Beethoven: Complete String Quartets

COMPOSERS: Beethoven
LABELS: Philips
WORKS: Complete String Quartets
PERFORMER: Quartetto Italiano
CATALOGUE NO: 454 062-2 ADD
Taken as a whole, this is music whose range is so great, whose substance is so varied and whose spiritual journeyings are so profound that they render the very concept of definitive performance absurd. Not even the greatest performance can possibly reveal the whole truth of any masterpiece, let alone so many. That said, some come conspicuously nearer than others. Beautifully (but not too beautifully) remastered, these justly famous performances deserve a place on anyone’s shelf. In precision of phrase and articulation, in purity of intonation and homogeneity of tone, they have few rivals. Indeed it’s a tribute to the integrity and spiritual variety of the playing that my mind was continually cast back to the still unsurpassed recordings of the Busch Quartet made some sixty years ago.

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To say that the Italians are not primarily interested in the more sensual aspects of quartet-playing here is not to suggest that there is anything ugly or abrasive in their approach as a whole, but to indicate, rather, that they never make beauty of tone an end in itself. They capture the roughness of Beethoven as well as the lyricism and ultimate sublimity. There’s no attempt to prettify him. At the same time, when Beethoven wants beauty, the Italians unstintingly oblige. Their sound is an impressive (and impressively varied) amalgam of polyphonic clarity and harmonic blend, full but never fulsome, rich in colour yet predominantly lean in character. Interpretatively, too, they strike an almost ideal balance between consummate professionalism, deep reflection and a sense of spontaneity which has all the exhilaration and awe of fresh discovery. Not once do they sound remotely routine.

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However excellent the remastering, there’s no denying that these haven’t the aural sheen of some more recent recordings, but depending on your viewpoint, this may be no bad thing. The sonorous glow afforded by digital stereo has to a certain extent created a whole new acoustic of its own, which is by no means appropriate to all music, or all performances (in the case of the piano it has tended to distort as much as to enhance). Nevertheless, this is a set to be treasured. Jeremy Siepmann