Beethoven: String Quartets in E minor, Op. 59/2 (Razumovsky), in E flat, Op. 74 (Harp)

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COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: ASV
WORKS: String Quartets in E minor, Op. 59/2 (Razumovsky), in E flat, Op. 74 (Harp)
PERFORMER: The Lindsays
CATALOGUE NO: CD DCA 1115
Despite its seemingly easygoing manner (easygoing, that is, compared to the other Beethoven quartets), the so-called Harp Quartet, Op. 74, is something of a genially smiling sphinx. Like the more intense, unsettling, quick-witted Second Razumovsky Quartet, it has its riddles and mysteries, so perhaps it’s not surprising that few groups have coupled them on a single disc before. Hearing them together in the hands of such perceptive Beethovenians as the Lindsays is fascinating, though I have to say I didn’t find their Op. 74 quite as rewarding as their stunning Op. 59/2. This new version of the E minor Quartet eclipses even their old ASV recording when it comes to seeing the work as a whole. In some performances the third and fourth movements can be a let-down after the glorious Molto adagio; not here. Beethoven’s contrapuntal treatment of the Russian folk tune in his scherzo third movement – often criticised as over-ingenious – is full of strange, nervy life here. Then the finale positively explodes out of the scherzo’s muted ending, its mixture of Haydnesque humour and repressed tragic feeling working out unusually well. Even the fine Talich Quartet, which sees deeper into the slow movement than any other modern ensemble, can’t compete with the Lindsays here. But the Czechs have the edge in the Harp, even though the Lindsays’ risk-taking vitality often reaps rewards, and even though the new ASV recording is far preferable to the restricted Calliope sound. When the Lindsays are completely convincing, as in Op. 59/2, the odd technical blemish hardly matters, but I found myself noticing lapses of intonation in Op. 74 rather more – which probably says a lot. Still, this is worth having for the E minor Quartet alone.

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