Beethoven String Quartets, Opp. 18/3, 74 & 135
It’s not easy to put my finger on why this is decidedly a modern performance of Beethoven, questions of recording aside. The Quatuor Ysaÿe is as contemporary a body as the great Busch Quartet was of the 1920s and 1930s, and the Amadeus of the post-World War II quarter-century. The tone the Ysaÿe cultivate is wiry, especially that of the lead violinist Guillaume Sutre, who also takes the lead in sounding distinct from the other players, much more than one would normally expect.
These performances, chosen to represent Beethoven’s early and late-middle periods and then the last of all his works, often give more value to the marked aggressiveness of his writing than to any of its other qualities. I was beginning to flinch from the attack, until I reached the second, slow movement of the Op. 74 Quartet, which is played with melting tenderness, even lingeringly so, and there Sutre does finally merge with his colleagues. The same thing almost happens in the sublime slow movement of the last Quartet, but not quite. On the other hand, the feathery textures of the astonishing scherzo of that work, music stretched until you can hear through to the other side, is perfect, and so is the joyous ending of the whole cycle.
These are by no means the most complete experiences I have had of these masterpieces, but they are highly instructive.