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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet No. 14 in C-Sharp Minor, Opus 131 (1826) [41:57]
String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Opus 132, 1825 [46:13]
Grosse Fuge for String Quartet in B-Flat Major, Opus 133 (1825-1826) [19:20]
String Quartet No. 16 in F Major, Opus 135 (1826) [28:12]
Schäffer Quartet
rec. 1959, Schola Cantorum, Paris
FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR1358-59 [61:20 + 74:27]

The cycle of Beethoven quartets recorded by the Schäffer Quartet isn’t that well known. It was made by the German ensemble at the Schola Cantorum in Paris at the end of the 1950s and has long since been swept aside in the increasingly busy marketplace. A Musidisc set, also released on Le Club Français du Disque, seemingly has little cachet beyond LP obsessives and lovers of the recondite. And yet how wrong a view that would be.

The quartet members were all distinguished players. The first violinist was Kurt Schäffer, soloist and professor of violin in Salzburg and Düsseldorf. Second violinist Franzjosef Maier founded the ensemble Aureum Collegium and enjoyed an important series of positions in Cologne. Franz Beyer had played in the Strub Quartet and like his confrères enjoyed cachet in Cologne and Düsseldorf as did cellist Kurt Herzbruch. Maybe the conflation of Cologne-based players and a small French record label conspired against the group. Bigger names always loom larger.

This twofer containing the last quartets – the Grosse Fuge is here, too, recorded as an isolated movement and at over 19 minutes both resilient and measured - reveals distinguished and penetrating musical insights. Balance is nearly always excellent and inner voicings are appropriately audible, phrasing is sensitive, the ethos being one throughout of disciplined warmth, a tempered kind of expressivity. The Amadeus Quartet is heavier, the Hollywood more silken, the Quartetto Italiano wristier, but what distinguishes the Schäffer is their technical security, the sound world projected, their avoidance of extremes, their consistency and their vision.

Op.131’s fugal passages are tautly delivered, its fifth movement Presto is zesty, and its finale rhythmically vivacious. In Op.132 they don’t seek to replicate the heavenly length of the Busch Quartet in the central slow movement but at just under 17 minutes they avoid any sense of rush, phrasing judiciously but never with the kind of rapt expression that marked out the pre-war Lener Quartet, musicians from a wholly different musical milieu. There is a certain reserve to the Schäffer performance that focuses instead on chaste beauty: no over-vibration mars the music’s elevated spirit. Their introspection in Op.135 is allied to a sure sense of the work’s architecture and the results are profoundly satisfying, though very occasionally listeners may find a certain lack of flair in its finale. Nevertheless, the performance remains eloquent and if intonation strays in the finale, then that’s hardly unique in this punishing repertoire.

This cycle should be remembered far better than is the case and has been transferred by Forgotten Records in its entirety. It remains an enriching experience from musicians deeply immersed in the syntax of the music, and it’s fortunate that they have been so well served in the remastering of their now nearly 60-year old set.

Jonathan Woolf



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