Beethoven: String Quartets in E flat, Op. 127, & in F, Op. 135

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Supraphon
WORKS: String Quartets in E flat, Op. 127, & in F, Op. 135
PERFORMER: Škampa Quartet
At first sight – or rather, hearing – these seem the most conventional of Beethoven’s legendary ‘Late’ String Quartets. They’re both laid out in the normal four movements; there’s nothing as superficially startling as the sudden plunge from march to stormy recitative in Op. 132, or the abrupt changes in texture and direction in the Grosse Fuge. But listen a little harder and they’re full of surprises: sometimes witty, sometimes earthily comical, at other times profoundly disturbing – there are passages in both slow movements which are like chasms suddenly opening up in a familiar landscape. The Škampa Quartet clearly relishes the originalities of the concise, relatively Classical Op. 135. The racing rhythmic games of the scherzo and the long, fearful silences in the slow movement are equally full of well-focused energy, and there’s as much laughter as probing intensity in the finale – where did we get this stupid idea that Beethoven had no sense of humour? I’m not quite as convinced by Op. 127. The slow movement is compelling, as is the quick-witted intelligence of the players’ phrasing in the first movement and scherzo; but for some reason the Škampa is inclined to be a bit heavy-handed with the accents and sudden fortes. Of course one shouldn’t prettify Beethoven, but I can’t believe he meant to dig us in the ribs so forcefully, so often. For a more expressively rounded Beethoven, the Lindsay Quartet is a firm recommendation in both quartets, and the ASV recordings take one closer inside the quartet, as though you were sitting among the players – short of actually playing these pieces, that’s the best way to hear them. Stephen Johnson