Beethoven

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven
WORKS: String Quartets, Op. 18
PERFORMER: Jerusalem Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 902207-08

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Beethoven’s debut set of string quartets was released on the very cusp of the 18th and 19th centuries. At times these extraordinary works do seem poised between Enlightenment Classicism and burgeoning early Romanticism. One moment we’re enjoying scintillating conversation in a Viennese drawing room, the next Napoleon is hammering on the doors.

Some quartets choose to stress the continuity with the recent past, others to dig out signs of things to come. The Jerusalem Quartet strike a particularly fine balance. We are always aware of an assembly of four individuals, engaged in witty conversation, or perhaps something a little closer to arm-wrestling. Yet animated exchange can quickly yield to lyrical sweetness or pathos. The Adagio of Op. 18 No. 1 is a thoroughly convincing example of the latter, the finale of the former, while the coda of the Andante of Op. 18 No. 5 manages to be exquisitely both. Even the confessional ‘La Malinconia’ from Op. 18 No. 6 emerges as a moving inner dialogue, but – hallelujah! – with no over-dramatic rhetorical pauses. Granted, the Jerusalems don’t always match the character and intense insight of the Takács Quartet, whose edge-of-the-seat gruff humour in the finale of Op. 18 No. 4 is so compelling that one forgets to notice the tell-tale signs of not-quite complete maturity.

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Recorded sound is lovely, with a good quartet layout. The ordering of the three quartets on disc one is slightly perplexing – a (notional) order of composition? – but that’s hardly a major gripe. Stephen Johnson