WORKS: String Quartets, Vol. 1: Op. 18; Vol. 2: Opp. 59 (Razumovsky), 74 (Harp) & 95 (Serioso)
PERFORMER: Alban Berg Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: HMVD 5 74257 2, 5 74260 2 (available only from HMV stores) ADD Reissue (1981, 1979)
The Alban Berg Quartet leaves you in no doubt that Beethoven’s Op. 18 is the music of a young man determined to invest this most elevated Classical medium with a new dynamic urgency and rhetorical force. With fiery tempi, razor-sharp attack and taut, athletic rhythms the ABQ realises all the music’s trenchancy, wilfulness and intellectual energy. True, the players find relatively little space for expressive detail and they miss an element of whimsical playfulness in, say, the Andante scherzoso of No. 4 and the first movement of No. 5. But the ensemble’s confident sweep and unerring control of tensions over long spans are mightily compelling.
Highlights on the set of middle-period quartets are a magnificently conceived and executed Op. 59/3 and one of the most uncompromising, hard-bitten performances of the Quartetto serioso Op. 95 in the catalogue. The brisk tempo and huge dynamic contrasts (an ABQ hallmark) in the first movement of Op. 59/1 lend the music an unusually edgy feel, at the expense of its majestic breadth; and in the slow movements, for all the ABQ’s immaculate balance and homogeneity of tone and phrasing, I sometimes missed the individuality of inflection of the Quartetto Italiano (my own favourite in the Razumovskys) and the more technically fallible Végh and Lindsays. Still, the Alban Berg Quartet’s powerful, cogent readings of these epoch-making works remain among the catalogue’s front-runners, even more so in the new low-priced format. Richard Wigmore