LABELS: Foghorn Classics
WORKS: The Complete String Quartets
PERFORMER: Alexander Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: CD 1996/1999/2002
This is in fact the Alexander String Quartet’s second complete Beethoven cycle, the first having appeared a few years ago on the Arte Nova label. However, the new set, beautifully recorded in the ambient surroundings of New York City’s American Academy of Arts and Letters, boasts a slightly different line-up, as well as a more homogenous sound that probably results from the quartet’s decision to perform on instruments made by the same luthier.
There’s a refreshing directness about the Alexander’s interpretative approach which is immediately evident in the Op. 18 set. They clearly view these early works as bold and innovative, emphasising the brusque and fiery nature of Beethoven’s writing. Thus the opening movements of the F major, Op. 18 No. 1, and A major, Op. 18 No. 5, are delivered with tremendous vigour making the very most of all the sforzando accents and unexpected eruptions of energy. At the same time, the approach can seem a bit unyielding, tending to overlook other equally important elements in the music such as wit, tenderness and charm. A good example is the opening movement of the B flat major, Op. 18 No. 6, which seems too fast and hard-driven to allow us to really appreciate the witty dialogue between first violin and cello.
In the middle period quartets, the Alexander Quartet are at their most convincing in those movements such as the Finale of the E minor Rasumovsky, Op. 59 No. 2, where they build up a really exciting head of steam with the seemingly relentless stream of dotted rhythms, or in the propulsive Scherzo to the E flat, Op. 74. In contrast, despite their brilliantly clear articulation, the fugal Finale of the C major Rasumovsky, Op. 59 No. 3 seems a bit heavy, requiring a more playful touch. Elsewhere, the Alexanders are more mellow and reflective in the slow movements of Op. 74 and the F minor Serioso, Op. 95. The opening movement to the F major Rasumovsky, Op. 59 No. 1 is also performed with considerable warmth, though it’s a pity that the first violin’s pitch slightly wavers on a high C near the coda.
In many respects, the late quartets offer some of the most satisfying playing in the whole cycle. Perhaps the Alexanders don’t quite uncover all the emotional depths of the opening Adagio to Op. 131 or the heart-rending Cavatina of Op. 130. But they really have the measure of Op. 132, delivering a performance that conveys a great deal of passion and emotional intensity.
Setting aside a few moments of dubious intonation, the playing is generally of a very high calibre, but interpretatively the Alexanders offer only a partial view of these masterpieces. Perhaps no single quartet could hope to embrace every aspect of Beethoven’s work with total conviction, but of the competing alternatives the veteran recordings from the Quartetto Italiano on Philips come as close as possible to attaining this goal. Erik Levi