza tedesca is charming, even lilting, but does not make you reach for your seasick remedy as do some performances. Their Cavatina is perfectly balanced between the symphonic and the intimate, the grand and the graceful.

The Hollywood Quartet might have been called the "Slatkin Quartet." They play with the same kind of grandeur and beauty that one sees in an Ansel Adams photograph. Had they recorded the middle quartets, they might have played them like the Talich quartet plays them, with just a touch of Dvořák, more like an Elliot Porter colour photograph of a forest clearing. Unfortunately, to my taste, the Talich do not have the rigor of style to do full justice to either the early or the late quartets.

The box proclaims "88 page booklet in English, German, and French," but what that boils down to is 28 pages of English essay by B. H. Haggin, including music score examples, and the same essay, without examples, in German and French. Mr. Haggin suggests that the Op. 133 Grosse Fuge is "inaccessible" to many music lovers even after repeated exposure. This was originally the final movement to the Quartet Op. 130, but was replaced by the movement currently played. In some recent performances (e.g., that by the Berg Quartet, but not the Guarneri Quartet performance under discussion) both movements are played, first the Grosse Fuge as movement #6, and then the later finale which now becomes movement #7, making this a very long quartet. With modern CD player-changers, it is easy enough to program the movements to play this way if you wish, so this juxtaposition of movements is not a material consideration. The Vegh Quartet disks program the Grosse Fuge after Op. 130, so you can hear the movements in that order without having to reprogram the machine.

The Hollywood Quartet play the "inaccessible" Grosse Fuge more beautifully than you would imagine possible. The Vegh Quartet achieve a similar effect by playing slowly to give time to form the notes, but the work then becomes long and tends to the pedantic, even though their overall timing is 40 seconds shorter than the Guarneri version. But Beethoven was an angry man and he enjoyed writing dissonance like other men enjoy smashing their fists into the wall. The long opening of that fugue beginning at bar 30 and continuing for several pages is deliberately ugly music, and the Guarneris play it as ugly as they can, even emphasising the dissonances with vibrato. Then, when things sweeten up, they sweeten them way up and they stay there, giving a typical Beethovenian sun-after-the-storm æsthetic to the work. This is the most convincing performance I’ve heard, although all three are excellent.

The opening of the Op. 135 might be a good introduction to this set if you get the chance to audition it, or if you are trying to convince a friend who doesn’t like this music. The first two minutes will give you Beethoven with grace and charm, two things he practically never has at all, and then on to tonal variety you never suspected in this work, and rhythm, drama, even fun. If there’s a better version of these quartets I’ve not heard it.

Paul Shoemaker

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