Beethoven: String Quartets Op. 18/1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6; Quintet Op. 29; Piano Sonata Op. 14/1 (arr string quartet)

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: RCA Victor Red Seal
WORKS: String Quartets Op. 18/1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6; Quintet Op. 29; Piano Sonata Op. 14/1 (arr string quartet)
PERFORMER: Tokyo String Quartet with Pinchas Zukerman (viola)
CATALOGUE NO: 09026 61284 2 DDD
First things first: the technical accomplishment of the playing on these discs of Beethoven’s early quartets is breathtaking — immaculate intonation, every phrase meticulously polished, and not a single note out of place. Just listen to the accuracy and transparency of the pianissimo fugato passage in the opening movement of Op. 18/2; the quiet intensity of the tragic slow movement of No. 1; or the sheer brilliance of the scurrying finale of No. 5.

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Such perfection is, however, not without its dangers: in the first two quartets the finale sounds altogether too smooth to capture the music’s mercurial humour. Moreover, the finale of No. 6 is surely too fast to convey the music’s essential dance character.

Curiously, the opening bars of No. 3 are taken at a slower tempo than the remainder of the piece -quite unnecessarily so, since their breadth is calculated and written into the music; while the chain of trills that runs through the concluding variation in the slow movement of No. 5 sounds heavy, rather than ecstatic.

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An impressive set, nevertheless, and one that comes with two welcome bonuses. Beethoven’s own skilful arrangement of his Piano Sonata Op. 14/1 is small beer, perhaps; but the String Quintet Op. 29 is a major, and sadly neglected, work. Misha Donat