Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Complete String Quartets: Volume 3 — The Late Quartets
Quartet No 12 in E-flat major, Op 127 (1825)
Quartet No 13 in B-flat major, Op 130 (1825)
Grosse Fuge in B-flat major, Op 133 (1825)
Quartet No 14 in C-sharp minor, Op 131 (1826)
Quartet No 15 in A minor, Op 132 (1825)
Quartet No 16 in F major, Op 135 (1826)
rec. 2021, Sauder Concert Hall, Goshen College, USA
CEDILLE CDR90000215 [3 CDs: 193]
In my experience, when it comes to discussing performances and recordings of this puzzling and miraculous music, the debate centres more upon the kind of sound one wants a string quartet to produce rather than its interpretative stance – although of course those two factors are inextricably linked.
I, for example, favour a slightly crude, even abrasive, sound whereby one is conscious of the physical process of bowing and plucking yet I do not usually enjoy “original instruments” versions; for that reason I have long preferred the complete recordings by the Medici Quartet on Nimbus over the smoother, more refined – and, to my ears, emotionally anodyne – approach of, say, the Quartetto Italiano, or the sometimes rushed demeanour of the Juilliard (review), yet I have read excoriatingly critical responses to the Medici’s playing. On the other hand, in certain moods, I prefer these quartets to be bathed in the Romantic golden glow of the Smetana Quartet in their recordings for Supraphon in the 60s and 70s, but in more recent years, I have come to settle on the Alban Berg Quartett’s box set on Warner as an ideal compromise between those styles. I also very much enjoyed the Teztlaff’s account of Nos 13 and 15 (review), even if I had some reservations about their tempi in the famous Cavatina – but they have not as yet recorded any more. When it comes to vintage accounts, I find both the Busch and the Hungarian quartets indispensable but we are here discussing modern recordings in the best digital sound – and certainly that is impeccable in this new Cedille issue, which is the third and final volume in the Dover Quartet’s survey of the complete set of Beethoven’s string quartets, the previous volumes having been released in 2019 and 2021 to general acclaim. The three discs are packaged in a regular-sized CD case designed to be space-saving, but with the result that my copy arrived with all the little retaining lugs broken off and the discs rattling around – always a danger with that slimline format.
Packaging issues notwithstanding, I am favourably impressed from the very first bars of No 12, although I have heard those chords delivered with slightly more venom. The Dover Quartet’s unanimity and accuracy of intonation are complemented by the musicality of their phrasing and expression – and they simply make the most beautiful sound. That initial impression is compounded by a sublime Adagio in which the quartet breathes as one, like a singer delivering a melancholy aria. They play with generous vibrato here, again mimicking the human voice, but elsewhere they reduce the pulse of their line and effulgence of their tone without ever sounding acidic or anaemic. They do not insist on musical points; everything flows naturally and harmoniously – although just occasionally I could wish for just a little more underlining of a phrase or accent to punctuate their serene imperturbability.
The stately opening of Op 130 is equally reassuring: soulful and animated – two words the same in origin but whose current nuances both apply to this music-making. The quartet’s dexterity and unity in the fleeting Presto act in vivid contrast to the subsequent dancing Andante; the fourth movement is another dance, this time a lilting “danza tedesca” played here with charm and delicacy. The emotional heart of the quartet is of course the Cavatina; as I am sure is the case for many listeners, how this and the slow movements of Nos 15 and 16 – the Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit (Holy Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Deity) and the Lento assai respectively – are played, is key to my enjoyment. If I find the Cavatina just a mite too propulsive here – as I did with the Tetzlaff – that does not detract from the Dover’s flawless phrasing and singing tone. The poise and intensity of the Dankgesang and the slow movement of Op 135, however, are riveting, the tuning of those suspended harmonies exquisite.
The inclusion of the discarded Grosse Fuge provides another opportunity to try to make sense of this most enigmatic and puzzling of Beethoven’s creations. It is played here with a calm assurance and transparency which somewhat diffuses the disorientating quality of the work and the application of some carefully graded dynamics, noticeably veering between extremes, especially in the central section, provides another layer of interest. The Dover’s mastery permits me to emerge from grappling with it somewhat less dazed than usual – which I mean as high praise; this is as cohesive an account as I know.
The openings of the quartets are crucial to establishing the requisite mood and to my ears the Dover gets the introduction to every one of the six works here absolutely right in terms of tempi, phrasing, timbre, dynamics and atmosphere. I cite as evidence the wonderfully controlled yet lyrical introduction to No 14 as a paradigm of this gift; its mere six minutes are suspended in eternity, ravishing the ear until the jolliness of the second movement Allegro molto vivace breaks that spell. The relative insouciance of so much of this quartet compared with the brooding tragedy we hear elsewhere suits the clarity and fleetness of the Dover’s style and affect, qualities which are to the fore in the fifth Presto movement. This is, of course, also true of the last quartet, No 16, whose prevailing mood is again decidedly carefree – remarkably, given the circumstances under which it was composed. The movements either side of the central Lento assai positively skip along here,
There are so many options for recordings of these late quartets and an equal diversity of tastes regarding how they should sound and be performed, that I am reluctant to make any sweeping statements about the desirability of this new one beyond observing that I think it most unlikely that anyone will be disappointed by it, the intonation, homogeneity and musicality of the Dover Quartet being beyond reproach. Nonetheless, I find no compelling reason to jettison my own favourites as identified above in favour of it; it is “simply” another superb alternative.
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