Beethoven: String Quartets (complete)

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: EMI
WORKS: String Quartets (complete)
PERFORMER: Alban Berg Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: CZS 5 73606 2 ADD/DDD Reissue (1978-83)
The cover of the Amadeus Quartet’s re-released Beethoven boxed set bears a photograph of the view down an apparently endless stairwell, a staircase spiralling infinitely away from the viewer as it draws the eye into a mysterious black void in the centre. It’s not a bad image for the Beethoven quartet oeuvre, which starts lucidly enough but becomes increasingly complex and fugitive, ending in the irreconcilable contradictions of the late quartets and a disturbing exposition of the insoluble and ungraspable.

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The members of the Alban Berg are often described in publicity material as four professors from Vienna, and if this conjures images of penetrating logic and analysis then it is not too wide of the mark. While the Amadeus is warm, rich and extrovert, inclined to boost dynamic markings a couple of notches out of what seems sheer generosity and eagerness to communicate, the Alban Berg throughout the early quartets is more disciplined, less outwardly emotional: one is trying not to say clinical. It is brisker, too, but creates longer first movements by playing exposition repeats. Its slow movements, such as that of the opening Op. 18/1, are intense and spectral rather than the heartfelt effusions of the Amadeus. Scherzos and minuets are effective and expertly drilled.

The middle quartets see the best of the Alban Berg, a superbly constructed Op. 59/1, an urgent No. 2, and the triumph of die set an Op. 95 where the atmosphere of crisis is palpable. While the Amadeus early quartets are expansive and satisfying, the Razumovskys are less well shaped and lack some of the Alban Berg’s coherence.

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Neither excels in the late works. The Alban Berg is suddenly prone to misjudgement, whispering hoarsely dirough an Op. 130 Cavatina marked ‘sotto voce’, fallible in the rapid interplay of movements such as the Presto of Op. 131 and producing a thin, pinched tone in Op. 132. The Amadeus tries too hard to make sense of it all, often resulting, as in the Op. 131 finale, in a deal of scraping and not enough music. Op. 135 sees a happy conclusion for both, the Amadeus slow movement in particular serenely radiant, but overall Beethoven seems to have slipped through all those sets of fingers.