Beethoven: String Quartets (complete)

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Decca London
WORKS: String Quartets (complete)
PERFORMER: Gabrieli String Quartet, Aeolian String Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 458 301-2 ADD/DDD Reissue
Although it might seem more sensible to have either the thoughts of a single ensemble or the chance to pick-and-mix individual recordings, I have found this box a very satisfying charting of music which never fails to inspire a sense of awe. The Gabrieli Quartet brings an appropriate sense of sophistication and developing breadth to the early and middle period works while the Aeolian Quartet is somewhat more rugged in its approach to the astonishing challenges of the late masterpieces. Both groups can boast the essential prerequisites of careful intonation and astute ensemble without ever sacrificing genuine musical personality to the tempting superficialities of all-too-homogeneous ‘blend’ or spectacular, but self-serving, virtuosity.

Advertisement

From the first quartet of Op. 18, the Gabrieli demonstrates its admirable dedication to Beethoven’s dynamic markings, especially in its pursuit of a genuine pianissimo. There is a certain restraint: nothing is overdone but all necessary contrasts are there. It doesn’t treat these early pieces as charming but inconsequential, nor does it indulge in spurious point-making. Thus, it is respect for the score which makes (for example) the slow movements – perfectly balanced, lovingly played – such an affecting experience. In the Razumovsky Quartets (Op. 59), it occasionally allows perfection of ensemble to become secondary to the momentum of the argument but that is to err in the right direction. The fugal finale of No. 3 is a triumph of concentration rather than mere pyrotechnics –a little unsmiling, perhaps, but typically bold and invigorating.

Advertisement

In the late works, the Aeolian Quartet is adept at making sense of Beethoven’s complex structures without ever ignoring the fact that they are often dealing with the near-ineffable. The Cavatina of Op. 130 could be played more ‘sotto voce’ and lacks the ultimate of insights that ensembles like the Budapest and Végh Quartets deliver, but it is still very moving. The F major (Op. 135) is given an interpretation which feels properly ‘inhabited’ – confidence and swagger in the first movement, a calm repose which is not solipsistic in the Lento and a simple celebration of the carefree in the finale. The Grosse Fuge is a musical equivalent of Dr Johnson’s dog walking on hind legs – though here it is done well, one is astonished anew that it is done at all and especially to such exhilarating effect.