Beethoven: String Quartet in C minor, Op. 18/4; String Quartet in A, Op. 18/5; String Quartet in B flat, Op. 130; Grosse Fuge, Op. 133

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Virgin
WORKS: String Quartet in C minor, Op. 18/4; String Quartet in A, Op. 18/5; String Quartet in B flat, Op. 130; Grosse Fuge, Op. 133
PERFORMER: Borodin Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: VBD 5 61748 2 Reissue (1988-92)
On the face of it, Virgin’s budget-price reissue seems an attractive proposition. Few quartets rival the Borodin’s cultivated, perfectly homogenised tone; indeed, the sheer technical aplomb of these performances often takes the breath away. But therein lies the rub. In its quest for beauty of finish the Borodin engages only fitfully with Beethoven’s vision. In both the early quartets its playing has more than a suggestion of slickness. The Borodin sounds more engaged in the late B flat Quartet, though there is too little feeling of heroic striving against impossible odds in the Grosse Fuge, rightly played as the quartet’s culmination, with Beethoven’s pointedly unproblematic alternative finale given as an encore.

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The Philharmonia Quartet of Berlin reverses the Borodin’s order and omits the structurally important first-movement repeat. But in almost every respect its performance is preferable: leaner and more varied of tone, more vital, more fanciful (the third movement done with a near-ideal delicacy and fluidity) and, in the intensely personal Cavatina, altogether more inward. And its Grosse Fuge has far more of a knife-edge feel. Among modern recordings it can hold its own with all the competition save, perhaps, the Juilliard Quartet on Sony.

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An obvious raison d’être of the Harmonia Mundi disc is that all three quartets are recorded on period instruments for the first time. The booklet note makes much of the Eroica Quartet’s stylistic credentials, including the use of authentic bowings and fingerings, and the expressive deployment of portamento, eschewed by most string quartets today. Beyond this, the Eroica’s performances, if less than impeccable technically (intonation can falter, especially in the slow movement of the Harp), are thoughtful and intelligently shaped. Richard Wigmore