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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
String Quartets Opus 18
CD 1

No 1 in F
Allegro con brio [9.46]
Adagio affetuoso ed appassionato [8í59]
Scherzo, allegro molto [4.10]
Allegro [6.38]
No 2 in G
Allegro [8.23]
Adagio cantabile [6.22]
Scherzo, allegro [3.54]
Allegro molto quasi presto [6.05]
CD 2

No 3 in D
Allegro [8.10]
Andante [8.17]
Allegro [3.42]
Presto [6.46]
No 4 in c
Allegro ma non tanto [8.39]
Scherzo, andante scherzoso quasi allegretto [6.44]
Menuetto e trio: allegretto [3.52]
Allegro [4.43]
CD 3

No 5 in A
Allegro [7.28]
Menuetto e trio [5.12]
Andante cantabile [10.03]
Allegro [6.53]
No 6 in B flat
Allegro con brio [6.29]
Adagio ma non troppo [6.54]
Scherzo e trio: allegro [3.34]
La Malinconia: adagio-allegretto quasi allegro [8.27]
The Sharon Quartet: Gil Sharon, Rodica Ciocoiu (violins), Georg Haag (viola), Alexander Hülshoff (ícello)
rec 1998, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 92083 [54.17 + 50.53 + 55.04]

The Dutch label Brilliant Classics has somehow managed to find the magic combination between production costs, quality and retail price in the competitive CD market. First coming to prominence in the mid-1990s by selling complete multi-disc sets of works in a popular Netherlands chain of chemist shops / drugstores they have moved away from that type of marketing but maintain a reputation as a super-budget label. Surprising then to find that most of Brilliantís releases are newly recorded for the label using some very fine musicians. These discs may be cheap, and the packaging and scant booklet notes in English only reinforce the impression of a budget product, but the performances and recordings are about as up-to-date as it is possible to be.

In this triple disc set of Beethovenís glorious Opus 18 quartets the featured artists are the Sharon Quartet. Maybe they are not a household name, but their reputation is large enough to make a serious listen worthwhile. The quartet combines Western slickness of presentation with all the vitality and raw emotional energy of Eastern European musicians. The opening movement of the c minor quartet (the only one of the set in a minor key) shows this contrast of style and emotion to its fullest. Beethovenís rapid changes of direction in this movement provide opportunity for passionate outbursts from the first violin, for lyrical melodic movement with pulsating viola and cello and all of this is brought out with sparkle and wit.

Opus 18 is always described as being a set of works indelibly stamped with the influence of Haydn, and this is apparent at many points. Indeed, in the fifth quartet in a major the classical aspects are paramount and the work is positively Mozartian in its balance of phrase and elegance of melodic invention. The filigree work and high tessitura melodic writing of the first violin, accompanied by velvety lower parts is beautifully played. Gil Sharonís violin tone throughout is exquisite. However, in other works of the set The Sharon Quartet also adopts a view that is more forward-looking to Beethovenís development of the string quartet. This is not to say that the classical aspects of the works are underplayed; the minuet and trio movements of numbers 4 and 5 positively brim with Haydnesque charm, convincingly portrayed. It is worth noting that in Opus 18 Beethoven achieved a set of quartets that are a balanced group, while also showing the sort of individuality that was to become such a clear later hallmark.

The packaging of this triple disc certainly leaves something to be desired. The romanticised portrait of Beethoven peering out of the cover is repeated no more convincingly inside the front cover of the booklet. The booklet notes are reasonably informative but clearly limited to explaining the large issues to people totally unfamiliar with the chamber music genre. These small issues aside, however, the important aspects of the disc are good. The performances are uniformly excellent and the recording quality is as good as one could find. For a complete set of the Opus 18 quartets at a very reasonable price it becomes hard to justify not getting a set such as this. Highly recommendable.

Peter Wells

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