Beethoven: String Quartets, Op. 18

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Philips
WORKS: String Quartets, Op. 18
PERFORMER: Guarneri Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 434 115-2 DDD
It’s been a bumper year for Beethoven’s six early Op. 18 string quartets; revelatory period performances from the Turner Quartet (Harmonia Mundi), magisterial accounts of quartets Nos 1-3 by the Cleveland Quartet, and now this illustrious traversal by the Guarneri Quartet. Let me declare emphatically that the Guarneris are sensational in this literature; their insightful mastery of Beethovenian semantics remains all-encompassing, and their technical command is absolute.

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Telarc assures us that the second instalment of the Cleveland Quartet’s cycle will be available shortly, and if the curtly doctrinaire style of the Turners doesn’t appeal, prime options beyond those considered here should include EMI’s series from the Alban Berg Quartet.

As Joseph Kerman indicates, the influence of Haydn’s Opp. 20 and 33, and of Mozart’s ‘Haydn’ Quartets (all, incidentally, issued in groups of six) upon Beethoven’s Op. 18 was both profound and prophetic. The genius behind the Guarneri Quartet’s playing is underscored by a strong historical and stylistic congruity throughout these readings; thus Op. 18/2 is without portentous latter-day implications, while ‘La Malincolia’, that curious adjunct to the otherwise ‘unbuttoned’ atmosphere of No. 6, prefigures future analyses of human limitation, the intellectual focus in Beethoven’s late quartets.

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The Guarneri Quartet are in every regard peerless Beethovenians; I can only conclude that here, as elsewhere, their performances come as close as is humanly possible to realising an absolute in these works, as much as modern instruments permit. The recordings, made at New York’s Academy of Arts and Letters in 1991, are likewise beyond criticism. Michael Jameson