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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