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

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
WORKS: String Quartet in B flat, Op. 130; Grosse Fuge
PERFORMER: The Lindsays
The difference here is between playing which is good – often very good – and something altogether more special. The Kodály Quartet is a polished, taut, thoroughly integrated foursome, capable of intelligent, probing, tastefully expressive interpretation. In its hands the slow opening fugue of Op. 131 is beautifully shaped and paced, and quite moving. By comparison, the Lindsays can be less refined, but even seeming flaws can mean something: leader Peter Cropper’s bow trembles on the string in the eerily broken ‘Beklemmt’ (‘oppressed’) melody at the heart of the Cavatina from Op. 130, but the impression of raw, almost unmediated emotion is deeply touching and unsettling – this is the Quartet’s moment of crisis, beautifully prepared, after which the Grosse Fuge emerges as a work of heroic reconstruction. Put simply, the Lindsays take risks; the polish may occasionally suffer, but the rewards – emotionally and intellectually – outweigh the imperfections. For comparison, the Talich Quartet is as refined as the Kodály, but it tells us more – just how much of Beethoven’s late quartet writing is marked piano or pianissimo, for instance (the Kodály isn’t much given to extremes, particularly when it comes to dynamics). In Op. 130, the inward-looking Talich and the much more extrovert Lindsays are about equally balanced in merit, though the one big advantage of the Lindsays’ version is that it offers a choice of finales: the Grosse Fuge (as originally intended by Beethoven) and the later, lighter substitute. Both the Naxos and ASV discs are well-recorded, but ASV takes us right inside the ensemble – more dangerous perhaps (Cropper’s sniffs are clearly audible) but much more exciting. Stephen Johnson