String Quartets: No. 12 in E flat, Op. 127; No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131
Onyx Classics ONYX 4215 50:19 mins
If Beethoven prized Op. 131 highly he wasn’t alone – Schubert, Schumann and Wagner queued up to heap praise. And together with Op. 127 which broke a quartet silence of some 15 years, both works are the latest additions to the Ehnes’s ongoing project of recording late Beethoven quartets. Its virtues are by now well-rehearsed: ringing tonal opulence and fastidious balance are at the service of readings manifestly intelligent and often hugely compelling.
At the same time, though, the polish and ‘finish’ sometimes works against the spirit of struggle that spikes the transcendental elements; and some of the protean drama is under-observed. Take the opening of Op. 127. The Takács Quartet (Decca) imbue the Maestoso introduction with more presence, the chords instinct with brooding tension. And the Ehnes’s exert such a powerfully incisive grip on the Scherzo that some of its Puckishness is lost. Indeed their precision can be a little too controlling generally, especially when Beethoven slips into quasi-recitative mood. The brief connecting passage into Op. 131’s fourth movement is a touch brusque – though when they land, the theme and variations are ravishingly navigated.
Variations seem to suit the Ehnes’s because Op. 127’s set unfolds in a serenely spacious place – James Ehnes, himself, ‘singing’ particularly sweetly in the E major Adagio molto espressivo. Ensembles such as the Busch, Hungarian or Lindsay quartets are not afraid to break a sweat in these late masterpieces; the Ehnes’s sometimes sound as if they still have something in reserve. Op. 131’s Finale, however, trenchant and judiciously calibrated, rounds off an absorbing disc with resounding authority.