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
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
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.
See David Wright's article on Beethoven