Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Some Inspired Beethoven Quartets for the Holidays

It’s been said that every home should have at least a few recordings of the Beethoven late string quartets. For those who didn’t have the good fortune to grow up with this stuff, it spans the range of human emotions: joy, affection, contentment with a job well done but also apprehension, anger and outright anguish, weighted toward the latter. It would be overly reductionistic to explain away these works as a great composer’s rage against the dying of the light (or in Beethoven’s case, the sound), but that’s certainly present. Because these works eventually insinuated themselves into the standard repertoire, the internet is crawling with recordings of them. Pretty much anyone who has the chops to play these all the way through, with at least some sensitivity, does at least an adequate job: the music pretty much speaks for itself. Then there are the legendary recordings that come with bragging rights. The one that pops up in discussion most frequently is by the Budapest String Quartet: however, there are actually two of these. Supposedly the 1952 mono version surpasses them all. However, the ensemble recorded these again in the 60s, in stereo, and while it’s genuinely beautiful, there’s nothing that immediately jumps out and signals “home run,” at least as far as the available mp3s are concerned. And for all their good intentions, pretty much everyone who took the time to digitize their vinyl and throw it up on rapidshare neglected to mention – probably because they were unaware of the two versions – which one theirs might be.

Which leads to the elephant in the room: to what degree can an overcompressed mp3 off the internet really reveal the subtleties and intensities of any piece of music? Good luck finding a vinyl copy of the original Budapest Quartet box. Scores of other groups – the Takacs String Quartet, Guarneri String Quartet and others – have made well-liked recordings worth keeping an eye out for. Fortunately, there are two new recordings out this fall, each of them special for considerably different reasons. The first is the complete late quartets played by the Tokyo String Quartet which is just out on Harmonia Mundi, silken yet spirited, rich with dynamics that powerfully enhance the more dramatic passages. It’s the concluding act in their survey of the complete Beethoven string quartets, beginning with the old world charm of the twelfth, highlighted by the vivid contrast between the plaintiveness of the adagio with the bracing, bold strokes of the third movement.

The thirteenth (actually the last, chronologically) is, predictably, the centerpiece here – when the time comes, the quartet take the word “presto” very seriously, give the andante a saturnine swing and downplay the wistfulness of the allegro assai: it’s less a waltz than an overture. The famous, sad cavatina is rich with longing without getting bogged down in it, wrenching rather than weepy. And they conclude it with Beethoven’s first choice of final movements, the knotty “grosse fugue,” accentuating the biting acerbities that cut through the contrapuntal maze, adding the later, final movement as the equivalent of a brisk, Vivaldiesque coda. Likewise, the fourteenth works both ends of the spectrum intensely, from the austere longing of the opening adagio to the evocative triumph of the andante. The fifteenth shares the pain and apprehension of the thirteenth: the wintry waltz of the appasionato allegro is literally chilling, especially in the wake of the warmly nocturnal feel that precedes it. And the sixteenth is all foreshadowing: you can see what’s coming a mile away, and it’s not good, but there’s no stopping it. Martin Beaver and Kikuei Ikeda on violins, Kazuhide Isomura on viola and Clive Greensmith on cello join forces as a well-oiled machine in high gear.

The word that first jumps to mind to describe the Cypress String Quartet’s new recording of the thirteenth is vibrant. Yet it’s a lot darker than the Tokyo String Quartet’s version, or for that matter the other well-known versions. Like their Tokyo compatriots, this ensemble works the dynamic range for all it’s worth. But on the presto, they hold back and accentuate its foreshadowing, as they do on the sad German dance that follows it and then an absolutely funereal take of the cavatina: it’s a stunner, at least to the extent that sad music can stun. This group also has an obvious affinity for the “grosse fugue.” Theirs isn’t quite fortissimo, but it’s intense and they dig in, conspiratorially and somewhat desperately. It’s not difficult picturing Beethoven alone at the bar the night of its premiere, drunk and dreading the reaction of the audience and the critics: “Will they like it?” By contrast, the crisp “official” final movement, written afterward at the suggestion of Beethoven’s publisher, is a letdown: a tribute both to the composer’s first choice and the performers’ connection with it, Cecily Ward and Tom Stone on violins, Ethan Filner on viola and Jennifer Kloetzel on cello. Also worth a mention is the recording quality: Ward’s production imbues this with a front-row intimacy that rivals any other digital production out there.

December 4, 2010 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Album of the Day 12/4/10

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Saturday’s album is #787:

Bo Diddley – The Chess Box

When we began this countdown last July, one of our original rules was no box sets: among other things, they’re kind of an easy way out. Choosing the Beatles box, or the Pink Floyd box, for example, takes away the fun of being able to pick an unexpected gem out of all the goodies. But Bo Diddley’s 1950s heyday was much like today, with most everyone listening to singles instead of full-length albums. This double-cd reissue, dating from MCA’s acquisition of the Chess Records catalog in the late 80s, is as good as just about any representation of the guy with the cane and the square guitar. It’s got most of the growling Diddleybeat hits: Who Do You Love, Mona, Hey Bo Diddley and Ride On Josephine. It’s also got the novelty songs: doing the dozens with his deadpan maraca player Jerome Green on Say Man, Bring It to Jerome and Signifying Blues, along with the proto-glam junkie anthem Pills (famously covered by the New York Dolls). But Ellis McDaniel was a lot more than just a hitmaker comedian who liked to do bit parts in cult movies: he was one of the most technologically advanced musicians of his era. He built his own guitars and pioneered the use of electronic effects including chorus, flange, reverb and delay, even foreshadowing the use of the vocoder by twenty years, “talking” through his guitar as on Mumblin’ Guitar. And since he played mostly rhythm on his big hits, they don’t offer much of a hint of what a wryly compelling lead guitarist he was. Or how diverse his songwriting was, from the practically punk R&B of stuff like Roadrunner to ballads like Before You Accuse Me, to cinematic themes like Aztec, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Lee Hazelwood or Ventures catalogs. A few of the later tracks here are marginal, but most of this stuff is choice – and in the public domain, at least in Europe. Here’s a random torrent.

December 4, 2010 Posted by | blues music, lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment