String Quartet in F major, Hess 32; String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor. Op. 131 – Adagio espressivo; Prelude and Fugue in F major, Hess 30; Allegretto in B minor, WoO 210; Prelude and Fugue in C major, Hess 31; Menuett in A flat major, WoO 209; Grosse Fugue in B flat major, Op. 133; Handel (arr. Beethoven) Solomon, HWV 67, Part I – Overture: Fugue
Fine Arts Quartet
Naxos 8.574051 70.19 mins
Anyone hoping for a disc full of ‘new’ Beethoven will be underwhelmed by this recording: there are only 17 minutes of genuinely unfamiliar music here and two minutes of that is an arrangement of a fugue by Handel.
The unfamiliar pieces mostly offer insight into Beethoven’s counterpoint studies in Vienna in the 1790s – these are studies straight from the exercise book, albeit ones that would have delighted any teacher. The two complete Preludes and Fugues would be at home in the organ loft. There’s also the tiny Allegretto that Beethoven dashed off in 1817 as a souvenir for an English visitor who took it home to Cornwall, where it was rediscovered only in 1999. This is more like the inventive Beethoven we know; with its wrong-footed accents it sounds like the potential introduction to something fiery and substantial, although it lasts only half a minute.
The Fine Arts Quartet give energetic performances, the music always alive but not always elegantly turned. They end with a muscular performance of the Grosse Fuge, sounding even more wild and imposing in this alien context. Otherwise, more than half of the disc is of original versions – of the whole Quartet Op. 18 No. 1 and of the first movement of Op. 131. Especially of Op. 18 No. 1, Beethoven’s revisions were thorough, with lots of tiny tweaks; yet the music is substantially the same and you’d need to know the originals well to spot the differences. This is one for scholars and completist Beethoven collectors. Erica Jeal