Aureole etc.

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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The late String Quartets

Quartet in E flat Op. 127
Quartet in B flat Op. 130
Quartet in C sharp minor Op. 131
Quartet in A minor Op. 132
Grosse Fugue Op. 133
Quartet in F Op. 135
Quartetto Italiano
Rec. ADD
Philips 50 Great Recordings series
PHILIPS 464-684-2 [3CDs: 215.45]


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With such a title, ‘Philips 50 great recordings’, and The Gramophone stating, ..." the Italiano manage to combine technical brilliance with just the right emotional tone..." one is reluctant to say anything different.

No one admires Beethoven more than I do but I do not belong to the school of thought that regards his late quartets as masterpieces. The early Opus 18 quartets are hugely enjoyable but my view is that his middle quartets are the best because they were written when Beethoven was at the height of his powers. The Rasumovsky Quartet Opus 59 no. 3 in C major is probably his finest quartet particularly when you listen to the splendid Emerson Quartet on DG although I confess that their finale is too fast. In fact I would recommend the Emerson set as the best, although my old set of the Aeolian Quartet take some beating.

The Italians have a sound that does not evoke Beethoven. However inane it may sound they have a Mediterranean sound ... so sophisticated and warm; so unlike Beethoven the man and musician. Their performances are so highly polished and slippery that I did not appreciate them. They make a lovely sound and their skill is unquestioned. But it is so suave and clinical, so matter of fact and without the Beethoven ingredients of drama and emotion. Despite the warm playing I was left cold. There were no Beethovenian depths. And this is significant because how music is played can deter some people for life. I remember hearing Karajan perform Sibelius's Fourth and it was so dreadful that I did not listen to it again for thirty years and blamed Sibelius. But then along came the great Alexander Gibson. I still find the work difficult but thanks to Sandy Gibson it is worth further consideration. First hearings can be a great hindrance. This is why music must be played correctly and as indicated by the composer. But we live in the days of jet set conductors, and other performers, who know better than the composer and change things! Even Mahler had the arrogance to re-orchestrate some of Schumann's symphonies and I wonder about the ethics of this. Schumann's Second Symphony is a glorious work and should not be touched. The orchestration is excellent for what it wants to say and if the Riccardo Muti version, originally on Classics for Pleasure, is still available it should be purchased and will be enjoyed.

To add to the dilemma Beethoven was undergoing change. He began to use all the instruments as individuals rather than have one with a melody line and the other three just filling in harmonies. That, in itself, is excellent but he also makes the music more rhapsodic and the structure is flabby without the classical lines of his earlier works. He often changes tempi within movements and hinders the music's progress and momentum. And, like Shostakovich in his last works, Beethoven writes long slow movements and this puts his quartets are out of balance. For example, Opus 130 is 66% slow music; the C sharp minor is 60% slow music and often this music is somewhat gloomy and depressive. Again one realises that Beethoven was deaf, troubled by domestic problems, disliked, scruffy and unkempt and apparently suffering from unrequited love from his immortal beloved (who was she?). He was physically abused as a child and many children who endure this themselves follow on some sort of abuse known as cyclic abuse. It is my view that Beethoven abused himself by his negligence of his own needs.

Beethoven was a lion but these performances sometimes make him out to be a fluffy rabbit.

The opening of opus 127 has a lovely sound but no real feeling and I am sorry to say that it has no really memorable material. This is a pity for Beethoven took great trouble over this quartet … sketching and re-sketching it. The performance is too leisurely and weak. There is no grip. The sound, lovely as it is, is more like Verdi or Puccini than Beethoven. The slow movement is very long at 15'27" and the frequent changes of tempi makes it sound like a rag-bag of music. There are some lovely sounds and an autumnal glow. Beethoven is here displayed as a romantic. There are moments of quasi-sadness and great tenderness but a few brief moments like these does not shorten the 15'27". The material is not strong enough to maintain that length of time satisfactorily. The lack of coherent structure does not help and the non-Beethoven style of playing is a positive disappointment. The scherzando third movement is poorly performed. It needs a far greater attack than this wimpish version. Here we are suave as opposed to rugged and the piece simply does not hang together. The finale fails too. The tempo is too broad and, again, the thematic material is slight. Alan Rawsthorne said, "It is daft music". While I understand what he meant I cannot adequately explain his view but rather refer you to that daft main theme in the finale of Beethoven's Second Symphony. It is almost as Beethoven's frustration pervades Opus 127 and the playing here is a little wayward at times almost as if it is a rehearsal and the final bars are tortuous!

From an interpretation point of view, a simply dreadful performance!

There are music lovers who will not have anything said against their favourite composers and actually lie for them. Much as I adore Beethoven I am not going to lie. Let me briefly discuss the C sharp minor quartet. If it consisted of movements 1, 5 and 7 and was played well it could arguably be his best quartet. But we have seven movements, although movements 3 and 6 are very short and merely introductions to the succeeding movements. The third movement runs for 14'38" and puts the quartet out of balance. The material is not really memorable and, therefore, the length seems unjustified. The performance of the opening Adagio is very disappointing. The violins are too close in comparison with the viola and cello. There are some unauthorized sudden changes of tone. There is no real beauty, no repose. It is too smooth and proper and the music's intrinsic beauty simply is not realised ... and yet it is a super movement. On a positive side the Italians fare better with the quick movements, numbers five and seven, but their performances are still superficial and lack depth.

Opus 130 is also worrying. Its opening is nothing short of being downright dreary and only 8 minutes in do we encounter any real Beethoven style. The performance does not hang together and while I accept it is a difficult piece to bring off, the exaggerated stop and start playing makes listening to it infuriating. There are good moments but Beethoven's self-indulgence is made greater by the Italians’ self-indulgence! There are six movements in all. The second movement also has a few good moments but I have never heard Beethoven like this. The third movement fares better although one cannot identify it as Beethoven. On the credit side the balance is better.

The F major Opus 135 is a stronger work and in four movements but the tempi here are taken at too leisurely a pace. There are some 'unfortunate' notes which are not in any of my scores and the lower strings are rough at times. It is one of Beethoven's better late quartets but I have heard it performed so well many times that I could not endure this. I am very fussy about my Beethoven! There is no excitement in this piece and the long repetitious sequence in the first movement is painful; really quite dreadful. I put on my old LP of the original Budapest Quartet playing this movement to hear again how it should be played. What a relief that was! The Italians try hard with the profound slow movement and with some success but the beauty isn't there. As in many other places on these CDs, sometimes the high notes are a little shrill.

I could continue and discuss the other quartets but what I have said applies throughout the set. I cannot recommend it. I have delayed its review wanting others to hear the performances and they were mainly of the same opinion as myself.

David Wright

See David Wright's article on Beethoven

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