Beethoven: String Quartet in B flat, Op. 130; Grosse Fuge, Op. 133

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Capriccio
WORKS: String Quartet in B flat, Op. 130; Grosse Fuge, Op. 133
PERFORMER: Petersen Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 10 851
The Alban Berg Quartet’s early-Eighties EMI studio cycle of the Beethoven quartets is back in the catalogue at reasonable cost (only Op. 95 is missing), so Capriccio’s release of the Petersen Quartet’s new traversal of Opp. 130 and 133 does the ensemble no favours.

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I often assess new recordings of Op. 130 beginning at that extraordinary passage for the first violin near the end of the Cavatina, where Beethoven writes ‘Beklemmt’ (‘strangled’ or ‘oppressively’) above the stave. First violinist Conrad Muck brings a dogged remoteness to the episode that’s undoubtedly close to the spirit of Beethoven’s intentions. But it still sounds like an ‘episode’ – not part of an organic, evolving whole – and this account seems too bitty and disjunctive to convince listeners grappling with Op. 130 for the first time, or indeed to really satisfy those who’ve come to terms with it already.

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The Petersen also tends to gloss over those many moments when Beethoven’s paradoxical dynamic markings seem to run contrary to the musical line. Its playing hasn’t enough charisma or compulsion to transport the listener to that timeless dimension we expect from this music (TS Eliot’s ‘still point of the turning world’?). Few contemporary ensembles penetrate the metaphysical undertow here as does the Alban Berg, or the Tokyo Quartet on RCA; both play with a tonal allure the Petersen cannot equal. The players forge a courageous reading of the Op. 133 Grosse Fuge, still outside the Berg or Tokyo superleague, though the Alban Berg Quartet certainly has the edge. Michael Jameson