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Beethoven: String Quartets, Op. 18 Nos 4-6

Chiaroscuro Quartet (BIS)

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

Beethoven
String Quartets, Op. 18 Nos 4-6
Chiaroscuro Quartet
BIS BIS-2498 (CD/SACD)   79:55 mins

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Spruce, clean-sounding, finely articulated with sparing use of vibrato – this is definitely modern Beethoven. It’s hard to imagine anything less like the plush, expressively orotund Amadeus Quartet versions that remain a gold standard for some. The light touch can be very refreshing: I’d never have believed that the finale of Op. 18 No. 5 could be so delicate, almost ethereal, and the gain in textural clarity – to say nothing of a sense of mischievous playfulness – in No. 4’s Andante scherzoso is a high point of this disc for me. In fact, the Chiaroscuro Quartet’s refusal to treat the C minor Quartet as some kind of Sturm und Drang tragedy is definitely a plus. What often tended to sound like inexplicable quirky intrusions now make so much more sense – paradox is at the heart of this music.

The delicacy can be revealing. Following with the score, I was brought up short again by the realisation of how much of this music is marked piano or pianissimo. The Beethoven who seems to want to lull you into a false sense of security then dig you energetically in the ribs seems a long way off. But there are times when something a bit more robust would have been welcome (the first movement of No. 6 for instance), and the sense you get with, say, the Takács Quartet, of ploughing a deep emotional furrow is largely absent. Despite some wonderful things here, as a whole this doesn’t quite convince.

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Stephen Johnson