Beethoven: String Quartet in E flat, Op. 127; String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Dabringhaus und Grimm Gold
WORKS: String Quartet in E flat, Op. 127; String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132
PERFORMER: Leipzig String Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: MDG 307 0854-2
Controversially, the Leipzig Quartet knocks no fewer than seven minutes off the duration of the famous ‘Holy Song of Thanksgiving’ from Op. 132 in comparison with such famous recordings as those by the Busch Quartet and the Quartetto Italiano. Beethoven marks the piece ‘Molto adagio’, and the Busch and Italian players take a devout view that makes no distinction in atmosphere between the chorale melody itself and the tiny phrases of contrapuntal writing that punctuate it. The Leipzig Quartet clearly feels the chorale should proceed in two beats to the bar, rather than four. However, while the chorale itself remains essentially unvaried as the movement unfolds, the contrapuntal passages become more intricate on each recurrence; and on their final appearance Beethoven directs that they should be played ‘with extremely intimate feeling’ – something that cannot adequately be realised at the Leipzig players’ tempo. Moreover, the intervening episodes, in which the convalescent feels his strength returning, seem insufficiently contrasted in mood.

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Scarcely less contentious is the short burst of violin recitative that precedes the finale. Most performers play it in an unabashed fortissimo, with plenty of fat G-string tone; but the Leipzig Quartet bravely respects Beethoven’s predominantly piano marking. In so doing, however, it sacrifices much of the music’s passion and intensity; and the finale itself is also decidedly on the cool side. More successful is the performance of Op. 127, but more deeply felt accounts of both works are offered by the Alban Berg Quartet, particularly on their later, ‘live’ EMI recording. Misha Donat