String Quartets Nos 15 & 16, Opp. 132 & 135
Onyx ONYX 4227 68:08 mins
These highly sophisticated readings recall a time when quartet ensembles tended more towards tonal matching than linear independence. Miraculously, James Ehnes’s gloriously radiant sound is matched by his highly gifted colleagues – violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti, violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill and cellist Edward Arron – who at times create the impression of being an extension of his essential sound and artistic personality.
If the modern tendency, especially in the A minor Quartet, Op. 132, is to create a sense of semantic fantasy, as if to remind contemporary listeners just how incredibly far ahead of his time Beethoven was, Ehnes and friends are closer to the espressivointensity of, say, the Budapest or Amadeus quartets. The often-harrowing nature of Beethoven’s inspiration emerges not so much by force but rather as a natural outcome of the music’s profound inner communing. The sense of four players somehow imbibing from the same musical source is even more unmistakable in the final F major Quartet, Op. 135, with its subtle musical asides and playful in-jokes for the cognoscenti. It is also deceptively tricky to play really well, and here the Ehnes ensemble’s radiant allure and seemingly impregnable technical savvy really comes into its own.