String Quartet No. 13 in B flat, Op. 130; Grosse Fuge in B flat, Op. 133
Onyx Classics ONYX 4199 57:47 mins
Last summer, unable to cross the Atlantic, James Ehnes and his three chamber music partners found themselves recording in Atlanta while their producer, Simon Kiln, worked with them remotely from the UK. They made it work surprisingly well: they set down four Beethoven discs in one intense fortnight, and this first release – which follows the final version of Beethoven’s Op. 130 Quartet with its original finale, the Op. 133 Grosse Fuge – bodes well for the rest.
Everything is crisply articulated and thoroughly thought through. The alternately hushed and hurtling passages in Op. 130’s first movement are an example of how beautifully the players handle Beethoven’s jackknife changes in direction. The faster inner movements, which can so often seem lightweight, have real substance. The second movement bounces along with Mendelssohnian lightness; the third has a hint of self-awareness that makes you picture splendidly pointed toes on a Viennese dance floor.
The Cavatina is, as ever, the heart of the work, and the two violinists, Ehnes and the slightly darker-toned Amy Schwartz Moretti, complement each other rewardingly here – but the very ending perhaps loses a bit of magic as a result of the quartet’s determination not to milk it.
The Grosse Fuge maintains momentum, winding tighter and tighter; then its final section begins so softly it’s almost playful, ready to pounce. This account radiates enjoyment, and if exuberance occasionally trumps elegance that’s no bad thing.