WORKS: String Quartets Op. 18/2, 5 & 6; Op. 95; Op. 132; Op. 133 (Grosse Fuge); Op. 135; Op. 59/2 & 3 (Rasumovsky)
PERFORMER: Alban Berg Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: CDS 7 54592 2 DDD
One immediate advantage these new Beethoven recordings have over the Alban Berg Quartet’s widely praised earlier cycle forEMI is that the works are accommodated on eight discs, rather than ten. This has been achieved by coupling works of different periods on each individual disc – no bad thing, though it has resulted in one unfortunate mishap: the ‘Grosse Fuge’ Op. 133 has become separated from the Quartet Op. 130, whose finale it was originally designed to form. If you want to hear Op. 130 as Beethoven first conceived it, you inconveniently have to change not only to another disc midway, but also to a different album.
These are public performances, presented as such. Not only is there copious applause, but also a speech from the quartet’s leader, Günther Pichler; and even an encore, in the shape of a second performance of the ‘Cavatina’ from Op. 130. The playing itself is of a high order, despite an occasional hint of rhythmic laxness from Pichler.The early quartets, Op. 18, do not, perhaps, always recapture the spontaneity and exuberance of these players’ previous recordings; and it is possible to feel that for all their technical accomplishment, they do not penetrate to the heart of such profound late movements as the ‘Cavatina’, or the ‘Holy Song of Thanksgiving’ from the Op. 132 Quartet. But this is certainly an impressive and rewarding cycle.
The works by Rihm and Schnittke, both written for the Alban Berg Quartet, are also live performances. Of the two, Schnittke’s characteristically bleak offering makes the more coherent impression. Misha Donat