WORKS: String Quartets, Vol. 1: Op. 18/1, 2, 3l; String Quartets, Vol. 2: Op. 18/4, 5, 6
PERFORMER: Vanbrugh Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 043, 044
The proliferation of fine quartets of a younger generation is a phenomenon much to be welcomed but, surely, nobody is done any favours by the kind of booklet hype which, for example, has the Alexander Quartet promoted as ‘one of the most renowned string quartets ever’. Ever? Says who – asks I!
Beethoven’s Op. 18 Quartets have suffered too long from a sense that their composer was still inescapably under the heavy influence of Haydn and Mozart. In fact, both of these ensembles make perfectly good cases for the discovery of a recognisable individual voice. The Vanbrugh Quartet is blessed with much better recorded sound. A pity, therefore, that time and again I found myself disappointed by its disregard of Beethoven’s dynamic markings and general avoidance of real pianissimo. With a less generous ambience, the Alexander Quartet dares more in its pursuit of greater light and shade in volume and tone colour.
In the D major quartet, the Alexander sings more sweetly, though its tone is vulnerable (chamber more than concert-hall orientated perhaps?). The intonation and articulation of the Vanbrugh are mighty impressive throughout and its charm and elegance in the Fifth Quartet quite disarming. No great problems in any of these discs but, overall, no great illumination either. Let’s put that ‘ever’ on hold for a while. David Wilkins