ALBUM TITLE: Beethoven String Quartets
WORKS: String Quartet in E flat, Op. 127; String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132
PERFORMER: Hagen Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 477 5705
These thought-provoking accounts of the first two of Beethoven’s late string quartets shed new light, in particular, on the question of tempo relationships. Op. 132’s slow introduction has a mysterious four-note motif which is woven into the fabric of the following Allegro in notes of twice the value. The implication is that the music moves at double the previous speed, and this is how the Hagen Quartet play it. The result in terms of underlining the music’s organic unity is nothing short of revelatory. Less convincing, however, is their similar approach to the work’s slow movement – the famous ‘Holy Song of Thanksgiving’, whose austere chorale variations alternate with a second theme in a livelier tempo depicting the convalescent’s newly regained strength. There’s actually no reason why the two should share a common pulse, particularly since the second theme inevitably sounds too laboured as a result.
The imperious chords that open the E flat Quartet Op. 127 sound at first curiously restrained, but the Hagen have rightly taken into account the fact that they return twice during the course of the Allegro, each time in a scoring more grand than the last, and the progressive increase in sonority is finely calculated. Perhaps in the end the Alban Berg Quartet provide a safer recommendation for both these great works, but for all their controversial aspects there’s much to admire in these new performances – not least the warmth and ardour of the playing itself. The two works were recorded in different venues, excessively dry in the case of Op. 127. Misha Donat