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Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet in E flat major, Op. 127; String Quartet in C sharp major, Op. 131; String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132; String Quartet in F major, Op. 135; String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 130; Grosse Fuge, Op. 133; Alternative Finale for String Quartet (Op.130): Allegro
Emerson String Quartet: Eugene Drucker (1st violin Op. 127,130/133) (2nd violin Op. 131, 132, 135); Philip Setzer (1st violin Op. 131, 132, 135) (2nd violin 127, 130/133); Lawrence Dutton (viola); David Finckel (cello)
Recordings: New York, American Academy and Institute and Letters, 3/1994 (Op. 127, 131); 4/1994 (Op. 130/133, 132); 6/1994 (Op. 130 Alternative Finale); 3-4/1995 (Op. 135) DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON TRIO 474-341-2 [3CDs: 72:01+67:38+57:13]

This is the second in the series of ‘Trios’ that I have been fortunate to have reviewed during the last week and I remain most impressed. Deutsche Grammophon have taken the late, great Beethoven string quartets from their back-catalogue. These are original digital recordings made in 1994-5 of the Emerson Quartet’s Grammy-winning complete survey of the quartets.

Listeners and collectors of the Beethoven string quartets are exceptionally well served on disc with versions from many of the world’s greatest chamber groups. There are fine interpretations most notably from the Aeolian and Gabrieli Quartets on Decca, the New Budapest Quartet on Hyperion, the Alban Berg Quartet on EMI, the Lindsay Quartet on ASV and the Italian Quartet on Philips. The version that I am most familiar with is the digitally re-mastered set, recorded in 1968-69 from the Italian Quartet. This is still generally accepted today as the main recommendation.

It is difficult to look at other versions of great works when there is a particular favourite recording with which we are familiar and most satisfied. That said, I had no problem approaching this review copy with great anticipation. I was rewarded with what I consider to be revelatory performances. Clearly your version of choice is a matter of personal taste. Many will find the Emerson’s readings too idiosyncratic, particularly with regard to their frequent use of quicker than usual tempos. The tempos are swifter than those which I am used to. However I was captivated by their performances which came across with the spontaneous joy of live music-making rather than interpretations contrived in a studio.

The eminent Italian Quartet offer contrasting interpretations to those from the Emersons. Theirs are readings that are undoubtedly stylish and exceptionally well polished. They have that sense of many years of experience and of practice which almost makes perfect; almost to a formula in fact. The tempos from the Italian Quartet are measured with a clear and smooth tone which is acknowledged as perhaps their major asset.

Looking across the release as a whole the Emersons demonstrate awesome energy and a real strength of character throughout. They have a cultivated ear for detail which could come across as exaggerated at times, yet it all seems to fit together so well. The Emersons have the innate ability to shape each of Beethoven’s scores with a sure sense of direction. The playing is sensitively balanced with genuine expression. This is beautiful heartfelt playing and when they switch into rapid-fire mode it all makes for an exhilarating experience. It is amazing how just four players can sound so magnificent. At times it seemed as if I was hearing a symphony orchestra. The force of unity of teamwork is exceptional with a sense of the players breathing as one. It is easy to lose sight of the players as individuals. Each demonstrates impeccable tone and instrumental mastery.

The late Beethoven quartets from the Italian Quartet are available on two Philips ’Duo’ sets 454 711-2 and 454 712-2 and although recorded in the late 1960s still sound exceptionally fine. The sound of this Deutsche Grammophon ‘Trio’ release is on the warm side perhaps at the expense of instrumental clarity. Yet this feels like hair-splitting. It should not detract from a fine sound overall. There are comprehensive booklet notes.

This set from the Emerson’s would make a wonderful and attractive addition to any collection. An indispensable recording of Beethoven’s chamber masterpieces.

Michael Cookson

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